One of Sri Lanka’s oldest living traditions is the Pada Yatra (Foot Pilgrimage) from Selva Sannithi in Jaffna - the Island’s far north – to Kathirkamam (Kataragama) along the East Coast. The origins of the Yatra are shrouded in myth; several versions declare that it began with Lord Murugan (Skanda) himself when he landed somewhere on our shores and walked to Kathirkamam. Pre dating the arrival of all four of Sri Lanka’s major religions, it is essentially a tradition inherited from the island’s indigenous forest-dwellers called Veddas.
The great ones who walked the Pāda Yātrā include, notably, the renowned fifteenth century Tamil psalmist Arunagirinathar, who composed at least one Tiruppukal hymn at Kirimalai (near Kankesanturai in the Jaffna peninsula), another at Tirukkonamalai (modern Trincomalee) and fourteen at Katir-kāmam, 'the place of brilliance and passion,' i.e. Kataragama. More recent well-known pilgrims have included Palkudi Bawa and Yogaswami of Nallur; there are records of Yogaswami’s Yatra from 1910.
For ordinary people like us it is a “call” we heed to. Leaving everything behind but a bundle of essentials, we experience the blissful paradoxes of life. Sleeping and living outside, under trees and in shrines and temples; seldom knowing where and when the next meal will come from. Pilgrims represent the full spectrum of society; there are no lords nor master on the pilgrimage. Poets, singers, musicians, dancers, mothers, fathers and even very young children walk along the island’s ever changing and awe-inspiring landscapes. Walking 10-15 km per day typically, the pilgrims halt at 73 traditional places of worship, where they accept dāna (hospitality and alms) from waiting villagers. The route carries them down the east coast as far as Pottuvil, where it turns inland to cross the jungle to reach Kathirkamam.
The final stretch of the Yatra takes the intrepid pilgrims through wild jungle teeming with elephants, deer, sambur, boars, and even the odd leopard or two. Those who have passed through, however, bring home stories and memories of nights by the campfire under an open sky that will last a lifetime.
For quite a few of us who are “unfortunately” saddled with work, family etc and do not, at present, have the luxury of being able to immerse in the two month long Yatra, the last stretch from Uhanthai Murugan through Kumana and Yala to kathirkamam gives us the opportunity to be part of this living heritage and a wonder-filled, blissful way of showing our love to Lord Murugan.
Uhandai Murugan Kovil, as we know now, was a Sivn Kovil build by King Ravana, as per Valmihi Ramayanam. On a time scale this takes us back to 5000 B.C. The history, significance and the miraculous nature of this Kovil is found in a separate article elsewhere in the site.
Entrance to Kumana National Park is only a stone's throw away from Uhandai Murugan Kovil, from where we start our Yatra. A notable point at the entrance is that all pilgrims are provided with a large cloth bag and all polythene bags are taken away; this is to ensure no wild animals are put at risk eating these bags that are left behind, and to minimise pollution enroute.
The picturesque, blissful trail takes us through Kumana Pond, Kirigala, Raatchatha Aduppu (Yodha-lippa – giant’s hearth), Yaanai Kuli (Aliyawela), Pali Itta Kuli ( Paliha damuwela ), Bagura and Vannaththi Odai/Aaru ( Bagura Oya ). A lot of people who commence their walk in the afternoon end up spending the night at Vannaththi Aaru.
The next stretch upto Kumbukkan Oya takes us through Chinna Villu (Kuda Villu), Nadu Kulam (Thummulla Kulama), Kuttai Kulam (Kottai Lindawela), Yaahakal Kalappu, Paravai Kulam (Kumana Villu), the ancient Koomunai Kiramam (Kumana Village)and finally to Madathurai Amman Kovil (Kuda Kabilitha). Kumbukkan Oya (originally known as Kumbakarnan Aaru) is the boundary of Eastern and Southern provinces.
Kumbukkan to Navaldi takes us through many plains, or savannahs, Karambai Aaru, Upparu and then to the three wells at Navaladi, Vyravar Kovil. The stretch from Navaladi takes us through Tholaya Kaadu, Ilanthai mara Kovil, Tholayavettai, Kallaviyala Odai and arrives at what seems like the best oasis at Viyalai by Mannikka (Manik) Gangai.
After a rejoicing evening and night, the walk takes us to Valliamman Aaru, through Varahana bridge to Vel Kanda Malai, where we sight Kathiramalai for the first time. We then proceed towards Kattakamam, walk through the dried Kulam to reach Veeracholai Pillayar Kovil. This is where the last evening is spent . Bodhirajapura, a few kilometres away, hosts the biggest and most welcoming Annathanam for the entire duration for the passing pilgrims.
It is with rejoice, a newfound energy and a total recharge of the mind and soul that every pilgrim “arrives” in Kathirkamam. Words cannot even get close to describing the feeling!