Sri Lanka: Yet another Pada Yathra without Crowd

 The proper “Pada Yathra” or journey by foot starts from Nagapoosan Amman Temple in Nayanativu (Nagadeepa), which is the Northern most Hindu temple in our country or from Nallur Kandaswamy Temple in Jaffna, which is dedicated to God Murugan. It starts in early June and devotees walk for 52 days, more than 750 kms to reach Katharagama by the third week of July, in time for the Kataragama festival.

by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy and Former Chief of Defence Staff )

History of the “Pada Yathra”

In Parallel to the pilgrimage to Mountain Kaillash in Himalayas in India (near Pithoragarh District, Uttarakhand State, India), there is a pilgrimage in Sri Lanka known in ancient history as Southern Kaillash (Dakshina Kaillash), the Weda Siti Kanda, the mountain near Kataragama where lord Skanda used to live. Buddhists believe, before King Dutugemunu went to war against King Elara, he got blessings of God Kataragama. After fighting for 15 years, he came back home victorious and met God Kataragama and indicated his willingness to build a temple for him. God Kataragama has asked King’s best archer to shoot an arrow towards Manik Gaga (river) and to build the Temple where arrow falls to the ground.

Kataragama Temple

Story says that is the place where present Kataragama temple was built. All the gold ornaments of King Dutugamunu was donated to the Kataragama temple and displayed during festive season. In Tamil Kataragama known as “Kadiragamar”, the village of God Kadira, God Murugan or god Skanda. For Muslims, Prophet Moses (SAL) who in Holy Quran goes in search of his teacher Al-Khadir (the Green one), met him at Kadiragamar, the village of Al- Khadir (Kadiragama). Sri Lanka’s indigenous people, “Vaddas” believe God Skanda was married to God Walli Amma, a beautiful lady from their tribe. Whatever the legendary folk stories say, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and our country’s indigenous people, the Vaddahs claim connections to Kataragama and to the “Pada Yathra” or journey by foot.

Al-Khadir Mosque Kataragama

The proper “Pada Yathra” or journey by foot starts from Nagapoosan Amman Temple in Nayanativu (Nagadeepa), which is the Northern most Hindu temple in our country or from Nallur Kandaswamy Temple in Jaffna, which is dedicated to God Murugan. It starts in early June and devotees walk for 52 days, more than 750 kms to reach Katharagama by the third week of July, in time for the Kataragama festival.

More than 20,000 devotees took part in this journey during 2016 to 2019. Only a small group will start from the original points in Nayanativu or Jaffna. Others joined from various locations on the way (to be precise, 23,138 devotees in 2016 and 25,432 in 2017). In 2018 and 2019 the numbers were staggering 28,914 and 27,230 which included very young children with their parents to very old devotees both male and female. As per original journey, devotees will walk 20 to 25 kms per day and rest at night. 73 religious places (temples and Kovils) are earmarked along the path from Jaffna to Kataragama as resting places for devotees. The last 55 kms is the most difficult, through the Yala National Park, where conditions are harsh and the likely encounters with wild animals. Your real devotion to lord Skanda or Kataragama Deviyo is tested in this last leg, which is away from human settlements. During this 52-day journey, devotees sleeping on open air, living outside, under trees, shrines, temples and Kovils. They eat whatever food being offered to them by public. It says no one go hungry because people along the road whether Sinhala, Tamil or Muslims consider it’s a great merit for them to offer food or drinks to the walking devotees. This traditional link of North-South was there till 1983. During the difficult time of our county, the Pada Yathra was stopped due to Security reasons. Today with complete peace in the country, Pada Yathra is gaining momentum year by year.

However, Last year and this year Pada Yathra were cancelled due to Pandemic.

This year Kataragama festival and Esala Perehera Started with flag- history ceremony at AL-Khadir Mosque on 13th July 2021. The fire walking ceremony on 24th July and Maha perehera on 27th (full moon poya day). The final water-cutting ceremony was held on 28th July 2021. This year also “Pada Yathra” for public was cancelled due to Covid-19 pandamic. However Navy Special Force; the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) has approval to operate in Yala Jungle and they invited me also to join this year Pada Yathra with them, their yearly ritual. 

This year my Health conditions were not in good shape and I was unfit to walk 55 Kms in two days like last year.

Enjoying my retirement life and Covid-19 Pandemic fear has reduced my daily exercise regime. My Cardiologist, Surgeon Rear Admiral Gohotabaya Ranasinghe and Surgeon Captain Wijedasa of Navy were very worried on my high blood pressure. I am also 20 Kgs overweight. Above all, I had a bad very bad fall in Nuwara Eliya Golf club while following my son, my chest and right hand were paining. Still, my spirit was high and decided to walk as far as I can in this year Pada Yathra. My family strongly opposed me going in to Jungle for two days with such bad physical shape, but I was determined.

Our team for this year walk was formidable. Commander Northern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Priyantha Perera and Commander South-Eastren Naval Area, Rear Admiral Jayantha Gamage joined the SBS team consists of my former PSOs Commander (SBS) Chathura Gamage and Lt Cdr (SBS) Lalith Karunaratne.

Both Priyantha and Jayantha are very fit Senior Officers. Priyantha is a deep-sea diver and one time our CO SBS. He has canoed around Sri Lanka Single handedly about ten years back and is the only person coned row around Sri Lanka. Jayantha also deep-sea diver, excellent swimmer and good basketball player.

My Former PSO, Commander (SBS) Chatura Gamage, who retired from Navy after 22 years of service carry permanent injuries to his digestive system due to enemy attack is a living hero, read about him my book “GRATITUDE”, now an e-book on Amozon.He is a gutty officer who joined our march.

Two Civilian friends of Chatura, Kanishka Weerabahu Perera and Rukshan Wijesekara. also Joined us. Chatura’s schoolmate, Commander (S) SK Liyanage and personal staffs/ flag Lieutenants of two Rear Admirals were the other members of the group.

Like last year, SBS expert in Yala Jungle, Lcdr (SBS) Pushpakumara was out guide. Priyantha was our Team Leader. Knowing my medical conditions. Priyantha and SBS team kept a tractor and Land rover jeep following us. I should thank them for their concerns.

Our guide was ( like last year) Lt Commander (SBS) Pushpakumara and his SBS long range rece patrol team.

As usual, we started our walk after religious rituals at Murugan Hindu temple, Okada, where Chief Hindu Priest blessed us for safe journey through Jungles, followed by healthy Vegetarian Breakfast at Okada Naval Detachment. Detachment Commander was S/LT Weerasinghe, whose father worked with me in the Navy. It is always delightful to meets next generation in the Navy. That remind us how old we are.

Blessing by chief Priest at Murugan hindu temple

Same objections like last year, Kumana National Park Warden refused us to walk inside the National Park. However, SBS has approved walk alone the beach. So, we decided to walk along beach upto kubbkkan oya. Walking beach is very difficult, so myself knowing my medical condition, decided to travel first leg by vehicle, Other proceeded by foot along the beach.

Our tram at mid way of the journey 

I recollect Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered mount Everest for the first time with Sharpa Tenzing Norgayon on 29 th may 1953, later suffer of high attitude sickness in 2000, later in his life. That. Is due to aging. Same with us. We cannot do what we did in our younger ages.

I was used to do 8 Kms beach run with 25 kg pack, wearing boots, every morning (except Sunday) 30 years ago, when I was in (SBS) Now we have became “Chamindas”

At Kuda Kedillitha God Kataragama temple on the banks of Kubukkan Oya and My tent at banks of Kubukkan Oya at Eda Kubuka camp site

When we reached kuda kabilitta God Kataragama temple, in the banks of kubukkan oya, I saw one thing surprising. The huge Kubuk tree, which was uprooted due to strong wind last year, which was cut in to pieces, by someone, was not removed from that place. Tree remained intact.

I wrote of this illegal felling in my last year Pada Yathra Journey report to island newspaper and I am sure “higher up” must have read it. That is why in Democratic world believe “free Media” as fourth pillar of Democracy. Other three were Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.

Kubuk tree in 2020 and Kubuk tree in 2021. 

Among the youngsters who took part in year expedition, I was so impressed with Jayantha’s son young Mayukha Gamage, last year Royal College Colombo 07 Rowing team Vice Captain. After first day, he got rid of his expensive running shoes and walked 33 Km of second leg wearing pair of rubber slippers! Very fine young man. God Kataragama’s blessing always with him.

I should confessed, I was able to walk only 10 Km this time Pada Yathra due to my sickness. Rest of my journey on “Pada Yathra” (journey by foot) became “Rata Yathra” (Journey by Vehicle)

We were lucky to see leopard and a tusker who crossed our path. The leopard moved so fast Lalith was able to catch him in his Phone but only part of the leopard. Without human presence in Yala Block 2, wild animals roaming freely. They just walk away when they hear sons of booming “Haro Hara” from us.

A small herd of Pigmy-Elephant saw at the bank of kubukkan oya A very rare sight.

Another rare sight was to see the “one horn” wild water buffalo in yala II. This buffalo must have lost one horn during a fight with a crocodile. But not his wounded have heeled and living happily with his herd

One horn wild buffalo – what happened to other horn ? Attacked by Crocodile?

Yet another “Pada Yathra” was complete safety. Thanks, you God kataragama. Haro ! Hara!

recollect again what Sir Edmand Hillary said after conquering Mount Everest “It is not mountain we conquere – it’s ourselves “

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