In the midst of the Adi Vel festival

All photos by Iromi Perera

9.30am Saturday morning. I was walking on the pavement in Bambalapitiya when I found myself in the midst of the Adi Vel festival. I had passed it earlier near the Kovil in Kirullapone and had found myself feeling slightly unsettled after seeing men being hung on hooks and suspended from trucks in order to ask for help from a higher God. But I was there and seeing the hundreds of people involved in the Vel festival in different ways just made me stop and watch.  I wished I knew more about the festival to have appreciated it fully. I also wished I had my camera with me but at that moment, my mobile had to suffice.

The decorated coaches pulled by men and women, people getting their children and themselves blessed by the priests, devotees with their offerings, the breaking of the coconuts, people fulfilling vows by rolling on the ground (the entire distance of the walk I believe), putting skewers through their faces, being suspended by hooks and hanging from trucks – I was simply awestruck and didn’t realize that I had been standing there for more than one hour. I couldn’t get my head around the people who had put hooks through their body though, it seemed incredible that one would do all this do fulfill a vow or to ask for help and that more pain, more God-earned merit.

According to an article in the Sunday Observer in July 2010, “The Colombo Vel Festival, dedicated to Kataragama Deviyo, originally came into being because of a cholera outbreak in 1874. The Kataragama Deity is a very popular God amongst most Sri Lankan Hindus and Buddhists. For this Adi Vel Festival, pilgrims from all parts of the island were in the habit of going on a ‘Pada Yatra’ (pilgrimage by foot) which took several days, consisting of several days to Kataragama. In 1874, there was a cholera outbreak and the colonial government then in power forbade people in Colombo to go on the Yatra. Unable to go to Kataragama, they made do with the local Murugan temples and thus was born the Colombo Vel Festival.”

In addition to the hundreds partaking in the Vel festival, there were dozens of curious bystanders like me taking pictures and just observing the festival. It was slightly drizzling and the skies were gloomy and many of us had other places to be at that time. I would’ve imagined it to have been even slightly chaotic with all the people, but that was the last thing it was. It was truly a festival worth experiencing and I was glad to have been in the midst of it, even by accident.