God of War, Venerated at Kataragama.
As the month of July approaches, Sri Lanka prepares to express devotion for their chief ‘war god’ who resides in a jungle-shrine in the semi-arid jungles in the southern plain of the island. This is one of the major Esala peraheras held in Sri Lanka.
The Kataragama Esala perahera is the perfect example of the island’s religious harmony that exists for more than two millennia. A large number of devotees take part in this festival and what is unique about this specific perahera is the participation of the Sinhalese, Hindus and the Veddas in coordination. To the Sinhalese it is their war god Kataragama devi or the regional ruler Mahasen, to the Hindus it is their war god, the feared Skandha or Kartikeya and to the Veddas it is their beloved Kande-yaka or the hunting god. Each community performs their rituals based on their belief. The history and folklore surrounding this place is fascinating and mystic. Moreover, the intriguing fusion of many cultures, religions and beliefs, adds a magical ambience to this small yet holy jungle-shrine.
Tracing back the history of Katragama through facts and myths
There are many legends surrounding Kataragama and they are of Sinhalese origin, Hindu origin and Vedda origin. Historical and archaeological facts are also in abundance.
Mahasen the local ruler and Kataragama- Kataragama is referred to as Kacharagama or Kajaragama in Pali chronicles. Historical records narrate the story of Kataragama as follows; during the time of the Buddha, Kacharagama was ruled by king Mahasen. When Buddha visited the island he visited Kataragama too and met Mahasen. At this point, Mahasen became a follower of the Buddha. Later, Mahasen has built a stupa at the location where he met Buddha. Also it is believed that the golden sword prince Siddhartha used to cut off his hair on the day of Abhinishkramana is housed inside this stupa. This stupa is identified as the Kiri vehera. A dolomite idol of Mahasen can be seen at Kiri vehera and devotees perform rituals and offerings to the idol to seek his blessings. There is a belief that the local ruler Mahasen was venerated as a god after his death.
Warriors at Kataragama – Mahavamsa recites that noble warriors (Kshathriyas) of Kacharagama marked their presence at the Bo sapling planting ceremony held in Anuradhapura during King Devanampiyathissa’s rule (3rd century BCE). This suggests that the ‘noble warriors’ of Kacharagama were honored and independent. The Bo tree one can see today behind the shrine at Kataragama is believed to be an Ashata-phala bo tree, which means one of the eight earliest planted bo trees in Sri Lanka.
Dutugamunu in Kataragama – Village folklore narrates an interesting story about the deity at Kataragama. During his war against the usurper Elara, King Dutugamunu is believed to be given the blessings of the deity at Kataragama and after he was victorious the heroic king built a shrine and commenced the annual perehera to honor the deity who blessed him. The association between the heroic king Durugamunu and war god at Kataragama is remarkable. The King’s tusker’s two tusks are said to be kept inside the devale. Also the tow officials, Maha bethme and podi bethme are believed to be representing the king’s chief ministers.
First mention of Kataragama veneration in Mahavamsa is during the reign of King Dappula, 7th century AD. Dappula who was a regional ruler in Ruhuna had conducted offerings to Kataragama. In the Pali chronicle Dhatu Vamsa it is mentioned that Buddha handed over the responsibility of protecting the sacred land of Kiri Vehera to Maha Ghosha (Mahasen) during Buddha’s third visit to Sri Lanka. There was a shrine dedicated for Mahasen in Kotte which was referred to as Mahasen dev madura. This was built by King Parakramabahu VI in the inner city of Kotte, close to the royal palace. During the time of Kotte kingdom, Kataragama (Mahasen) was believed to be the same as Skandha Kumara. This confusion continued during the Kandyan period. It is to be noted that until the end of Kotte kingdom, lord Kataragama was referred to as Mahasen. Therefore, it is fair enough to conclude that the deity at Kataragama venerated by the Sinhalese is the local ruler Mahasen. His link with Dutugamunu’s war is evidence of this deity being known as a war god. Even today, he is known as one of the most powerful war gods of Sri Lanka and also a guardian god of Buddhism.
Kandhe yaka or the Deity of the Mountain- Kande yaka or Kande deviyo which means the deity of the mountain was a patron god of hunting. Kandha is analogous with the word Skandha. One of Sri Lanka’s earliest human settlements is found in Kataragama where the hunter-gatherers dwelled. For them hunting was the main task of their lives and nothing was important than hunting. Therefore, having a patron god for hunting was essential.
Murugan, brother of Ganesh –The Hindu god Skandha or Murugan is also a god always associated with warfare. According to Hindu mythology, he is the son of Siva and Parvati, and the brother of Ganesh, the much-loved Elephant god. He was married to Thevani amma and when he visited Sri Lanka he married a beautiful Vedda girl called Walli amma. This makes him related to the Veddas inhabiting in Sri Lanka. According to Vedda folklore, Walli was the daughter of the Vedda chief living in the vicinity of Kataragama. It should be noted that during the perahera, Walli amma is given priority which demonstrates her significance.
The elephant god in Kantaka chethiya wahalkada – The elephant god Ganesh, popularly known as ‘pulleyar’ among the farmers at the North central provinces, is one of the earliest gods known in Sri Lanka. There is a small figure of this god carved at the Vahalkada at Kantaka chethiya, (Mihintale) that belongs at least to the 1st century BCE.
Skandha venerated by the warrior clans in Asia – Though some scholars attempts to trace back Kartikeyas antiquity to Vedic literature, there are speculations surrounding. Mahasen, Kartikeya, Skandha are forms of a war god, feared and venerated by his devotees. He is a war god that is not limited solely to Sri Lanka but who was popular as a war god among many ancient civilizations across Asia too. The Yaudheyas had many coins depicting Kartikeya with a rooster and the vel (weapon). The rooster in these coins reminds us of the Savula (Jungle fowl flag) kodiya of Mahasen. These coins belong to the time period varying from the 5th century BCE to the 4th century CE. In some coins his shrine is shown with the antelope. It is interesting to note that Walli amma is always shown with deers. Furthermore antelopes are closely related to the deer. The Kushans worshiped Skandha and even the Indo-Scythians (Sakas). Later the Mahayana followers fashioned Skandha into a Bodhisattva and started worshiping him as a Dhamma protector. The origin of Skandha or Kartikeya is not purely Hindu as the Kushans and the Yaudheyas were not complete Hindus yet they venerated this god. It is important to note that the Kushans were predominantly Buddhists.
A patron god of war and hunting – Wars are not new to human civilization. Ever since our human ancestors built the first settlements and with the growth of the feeling of ‘belongingness’, race and nationality, they fought battles for protect ‘their lands’ and ‘property’. Hence, wars were of utmost importance and having a god of patron gave them confidence and strength. Therefore war gods were of immense popularity, especially among the migrating warrior clans.
Kataragama deity is often depicted having six faces and twelve hands, red or pink in color, and sitting on a peacock. His two consorts are shown sitting beside him. The peacock is shown stepping on a cobra. Mahasen’s flag is known as the ‘sawula kodiya’, that is the Jungle fowl flag. He holds various objects in his 12 hands, such as the sword, battle axe (keteriya), paliha, ankushaya, mugura, dunna, book, thomaraya, kukkuta dhajya, shankhaya.
Devalas dedicated to him
One can see many devala’s dedicated to this god all over the island and in almost every Buddhist temple. Out of all these devalas, the main devale is the devale at Kataragama. The shrine at Kataragama is associated with King Dutugamunu as he took an oath before starting off for the war against Elara. After the victory he constructed the Dig-ge to the Maha Devale which already existed. The lay priests (Kapu mahattaya/ Kapu Rala) of the Kataragama devale is traditionally bestowed to Sinhala Buddhists since the time of this king. It is said that the first priest was a relative of the king.
This god has devals and kovils dedicated to him all over the world. Surprisingly even in the western world. He is venerated in various forms in Hinduism, Mahayana and Jainism.
Entrance of the Kataragama Devale
Kartikeya on early Indian coinage
Karttikeya shrine with antelope in a coin of Yaudheyas Punjab 2nd century CE
Maaseno in Kushan coin
Some believe this is the statue of Mahasen. A stone statue in Kirivehera.
Painting of Kataragama devi
Sculpture of Skanda, Indo-Greeks (2)
Sculpture of Skanda, Indo-Greeks
Six headed god of Yaudheyas
Yaudheya coins 3rd century
Yaudheya coins 3rd century
Veddas at Kataragama
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