Paada Yaathra (Footsteps of faith)

Paada Yaathra (Footsteps of faith)

One of our nation's oldest religious traditions manifests with vigour as thousands of pilgrims begin their pilgrimage towards the kataragama Devale. This arduous journey ravigating jungles and lakes is a practice from centuries ago. Ancient legend believes that Skanda-Murn, known among the indigenous folk as 'kandeyakka' walked this track, leading to Kataragama. My colleague Naveen Fernando joined some of these pilgrims to capture their expeditio as they circumvented the kumana area.

Traditionally the devotees would assemble at Selvachchanithi, in Jaffna and begin their long march crossing the dense jungles of Villipuram, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. The stretch from Pottuvil to Kataragama covers a route of nearly 60 miles, bordering forest areas. It is believed that the devotees will visit almost 73 temples along the way, where they will worship. In turn the people at these temples would sometimes offer food and water to these men and women on a journey of spiritual discovery.

The Paada Yaathra is as old as our nation's history. The 15th century Tamil poet Arunagirinathar was said to have completed this pilgrimage and composed many poems describing his adventure. Prior to the 1950s there was no road access to Kataragama. Some of the devotees that Naveen spoke to said that they did this annually, while a few of the younger pilgrims were walking this path for the first time.

The people have to walk past herds of elephants and water buffalo. The occasional sight of a bear would slow the columns of people. Many of the pilgrims from Buddhist and Hindu backgrounds are in the custom of making vows. In order to support their religious convictions they abstain from eating meat and seafood and remain vegetarian for almost 45 days the amount of time taken to cover this jungle trek.

They begin their walk at sun rise and cover much ground, resting in the noon to avoid the heat of the sun. On average they walk 10KMs a day. They wear clothing in the colours of orange and saffron yellow. perhaps a tradition from India and also a protective colour from the threat of marauding animals. Older men wear turbans giving them a mythical appearance.

At night they make large campfires and sit around engaging in hymns and chants, with a few taking to dance as a form of veneration.

A kind doctor has taken time to setup a medical station. Here he serves herbal tea to all who pass by and offers any medical treatment required. The army also set up a stall to offer water and food to these tired pilgrims, Some relate this long hazard laden trek to the journey one undertakes in India, walking to Mount Kailasa, in the desolate border of Tibet.

Some historians have said Kataragama is the (Dakshina Southern) Kailasa of Sri Lanka, The pilgrims are often joined on the way by the tribes of indigenous veddah, who also make offerings of pure bee's honey. They believe that 'Skanda-Murukan' is the spirit of the hunter who favours them on their jungle quest for survival.

This foot pilgrimage which begins in end May culminates in July. It is an endorsement of the multi-cultural diversity in our country. It has attracted foreigners over the years. Perhaps it strives to inculcate in the pilgrims the ability to let go of attachment. Of the thousands of people who engage in this demanding journey many opine they have learnt valuable insight into life. The Paada Yaathra will continue for decades.

The two month long Paada Yaathra or foot pilgrimage from Jaffna to Kataragama is a traditional procession of village devotees. It is an essential part of Lanka's multi-cultural ethos. The Yatra begins with pilgrims moving from one sacred site to another, their numbers growing as the Yatra progresses, exuding mystery magic and enthusiasm among them. The common foundation of all pilgrims, regardless of their official religion, is that they feel drawn to the God who dwells in Kataragama Skanda, the youthful god of war, wisdom and poetry.
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