Brunch

The Esala Festival during the pandemic

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

The annual Kataragama Esala Festival organised by the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya was held from 21 July to 4 August. However, this year, due to the current circumstances with the global pandemic still at large, the Kataragama Perahera, arguably one of the main features of the festival, was closed to the public.

Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya Acting Basnayaka Nilame Dilruwan Rajapakse shared that all the necessary health guidelines were strictly followed and so in effect, they simply could not allow the public to take part as they usually would have in the past.

He stated that the premises had to be cordoned off to the public for the 15 days of the festival starting 12 noon daily. He added that the medical staff within the temple responsible for the safety of the perahera personnel had subjected the grounds and persons to the necessary health checks and so would not allow any outsiders in the relative vicinity of the perahera. However, the holy grounds were accessible to the public during the morning hours, even during festival days.

We visited the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya in the morning hours and also Kiri Vehera, and the safety precautions they had adopted did not disappoint. With dedicated areas for visitors to wash their hands at every entrance and separated sections on the grounds, the duty officers were situated at random spots and took care to strictly ensure that everyone wore masks. However, moving from the Devalaya to Kiri Vehera, we noticed the security precautions begin to slack. But for the most part, visitors were considerate and adhered to the guidelines.

We spoke to some grounds staff about how adjusting to the new normal within the Devalaya Grounds has been for them. They explained that even though the Perahara was not open to the public, there was still a large crowd taking part, such as military personnel and other officials who needed to use the washrooms and required other assistance as well. They shared that the staff had undergone a strict filtering process, being subject to health and safety checks, and added that therefore for the duration of the festival, they were asked to remain on the grounds without returning to their homes daily.

Acting Basnayaka Nilame Rajapakse also shared that as a result of these safety precautions, yet another custom – the traditional two-month-long Pada Yatra or foot pilgrimage from Jaffna to Kataragama by the pilgrims moving from one sacred site to another – was not possible.

Traditionally, pilgrims from every faith and community begin gathering at the Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya in the Jaffna Peninsula two weeks prior to the Kap Hitanawa ceremony in Kataragama, where they set out on foot and would be joined by devotees from Nagadeepa, Selvaccaniti, Vallipuram, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa, who will all then converge in Kataragama.

While the origins of the Yatra are shrouded in myth and legend, it is argued that it began with Lord Murugan (Skanda) himself when he landed on the shores of Sri Lanka and decided to walk to Kataragama. Regardless of its origins, it is an ancient practice that was kept alive, and the most recent times that we saw it falter was following the riots of 1983, when it was not safe for Tamils to walk openly through Sinhalese areas. However, with the founding of the Kataragama Devotees Trust in 1988, the number of pilgrims has slowly increased and at present, the great majority of pilgrims walk from the Batticaloa and Ampara Districts.

Since then, the tradition has been going strong, but this year, for the first time since the Trust was established, the tradition has not been followed through.

Although, Acting Basnayaka Nilame Rajapakse shared that despite the pilgrims not being allowed to participate and visit Kataragama this year, many of them still visited Okanda Devalaya, which is actually the final religious stop for the procession before stepping into Kumana, where they will walk through the National Park until they reach Kataragama.

We visited the Okanda Devalaya to speak to some of the devotees who had visited the Devalaya to take part in the pooja, despite not being able to complete their journey to the festival. We spoke to the devotees, many of whom had arrived with their families and groups of villagers to take part in the pooja, about their experience this year compared to how they carried out their religious activities in the past. We started by speaking with a large group of around 30-40 villagers who were visiting from Karaitivu.

“We have been coming every year for the past 15 years or more to take part in the perahera. We spend about a week in the holy grounds at the Devalaya and for over a decade, I have been coming with my parents as a child, and now with my family; today, I am here with my baby. I can’t help but feel that it is unfortunate we are unable to complete our pilgrimage,” said Yogeshvaran.

Sudaharan, who was also there with his family, said: “I came here to do the pooja. But usually, we come here and go on the 10-day walk through Kumana to Kataragama and then stay in Kataragama where the Devalaya provides us meals and accommodation to take part in the festivities.

“It is an important part of our village customs for everyone to set out to Okanda and make the trek through the wilderness. We come prepared to cook and prepare meals along the way and even today, we came early in the morning and we are preparing tea here; we want to spend as much time as possible in the holy land.”

Jayakumar from Karaitivu

Jayakumar from Karaitivu also shared that it feels incomplete to him, that for a decade of his lifetime he has been consistent in completing this journey as it is a precious experience which they cherish. However, he said that this year, it feels as though something is missing. “In our hearts, things feel incomplete; we feel that somehow we are leaving unfinished business that we will not be able to make right until next year comes around.”

We also spoke to several families who had arrived later in the day right in time for the pooja held at the Devalaya at around 7 p.m.; they had arrived from Akkaraipattu.

“We came today for the pooja, but on other days when the perahera is not closed to the public, we would come straight to Okanda, take part in the pooja, and then set out with everyone else though the Kumana pilgrimage that goes to Kataragama.

Jayakumar from Akkaraipattu

“I have a young family, so we have not done that in a while. This year was going to be my first as a family man. However, unfortunately, things didn’t work out. It is quite disheartening,” said Jayakumar from Akkaraipattu.

We spoke to the devotees about how they’ve been battling the threat of the virus, and it was quite interesting to hear that while they are of course aware of the pandemic and its dangers in their villages, they do not practise the safety precautions strictly; many of them shared that they do not even have masks, and back home there is no such practice of wearing one.

As we explored the Okanda Devalaya grounds, it was apparent that even though to enter the grounds you must go through a military checkpoint where safety and health precautions are adhered to strictly – our temperatures were checked, all our details were recorded, and we were made to wash hands and sanitise, with the military personnel all wearing masks and keeping a safe distance. Once you enter the grounds, none of those inside, neither the devotees who are visiting, the shop owners, nor the staff in the Devalaya, were too concerned about these precautions; this was entirely opposite to what we saw in the Kataragama Devalaya.

Photos Pradeep Dambarage