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 Post subject: Kataragama Festival
 Post Posted: Thu Aug 11, 2005 8:52 pm 
Kataragama Festival
He’ll light up your life

By Reggie Fernando

Every year in Sri Lanka thousands of people from all nationalities and all religions make the pilgrimage to one of the holiest places in the island – Kataragama. Sadu, Sadu and Haro Hara, Haro Hara are the words that echo off the paved pathway from the Menik Ganga up to the Maha Devale as these people neatly and cleanly clad roar their homage to God Kataragama.

Day in and day out no other village or town in the whole of Sri Lanka gets as much attention as Kataragama and I doubt if there was a moment in the recent past when Kataragama stood still.

Three times a day, each day – around 5 am at dawn, 11 am just before midday and about 7 pm at nightfall hundreds participate in the Maha Puja at the Kataragama Maha Devale. And I can tell you on any given day or time someone somewhere is preparing or leaving on a journey that will end at this wonderful place where most of them have so much faith in.

It all began many, many years ago and at that time too Kataragama was attracting the admiration of a growing group of followers and according to history there was a constant stream of young and old moving towards the Maha Devale. Of course like now anxious opponents in the west have been saying, writing and placing before the public various theories attempting to prove that God Kataragama does not exist. There have never been anti-Kataragama campaigns that have plagued our region as such but certain Europeans have in a subtle manner endeavoured to create mischief by making statements amounting to bigotry. If one reads the hundreds of articles on Kataragama in the 1430 odd websites one will notice that some of them written by our colonial masters always contained a streak of condemnation. Their observations and conclusions are obviously biased and if one visits this lovely place one will realise how sort after it is.

My relationship with God Kataragama began as far back as 1953, the year I launched my self into the world of motor racing. It all happened when I mentioned my racing intentions to the closest friend I had at the time, one Mr. A. Subramanian a heavyweight of the time in ‘Ceylon’s’ industrial world. He lived at Barnes Place and owned the famous hardware establishment Mascons and the only local asbestos roofing sheet manufacturing concern-Asbestos Cement Industries. Today his children own both orgtanisations and much more We discussed at length all things related to this dangerous sport and at the end of the day when he couldn’t convince me to abort the idea he requested me to visit Kataragama, dip my racing machine in the Menik Ganga, participate at all three Pujas and pray for my success and safety.

My machine was a Triumph Tiger 100, modified and ready for the starting grid. So I went along with Mr. Subramaniam in his posh chauffer driven car to Kataragama while my motorbike was transported in a smallish lorry. It was some sort of holiday period and we arrived at Kataragama around midnight. There was something big going on. I wonder if it was the perahera season. We checked in at the Ramakrishna Madama, a Rest Home for pilgrims from all nationalities, all religions and all walks of life. The building consisted of a number of large halls and a few apartments for those who had injected huge sums of money towards erecting it. Donors had the special privilege of having a small apartment for themselves when on pilgrimage and at other times either their friends or people in high places were allowed to occupy them.

That was my first sight of this wonderful place and a young Sinhala boy was in attendance and acted as my unofficial guide. He conducted me through the different steps until the time came to participate in the 5 am Puja.

I watched everything that happed with great interest like a child gazing around on his first visit to a funfair. With hardly a wink of sleep I was taken across the sprawling sandy grounds to the town where I purchased my first ever puja vattiya – a tray full of fruits, incense, fragrant joss sticks, camphor and a red garland. Then I was shown the Menik Ganga and asked to have a bath in the calm, quiet and still waters. It didn’t run deep either. The time was around 4 am. I remember it well - the moon a mere crescent almost ready to say good bye to the dark and the sun ready to shoot out at any moment to say hello to the gorgeous mountains around Kataragama that protect the area.

Before I started on this maiden pilgrimage, Kataragama was described to me as an empty village and I was surprised to see this home of my god bracing itself at that early hour of the day for the onslaught as the throng arrived by the busload and on foot commonly known as the Pada Yatra. Today you find among the pilgrims numerous excited foreigners but at that time one hardly saw any.

This sleepy village, my guide said, comes alive at four in the morning every day in preparation for those attending the 5 am puja

and I remember my shock when I discovered a mass of humanity from a number of rest homes walking towards the cool waters to begin the process of praying and participating in the Maha Puja after performing the ritual ceremony of a bath and changing into clean clothes having erased and cleansed ones body of anything unacceptable in a place of worship.

Following the bath in the Menik Ganga, carrying the Puja Vattiya we walked into the Maha Devale where the preliminary ceremonies started and at one stage I distinctly felt the crush when the crowd close to the sanctum surged to have a closer view. Then came the climax when the Maha Puja was performed after which together with my guide I wondered into the open to see for myself the real Kataragama and to have my racing machine sprinkled with the holy water of the Menik Ganga under which they say lies thousands of precious stones. This we did with much reverence and I also placed some holy ash folded up in a betel leaf under the seat.

Having lived at Mount Lavinia the scene outside the Maha Devale stunned me. It was like living in an unspoilt natural park. Today thanks to the vision of one wise and determined man the former president Ranasinghe Premadasa the people of Kataragama enjoy the benefits of modern housing in idyllic woodland setting with none of the old charm taken away by raping forests or filling up any low lying areas with buckets full of filth.

When I was attending to my motorcycle around 6.30 am that morning I still remember the devotees arriving on foot, waving banners and chanting prayers.

I also attended the pujas at 11 am and 7 pm and after all was done accordingly my dear friend Mr. Subramaniam presented me with a statuette of God Kataragama which he had brought from India. The presentation was done inside the Maha Devale after which he told me that only by leading an honourable life and being loyal to God Kataragama can one expect any favours from him. I must tell you at this point that till this day I have adhered strictly to those requirements and that God Kataragama has given me everything I asked for in life and more than all he has left me in excellent health and given me long life itself. He has also provided me with the ability to be the victor and not the vanquished in whatever I did.

That evening I ventured into the unseen areas with my guide without whom I would have been utterly lost in the confusion especially during the Maha Puja when he propelled me through all the ceremonies.

Even at that time I noticed the pilgrims were a commercial bonanza to the village folk that made the best of those who went on impromptu picnics to sites bordering the village.

That evening we started off to Colombo and from that day onwards in 1953 I never failed to participate in the three pujas. Wherever I am and whatever I am doing at 5 am, 11 am and 7 pm every day I recite a few stanzas pouring praise on God Kataragama. It is said the best offering one can make to God Kataragama is an honest, truthful and genuine prayer and this is what I continued to do till this day. In return for looking after me and listening to me I also make it a point to propagate God Kataragama’s work. Where ever I go I speak of him, praise him and tell those around me to be loyal to him. A few weeks later after returning from my maiden visit to Kataragama I hit the headlines when I won my first ever racing event riding the motorcycle that was blessed at Kataragama. Over the years I continued my winning ways, staving off international challenges and breaking records. Until the day I parted with that particular machine I had the package of holy ash safely under the seat which obviously was transferred to each new machine I bought. When I hung up my leathers and gave up racing due to matrimonial commitments I removed the holy ash and placed it in the safety of my shrine room. To this day it remains in a little gold coloured box next to the very special statuette of God Kataragama which was given to me by Mr. Subramaniam.

Since that unforgettable day many events have taken place which has changed my whole life. Some of them may sound trivia but all what took place demonstrates how this wonderful god can come to your rescue if you are loyal to him and lead an honourable life.

Space does not permit me to relate every incident but let me start from the very beginning and mention a few that will simply stun you.

In the 1950s I was writing a lot of stuff in the Daily Observer and the Sunday Observer. The editor of the papers was the one and only Tarzie Wittachi and the sports editor was M.M.Thawfeeq (lovingly known as Fiqo) the father of Sa’adi Thawfeeq the present sorts editor of the Daily News. I have always considered Fiqo as my guru in sports writing and D. B. Dhanapala (Janus) founding editor of the Sun as my guru in news reporting, specially crime and feature writing.

One morning around 10 am the newsroom was full of smoke and the chaps totally busy filing their copy. Suddenly Fiqo told me that Tarzie wished to speak to me. When I went into his room he introduced me to a top official from the Ceylon Wrestling Association and requested me to have a chat with him on the production of a souvenir for an Indo-Ceylon wrestling meet to be staged at the town hall with the prime minister as chief guest. Tarzie recommended me as I had already done many such publications for Shell, Castrol, Stanvac and several other organizations. The official supplied me with all the editorial matter to be included and all I had to do was to retrieve some of the past photographs from the Lake House library and come up with 1000 copies on a given date which was about one week prior to the wrestling meet. It sounded so simple and I was happy to do it. The official even gave me an advance – quite a lot of money – considering the time and I went back to the newsroom a delighted man. A few weeks past and all was well but a couple of days later I received a telephone call from this official inquiring about the progress I had made.

I immediately started on the publication, wrote the introduction and even managed to get some superb pictures. There was only about a week left and the official phoned me yet again. I had no answers but to state that the souvenir will be ready on time, even on the morning of the wrestling contest. Entrusting the final stages to a friend of mine at a local press I rushed to Kataragama and prayed that somehow the publication should be printed and ready by the time I return. I knew it was going to be a difficult job and also realised this whole situation was due to my callousness. However I attended all three pujas and rode back to Mount Lavinia. The moment I stepped into the house my father said that there was a call from a wrestling association official. He had wanted me to phone him. I was truly shivering in my shoes.

However picking up courage I telephoned the official who happened to be the same person that entrusted me with the job. To my absolute amazement he said; "Mr. Fernando, take it easy - the wrestling contest has been postponed indefinitely due to an epidemic in South India". I was once again a free man and subsequently the contest was held, I produced the souvenir and collected the balance payment which I utilized to settle an outstanding bill at the press club which was situated then behind the Galle Face Hotel. That’s how God Kataragama acts. The whole affair may have been a coincident but he made life easy for me and I am certain it would have been different if I had been a disloyal and dishonourable man.

The next surprising episode took place in 1956 on the last day of the hartal connected with the beginnings of the ethnic problem. There was no war as such but the animosity towards the Sinhalese and vice versa was reaching dangerous heights. Earlier that week I met an old friend of mine who owned the Kalido guest house at Kalutara North which was swallowed up by the tsunami last December. Knowing that I was a true devotee of God Kataragama he suggested that we do a trip and attend the three pujas. Kalido was the place where all motor racing stalwarts met after the race meets at Katukurunda had finished and the prize distribution was over. It was a sort of rendezvous for the spectators, racing officials and the racers themselves.

I went to the Kalido one evening so that I could stay there and leave for Kataragama with my friend the next morning. It was a peaceful night. I woke up rather early the next morning as I wanted to start at dawn. I got ready and just before breakfast I walked up to my car to check it out and to my utter shock I found one of the tyres flat. Immediately with the assistance of a worker I changed the tyre but the chef of the hotel who was preparing our breakfast appealed to me not to continue on the journey but to travel the next day. He said it was a terrible omen and something disastrous may happen. By the way my car was a Morris Minor Convertible and the registration number was EY 8021. This became a famous car because the next year it was used by a close friend of mine, the film actor Ananda Weerakoon in the film ‘Podi Putha’. He wanted the car as the hood could be lowered and was ideal for a particular scene in the film where Ananda drives along Galle Face with his lover.

I didn’t listen to the Kalido chef but continued on the journey and we reached Kataragama by early evening. We carried out all the rituals, attended all the pujas and started off home bound after lunch the next day. As the day was overcast and no sun was visible I decided to have the hood down and drive in style. Towards approaching Dickwella it began to drizzle and I stopped the car and raised the hood, and slightly tightened the two butterfly nuts. I got in and started proceeding and with my right hand I began tightening the screw while my friend tightened the screw on his side. The road was not only wet, it was muddy, slimy, slippery and sloppy and suddenly I saw two old men crossing the road a few yards ahead of me, carrying some fishing gear. I was forced to brake and the car got into a skid. I saw a public well on the right of the road reserved for women and I can tell you there were a dozen or more of them around the well. Next to the well was a king size kumbuk tree and in order to avoid this bevy of bathing women I corrected the skid but hit the two men and the car continued its journey until it crashed on to the kumbuk tree damaging the entire front. The two men were lying on the road motionless. I quickly got down from the car and so did my friend. It was quite frightening and I rushed up to them and called for assistance to take them to the nearest hospital which was Matara. My car was a total wreck and luckily a passerby took the two men to the hospital. Meanwhile some people living in the area rushed to me and advised me to leave the spot as the two men involved in the accident were the fathers of two fishermen well known in the area for their violent behaviour. I was feeling dizzy and frightful and turned towards Kataragama and prayed in my mind for help. At that point a fair, buxom woman living in the adjoining house which looked stately, offered me the key of her car – a green Standard Vanguard. She inquired from where I was and advised me to get out as quickly as possible. I remember well her telling me that they will chop me up into pieces and my parents will be able to pick up the pieces on the Mount Lavinia beach. It was the last day of the haratal and moreover I was still in the clothes that I wore for the last puja I attended at 11 am that morning - a white cloth and a national dress shirt with plenty of holy ash on my forehead. I looked a Tamil alright and I was easy prey. I went up to her house started the car and attempted to reverse it out of her gate but the engine stalled without petrol. I was losing control of my senses and now I was really getting scared. I called my friend and walked towards a row of vans stopped alongside the road. The owners were fish mudalalis who had come to the daily fish auction. I walked hurriedly along the vehicles just to see if any one of them had the key so that I could get away to the police station with my friend. No such luck I thought but strangely the last van, a Morris Minor, had the switch key in its place and I jumped in with my friend and did a Le Mans start and ended up at the police station few miles away. I remember the only thing I did in the excitement was to remove the statuette of God Kataragama from my crashed car given to me by Mr. Subramaniam. When I walked into the place carrying the statuette there was the officer in charge – a sub inspector - seated at a table right at the entrance holding a bren gun pointed towards the gate. Lying on the table was also a revolver. Those were the days when there were no T 56s. And what’s more he happened to be a friend and a well known sportsman. He said there was too much tension over the Tamil issue and he was expecting the people to attack the police station. I related the incident and he got me to make a statement which was recorded and signed but within minutes he received a message from the police post at the Matara hospital that both victims had died. At that point my police friend said it was very serious and he would have to put me in the cell but asked a policeman to take both of us to his quarters and ordered his appu to treat us with tea. Later in the day a magistrate better known for his brilliant table tennis came for the inquiry but declined to conduct it stating that he knew me. He returned probably to Matara and another official arrived but history repeated itself when he too said he is well known to me and declined to carry on with the inquiry. Next was a crown proctor (attorney at law) who carried out a full inquiry after which I was released. At that point I telephoned a friend at Browns Hill, Matara who lent me a car to proceed to Colombo. The moral of the story is that God Kataragama saved me from a violent assault or even death by answering my prayer and appeal for some sort of assistance to get away from that deadly situation. Who would have kept a van with the switch key for me to escape from the spot? I believe it was my God Kataragama. I spent a vast sum of money on the two funerals and also gave some cash gifts to the wives and children of the two dead men. Months later the case was heard and I was acquitted.

However there was an interesting part to this whole incident as well. Soon after the case was over my police friend from Dickwella approached me and asked: "Reggie, you remember that woman who asked you to get away from the scene using her car. She has run away from home. Do you know anything about this?"

I, in my usual easy going style smiled and thought of God Kataragama and told him in a jocular manner that - "Honour and shame from no condition arise – act well your part, there all the honour lies." It went down well as the cops of my day were English educated and had read the greatest of writers and poets by the time they were 16 years of age.

There are hundreds of such incidents I can relate and it can go on till the cows come home but let me finish up with two happenings in the recent past after I returned to Sri Lanka some months back.

I was having my country residence constructed at Nuwara Eliya when my main contractor said that he may want another one million ruppees as advance for the construction of the second road to the rear entrance of my house. Obviously I had to get this money from my bank in London and immediately sent a fax to the National Westminster Bank requesting a transfer of the required sum. This obviously takes time. But as usual in such instances I pray to God Kataragama to expedite the transaction. The very next day was a Monday and the telephone rang around 10 in the morning. I answered and it was from the Hatton National Bank Nuwara Eliya branch. It was a bank officer who asked me who I was and when I identified myself he congratulated me saying that my wife had won the HNB jackpot of a million rupees. Here again when I needed the money and quickly too, my god came to my rescue. In this case too like the buxom woman in the Dickwella crash, the million rupee win almost caused a rift in my marriage. It was my wife’s savings account that won her the million rupees but the draw had taken place on July 22 which was my birthday. So shouldn’t I also get some of the credit for the victory? Well my wife insisted it was her luck but as time settles all problems and the days went by we agreed it was more than anyone’s luck it was God Kataragama answering my request. How wonderful it was.

In another incident – this time quite recently in my Colombo flat – a relative visited me without any notice and requested a loan of Rs. 80,000 urgently. My wife and I use a Master Card for all cash transactions and no cash is ever kept in the flat. We were forced to say sorry and my relative left totally dejected. I of course went up to my statuette and prayed that he helps my relative who needed the money to send his daughter to a hospital in India for treatment. We had moved into the flat only a few months earlier and our stuff was still in suitcases, bags and boxes. My wife soon after lunch that day began clearing the stuff and while doing so she came across a number of illustrated magazines relating to the life of Diana. She was going through them and what do you know – she came across an envelope in which there were thousand pounds sterling in crisp fifty pound notes. I rushed to the bank, cashed them and drove up to my relative’s home and handed over the money.

I told him it was the work of God Kataragama. He was not only thankful but grateful as well for within six months as promised he returned the money and brought me a large picture of God Kataragama which he had bought specially for me in south India. That’s not all. He too had bought one for himself, had it framed and now it hangs at the entrance to his home.

There have been much more important and serious happenings and successful events in my life connected with God Kataragama but telling all that can hurt many people including some from the journalistic tribe as well. In my book hurting someone is terribly wrong.

When in Sri Lanka I visit Kataragama once a month at least and something astonishing happened around two weeks ago – June 30 to be exact. I was driving from Nuwara Eliya to Kataragama via Ella and I stopped at the former Ella resthouse now known as the Ella Hotel. I had a refreshing cup of tea and was coming out of the hotel when I noticed an aging farmer that resembled the veddah chief. Knowing that the veddah community play a major role at Kataragama, specially during the Esala festival, I thought to myself how wonderful it will be to have a photograph taken of my self with the veddah chief within the precints of the Maha Devale itself. That was only a thought and I continued to the land of my god.

As always I carried out all the usual rituals which I have done over 200 times till now and began participating in the Maha Puja. It was rather warm and the devale overflowing with devotees and almost bursting at the seams was taking its toll from me. My eyes were closed and I was praying but being unable to bear the heat I opened my eyes and reached for my hanky. And who was there in front of me? None other than the veddah chief Uruwarige Wanniyala Aththo (58) and his son Uruwarige Gunawanniyala Aththo. Now wasn’t that amazing? After the puja I was introduced to the veddah chief who obliged me by standing beside me with his son for a photo session. He also invited me to his village and solemnly promised an interview.

Unruffled by the arrival of everything modern this beautiful abode of God Kataragama retains its magic and more than anywhere else in this enchanting island of ours, it is here that the Sinhalese and Tamils live cheek by jowl. It is a great temple of reconciliation and love and occupies a very special place in the nation’s heart. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers have all attended the Maha Puja at some time or another and asked for help. No wonder Sri Lankans of all nationalities, religions and class have developed such affection for this magnificent place of worship. Those of us who are true devotees of God Kataragama feel that our fate is bound up with it conglomeration of the Maha Devale and the many other devales and Kiri Vehera, the temple.

God Kataragama has given me my fill of love, my share of the fame and all I need to live a happy and peaceful life. I felt the nearness to him many decades ago. He speaks to me quite often and when I am in the Maha Devale even sense the lingering presence of God Kataragama himself. For all what he has done, I, in return, strive to let as many people as possible know that he’ll light up your life if you are loyal to him, honourable and above all do not hurt others.

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