Ceylon Moors have traditionally believed in a mysterious being known as Al-Khiḍr or ‘The green one’, locally known as Kilar, Kalir or Halir, all derivatives of the Arabic Khaḍir(as Khidr is known in the traditions) as well as Hayatun Nabi or ‘The Living Prophet’.

In fact, the sanctity attached to Kataragama by some Moors in fact revolves round this mysterious being. There are even those who believe that it was Khiḍr who gave his name to Kataragama. That the area was formerly known as Kadaragama is borne out by the Dhatuvaṁsa of Kakusandha written in the 13th or 14th century. Be it as it may, there can be little doubt that the association of Khiḍr with Kataragama goes back to remote antiquity

One of the earliest notices concerning the visit of Khidr is provided by Hugh Nevill in his paper Kedar Nabi and Al-Khedhr in Ceylon contributed to The Taprobanian of April 1886. Nevillrecords a tradition that Al-Khedhr made a pilgrimage to the Kattiragam hill where he did penance and prayer. At Kattragam, it is said, he found ‘the water of life’ and drank thereof, though tradition is uncertain as to which of the streams there supplied this water.

Nevill records that the spot where Al-Khedhr resided during his penance and prayer at Kattiragam was still visited by occasional Arabian and other Muslim pilgrims, especially Shias who there hoisted a flag in his memory and performed memorial worship. We also come across a statement in The Taprobanian of October 1885 that “Arabs still visit Kattiragam as a shrine of Kedar Nabhi”.

Dr.M.Covington in his paper on Hindu Kataragama published in The Orientalist of 1888 says that the ‘Mahomedans’ who participated in most of the superstitious ideas associated with the Kataragama temple asserted that “there is a hidden spring in the immediate neighbourhood, close to the bed of the river, the water of which has the power of rendering life immortal, as it did to one of their saints named Kadra Nabi, who had first discovered and drunk of it”.

He adds that under this impression, they have also a small monument close to the temple of Valliammal dedicated to their saint, and take also a part in their own way, in the celebration of this festival, burning incense and saying prayers every night.

To this day, many such rituals continue. The ceremony itself is known as the Kataragama Makam Ceremony, and evidently takes its name after the Makam or shrine of Khiḍr situated in the Muslim quarter of Kataragama not far from the Menik Ganga. The shrine known as Khalir Makam or ‘Khiḍr’s Sanctuary’ is so called as it is believed that Khiḍr’s mysterious presence pervades the shrine. However, as the trustee of the shrine, Abdul Gaffar informed us, Khiḍr is like air, when one thinks of him, he is there.

The shrine has been in existence for a long time, firstly in a most crude form consisting of just one wattle and daub room called ‘Khizar room’ hardly 15 feet by 15 feet. It was however not very long before miracles came to be attributed to that mysterious being after whom it had been named, not only in Sri Lanka but also in South India where we have a Tamil text, the Kanzul Karamat(Treasures of Miracles) claiming that a famous 16thcentury Indian saint, Shahul Hamid was mysteriously brought over to Sri Lanka by Khiḍr and placed on the banks of the Menik Ganga where in the company of angels, the robe of Kutbul Akhtab was conferred on him.

The Makam ceremony lasts 16 days commencing with the kodi-ettam or flag-hoisting and followed by daily mawlood recitals and nightly rifai ratibs before concluding with a grand kandoori feast. Homage is particularly paid to Khiḍr in the form of the mawlood recitals during this period. It is said that in the olden days, the Muslims here resorted to what is known as ‘shrine worship’.

They would keep vows and holding their ears go round the shrine seven times. They would also request the awliya or saints directly for favours. Although these heathen practices have since been purged from the sanctuary, we noticed that many women resorting to the shrine still took oil from a lamp surmounted by a crescent which they applied on the hair of their offspring, a practice which would be considered rather unislamic by orthodox Muslims.

It is however not thought necessary that one should resort only to Kataragama in order to make vows to Khiḍr. Victor De Munck in his book Seasonal Cycles. A study of social change and continuity in a Sri Lankan village (1993) found that the inhabitants of a Muslim village in the Monaragala District proferred a vow to Hyatt Nabi(i.e.Hayatun Nabi or Khiḍr).

The vows were made prior to the sowing of paddy seed and fulfilled after the harvest when each family in the village would bring banana leaves filled with sweet rice to the mosque where it would be distributed among those present. Indeed, it is said that in the olden days, the entire Eastern region of the island with Kataragama as its centre was often referred to as the ‘Khizar region’ and that the hamlets surrounding Kataragama were regarded as places receiving the patronage and blessings of ‘Hazarat Khizar’.

There is also a belief among certain Muslims that Khiḍr may be encountered in tranquil places like Jailani where a celebration in honour of him takes place in the month of Safar every year when a sweetened milk-rice embellished with raisins known as niyyattu is distributed.

The influence of the Khiḍr cult in the country is also apparent in the writings of Ibn Battuta as far back as the 14thcentury where we find him mentioning the cave of Khiẓr where the pilgrims to Adam’s Peak left their belongings before ascending to its summit. He even mentions a spring also called after Khiẓr and full of fish which no one catches.

There has been considerable dispute among Muslim commentators as to who Khidr is. Some say he is a prophet while others say he is a wali, meaning one close to God, in other words, a saint. There can however be little doubt that it is he who figures in the Qur’an as the unnamed servant of God who initiates Moses into the mysteries or rather paradoxes of life.

The Holy Book in Sūratul Kahf or the Chapter of the Cave has it that this servant of Allah was taught by the Almighty out of his own knowledge(min ladunna ilm) and that Moses in turn requested him to teach him something of that divine knowledge. Moses proceeded to travel with him, only to find his companion committing three seemingly unjust deeds, scuttling a ship, killing a boy and repairing a well for an inhospitable people.

On being questioned by Moses, his unnamed companion gives him three valid reasons why he had committed those deeds, providing an interpretation of those matters of which Moses was unable to grasp. Thus the scuttling of the ship is explained as a prevention to its seizure by a certain king, the killing of the youth because he would oppress his parents by rebellion and disbelief and the repairing of the wall because beneath it lay a buried treasure to which two orphans were entitled, their father having been a righteous man. The story seems to imply that this mysterious being was bestowed with knowledge ordinary mortals were unable to comprehend.

Who he was is clearly mentioned in a hadith or saying of the Prophet recorded in Sahih Bukhari where he figures in an episode identical to that related in the Qur’an. He is here called Al-Khaḍir and described as a man covered with a garment. Another tradition of the Prophet recorded in Sahih Bukhari has it that Khiḍr was so named, because if he sat over a barren white land, it turned green with vegetation. This belief is also reflected in the Alf Layla Wa Layla (Thousand and One Nights) where we have an allusion to Al-Khiḍr planting a pomegranate tree which forthright grew up and foliaged, flowered and fruited.

Around this mysterious personage has grown a number of folk beliefs in various parts of the Muslim world, especially in Asia Minor, the Near East and the Indian subcontinent. The mystical tradition of the Sufis has it that he is immortal, having drunk of the Maul Hayat or ‘Water of Life’ though one wonders how this could be reconciled with the statement in the Qur’an that every soul shall taste of death.

In Turkey, Khiḍr is known as Hizir and is said to appear before human eyes in the form of a frail old dervish with a long white beard. He is regarded as the patron saint of travellers, protecting them from the hazards of the road and is also said to rescue men from disaster. In India, Khiḍr is known as Khizar. He is said to have discovered the water of life and is considered the saint of waters.

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