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Kataragama Peak

Kataragama Peak
About 80 km (50 miles) Northeast of Hambantota, Kataragama is Sri Lanka's second most sacred place of pilgrimage, rivalling Adam's Peak in its appeal to the devout. Like Adam's Peak, it attracts Sri Lankan Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus in July and August, during the season of pilgrimages and festivals. The shrine stands among woodland on the banks of a holy river, the Menik Ganga (river of jewels), surrounded by seven low, conical hills.

To Buddhists, this forest sanctuary, known as deviyange kaele (God's own forest) is where the Lord Buddha planted a sapling of the sacred bo-tree of Anuradhapura, sanctifying the spot.

To Hindus, Kataragama is the dwelling place of the Hindu war god Skanda, but the deity of Kataragama has many names, among them Kartikeya, Kartikama Murugan, and Kande Yaga. Both Hindu and Buddhist communities believe that the god of Kataragama has the power to intervene benevolently in their affairs, and thousands visit the shrine each year to appeal for divine aid.

On arrival, pilgrims wash in the cleansing water of the Menik Ganga, crowding the river bank. Each throws a coconut to the stony ground, hoping for it to split auspiciously open - a good omen. Unusually, Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims join in the perahera (procession) following the yantra (symbol) of the deity as it is paraded from temple to temple.

Temple Complex
The temple complex contains a number of Buddhist and Hindu shrines, the most important of which is the unprepossessing Maha Devala, a ramshackle brick and concrete building which at first sight gives little hint of any sacred aura. It is said to contain the spear of the multi-visaged, 12-armed warrior deity Skanda, and is visited by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.

Other Hindu gods with shrines at Kataragama include Vishnu, one of the three supreme Hindu deities, and the chubby, elephant-headed Ganesha, the god of prosperity and success and thus, by extension, of business and academia.

The temple complex is known to be very old: the earliest shrine to the resident god is credited to a 2nd century BC local ruler, King Dutugemunu, and the most important Buddhist shrine, the Kirivehera Dagoba, was first erected in the 1st century BC.

Thaipusam Festival -
Like some other Tamil Hindu religious events throughout Asia, the annual festival known as Thaipusam - when pilgrims converge on the site from all over Sri Lanka, many of them making the pilgrimage on foot through the hills from Batticaloa on the east coast - seems to have a strong masochistic streak. Devout celebrants allow metal skewers to be driven through their cheeks and tongues, or haul heavy carts carrying symbols and images of the temple deities by cables attached to their backs and shoulders by steel hooks. Gory though it appears, it is well attested that the wounds caused by skewers and hooks bleed little - perhaps because large amounts of adrenaline are produced by the body - and heal very quickly. Fire-walking, when devotees walk across a bed of glowing coals, is another apparently painful activity from which participants seem to emerge unscathed.

Open all the time; and during puja (daily worship) at Maha Devala, at 04:30, 10:30, 18:30. The Kataragama Thaipusam Festival takes place annually over two weeks in July and August.
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