Pilgrimage is an aspect of most religions. It is both an exercise in self-discipline, and an expression of one’s piety. And the common belief is that the harder the pilgrimage, the greater the faith of those who undertake it. A journey to a jungle shrine is one such gruelling act of faith.
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The Kabiliththa shrine is found deep within the Yala forest, and has routes up to it from Monaragala, Kumana and the Kataragama-Buththala road.
Unlike the well-worn roads of the main park, these routes require active participation in clearing the jungle, crossing riverbeds and enduring clouds of dust.
At the start, one seeks protection for the difficult journey from the local deities, at a roadside shrine.
The wild elephant, among many other animals, make this jungle their home. That night an elephant had visited the roadside shrine.
At the campsite by the Menik Ganga, bottles hung on lines of barbed wire act as an early warning system against the ever-curious elephant.
An area by the river is cleaned up and arranged to prepare the offerings for the Deity.
A stove is assembled, with a white canopy to keep off falling leaves and insects, while eight small ‘wells’ are dug by the riverbank.
However, preparing the pooja has left its tragic mark on the otherwise pristine river.
The ceremony begins on the first evening, with a pooja at the Bodhi tree.
Some believe that Lord Murugan, or Kataragama Deviyo, retreats to this area to meditate. Others claim that this is also the seat of a forest deity named Ayyiya Nayaka Deviyo.
If you ask a local kapumahaththaya, he will tell you stories of how mediating monks, including the famous scholar Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, had seen Lord Murugan, garbed in yellow, walking these forests.
The next morning, the men wake up early to bathe in the Menik Ganga, and prepare milk-rice and Muruthanbath, a rice dish enriched with jaggery, plums, cashew nuts and ghee.
The women bathe in the river, ceremonially wash up in the seven small ‘wells,’ and prepare any additional offerings.
If one is unsure as to the rites and rituals unique to the shrine, one can gain the help, of a local from a village close to the jungle, who would act as a quasi-kapumahaththaya. This is for a small price of course.
The pooja consisting of muruthanbath, milk-rice, fruits, incense, and whatever else you wish to add, is then offered to Lord Murugan.
The main sites of veneration consist of a tamarind tree and a tamarind stump, where Lord Murugan is believed to sit in meditation.
However, my grandfather, who had done this pilgrimage in 1975, claims that at that time there were neither widely practiced rituals, nor any prevalent lore about the shrine. Nonetheless, you will find an eclectic display of religiosity here.
The wider area remains rich in mythology. It is said that Lord Murugan, having travelled from South India, lived in these forests. Here, he fell in love with Valli, the daughter of a local Vedda chief, and made her his wife.
In the mythology, and the religious practices around the shrine, one encounters a fluid and uninhibited mix of Hindu, Buddhist and Vedda cultures. Which in present times is a stunning sight to behold.
A jungle shrine, distanced from the dogmatic institutions, provides a vivid portrait of the ever-changing and composite nature of religion.
The author was a Summer intern at Groundviews in 2013.