The Pada Yatra - The pilgrimage from north to south
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Author:  Percy [ Sun Sep 11, 2005 5:43 pm ]
Post subject:  The Pada Yatra - The pilgrimage from north to south

The Pada Yatra - The pilgrimage from north to south

@ Sunday Oberver

The Pada Yatra or foot pilgrimage is a procession which is generally held for over 60 days, between May and July. It starts in Jaffna and concludes hundreds of kilometres away at Kataragama. The procession concludes after making its way to the Kataragama shrine of the God Skanda-Murugan or the Kataragama God to whom the Pada Yatra pays homage.


This ancient ritual is believed to predate the arrival of all four major religions in Sri Lanka and is said to have originated with the Adi Vasi, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Although its origins are not very clear, it is largely believed to have been started by Skanda-Murugan himself, when he landed in the island and walked to Kataragama.


The foot pilgrimage has played a leading role in propagating the tradition of Kataragama not only in Sri Lanka, but also in South India.

Pilgrims from all corners of Sri Lanka, India, as well as some parts of Central Asia have been taking part in it for over centuries. Sometimes pilgrims adopt the role of beggars as Skanda is believed to have made his way to Kataragama dressed as a beggar.

Kataragama was inaccessible by vehicles till about 1950 when the main road was extended upto the town from Tissamaharama. Till then, the religious city could be reached only by foot and by bullock cart. The procession continues this practice of visiting the sacred town on foot.

The journey, a spiritual passage, was earlier made mostly by Hindu religious leaders. However, latter day processions have seen swamis, Buddhist monks, Muslim religious leaders, Christian clerics, lay people and even the wife of a former British High Commissioner taking part.

The pilgrims have always strictly adhered to the age-old customs without trying to modify the tradition. Some of them brave hunger, thirst, the scorching sun and other dangers to complete the journey.

Villagers along the way provide refreshments, meals, accommodation and hospitality to the travellers in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, points which the Pada Yatra tries to stress. It may start small but thousands of devotees join along the way. The number of devotees could swell upto 30,000 at times.

The British, during their rule, tried to discourage or restrict the foot pilgrimage citing that it was an unhealthy and unproductive ritual, but it survived. Although there was a lull in the ceremonies after the 1983 period, now the tradition has picked up again. The Kataragama Devotees Trust, established in 1988, revived the Pada Yatra.

Before setting out the journey, pilgrims visit sacred sites and take solemn vows of self denial and start the procession with chants of 'Haro Hara'.

A swami carrying vel or the traditional emblem of the god leads the crowd. There are over 73 temples along the route where they stop to pay their respects.

The God Skanda-Murugan, like his 'father' Siva, is associated with mountains. He is referred to as the 'Kande Yaka' (hunter spirit of the mountain) by the Vanniyela Aththo community to this day.

The mountain in Kataragama is known as Vedahitikanda (peak where he was) as people believe that this was the god's abode. It is known as Katina Malai to Tamils who refer to the Pada Yatra as 'Katina Malai Karai Yattirai' (coastal pilgrimage to the shining peak).

The Kataragama peak, also known as Daksina Kailasa, holds a significant place in the tradition of pilgrimages and mystical practices, as it is said to form a north-south axis with the Uttara Kailasa in Tibet. Buddhists believe that Lord Shakyamuni visited King Mahasena here and also that the king's spirit is still present in this area.

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