by Thulasi Muttulingam
Hindu devotees will be thronging the thoroughfares of Colombo in colourful processions over the next few days.
Chariot processions, coconuts being smashed, people decked in their brightest colours worshipping with camphor and flame, youngsters dancing the Kavadi dance and many other features of the Tamil Hindu community will be displayed on the streets of Colombo, instead of behind their temple walls, as is usually the case.
This is one of the most important Hindu festivals hosted in Colombo; the Adi Vel Festival, which has a unique history going back to 1874.
While many other pilgrims from other parts of the country are on their way to Kataragama even now, Colombo is one of the few places that brings the famed deity and his annual festival to the doorsteps of its own people.
Triumph over evil forces
The festival, celebrating the Kataragama deity’s triumph over evil forces and his marriage to the Sri Lankan Veddha girl Valli, has been taking place in an elaborate 14 -day festival at Kataragama and is reaching its culmination about now. Pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka, who started out on a pada yatra (pilgrimage on foot) to Kataragama will have reached or closer to their destination by now.
Colombo is the only place from where most of his devotees opt to stay back instead of making the annual pilgrimage. That is because they have their own festival to celebrate their god.
Referred to as Murugan, Skanda or Kataragama deiyo according to the denomination of his devotees, this particular god has a huge following not only all over Sri Lanka but also in India. Legend says that Skanda is the younger warrior son of Shiva and Parvati.
One of his most famous battles was with the demon Surapadman and his brothers. The battle raged for several days and Skanda had to use six fortresses in different towns to conclude the battle. All six of those towns are famous sites of pilgrimage with major temples dedicated to him on each site. The last of these towns in which the battle reportedly finished is Thiruchendur, situated at the southern tip of India.
Just before he was about to be killed Surapadman asked for mercy. It was granted in indirect form. He had to turn himself into a peacock and serve Skanda as his official mode of transportation. That done and this being the tip of India, he decided to fly over to Sri Lanka on his new peacock vehicle for a restful holiday – and landed in Kataragama.
There, he saw the Veddha chieftain’s daughter tending to a field and proposed marriage. He happened to be married to Deivayanai, the daughter of the King of Heaven, Indra, already, but that didn’t deter him. He could have of course approached Valli as he was, but being a prankster, he first approached her as a hunter and then as an old man, annoying her with his repeated proposals.
Since she kept refusing him, he sought his elder brother, the elephant headed God Ganesh’s help. Ganesh changed himself into an elephant and came charging at Valli, who having no-one else nearby ran to the old man for protection. He promised to save her if she accepted his proposal and under duress she gave her word. Whereupon, he chased the elephant away and turned to face the very young Valli, now extremely upset at her predicament.
It changed to joy however, when he revealed himself in his true form. And that is how Valli, a Veddha native of Kataragama attained goddess status in Hinduism, being revered both in Sri Lanka and India. Look for her in his pictures. She is the wife, usually placed on his right, the dark- skinned one.
There are different legends among different communities on who the Kataragama Deiyo is and how he came to marry the native Veddha girl. The above is the one predominantly believed by the Hindus of Sri Lanka as well as many parts of South India.
Successful culmination of the war
Different Skanda temples celebrate the successful culmination of the war and the union of Skanda and Valli at different times, but in Kataragama, it is taking place right now. In this pilgrimage centre, the Kataragama Deiyo has a temple of his own while his two wives also have separate temples dedicated to them.
The other noteworthy feature of Kataragama is that here, he is worshipped as a yantra – a small metal plate with a mystic diagram on it, instead of as a statue.
The Kataragama festival currently ongoing is a celebration of the young lovers’ honeymoon period. Every day, for 14 consecutive days, the priests of the temple will take the God (in his form as a yantra), in a royal procession to the temple of Sri Valli and leave him there for a couple of hours.
On the day before the last of the festival, the assumed ending period of the honeymoon, he spends the entire night with her. The last day is the ‘water cutting’ ceremony where the deity is carried to the Menik Ganga to purify himself. The Kapurala (priest) officiating will dip the yantra in the water to signify his bathing and purification.
So widespread is this God’s worship in Sri Lanka, that it is known of as a cult -following. He has widespread followers among both Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. Even people of other denominations are known to visit the shrine and as such, Kataragama is considered one of the unifying places of pilgrimage in the country.
For centuries, during this peak festival time, people from all over Sri Lanka – though mostly from the North and East, had been paying homage to the deity by undertaking a pada yatra (pilgrimage on foot), an annual feature for many Hindus.
It isn’t hard to understand why this worship is considered a cult. Tamils in Colombo were devastated when in 1874, a cholera outbreak made the then colonial government prohibit the pada yatra for that year.
Thus was born the Colombo Vel Festival, a minor replica of the Kataragama Festival. Unable to go to their beloved deity in Kataragama, the Colombo devotees made do with the local Murugan temples in their own place. It was so successful that it eventually became an annual feature in Colombo
At the present time, the deities are brought in a procession from the Sammangodu Sri Kathirvelayutha Swamy Temple in Pettah to the Sri Manickavinayagar temple in Bambalapitiya and separately, from the Kathiresan Kovil in Pettah to the New Kathiresan Kovil in Bambalapitiya.
The Pettah kovils, founded by the Chettiar community in Sri Lanka are over two hundred years old. The Bambalapitiya Kovils are, however, fairly new. According to Rajendran Chettiar, a trustee of the New Kathiresan Kovil, when the Colombo Vel Festival first started in 1874, the current temple spaces in Bambalapitiya were occupied by maddams – places of rest for weary travellers.
“This area was undeveloped shrub land at that time, what was called Wattas. The pilgrims, however, needed the festivities that they had become used to at Kataragama and so all the rites and rituals done at Kataragama are also done here in the same manner. Part of that was carrying the deity in a procession from one place to another.”
Over time, the Chettiar community (businessmen from Chettinad, India), purchased extensive amounts of land in Bambalapitiya and built two temples in that area. For the final water cutting ceremony, the deities are given a dip in the Wellawatte sea to substitute for the Menik Ganga.
Traditionally, devotees in Colombo have become accustomed to two sets of chariots – a wooden one drawn by a tractor and a silver one, 110 years old, drawn by bullocks. It happens to be a competing procession by the different managements of the two sets of temples though they are of the same community of Chettiars.
This year though, due to renovation work at the New Kathiresan temple, the silver chariot won’t be out in procession. Devotees will have to be satisfied with the sole procession of the wooden chariot, which will travel the streets of Colombo over the next four days.
The Chettiars’ religious tradition
The Nattukottai Nagarathar aka the Nattukottai Chettiars are a famous business community of South India, well known for their ability to settle abroad and make money while at the same time keeping their cultures intact and being in touch with their villages of origin, no matter over how many generations they might have been settled in another country.
They were known for this migrating potential while keeping their roots intact for centuries within India, but beginning in the early 19th century, they also expanded their bases abroad. Thus there are sizable established communities of the Nagarathar spanning several generations in Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
‘Everywhere they went, the first thing they did was build a Murugan temple, says Rajendran Chettiar, a third generation Sri Lankan Chettiar. “In fact, Sea Street, on which the original temples are located, also used to be known as Chettiar Street even though the Chettiars of that area are long gone now.”
Many of the Murugan temples in and around Sri Lanka can be traced to Chettiar origins according to Rajendran because the community is such Muruga bhaktas, that the first thing they do when able to, is build a Murugan temple. This is also the reason why many places in Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma have ancient Murugan temples dotting them, despite not having sizeable Hindu populations.
“Worship of this deity was an important part of my ancestors’ way of life. We are a business community and if you looked at how my forefathers did business in the olden days; they had a wooden box, in which they kept their paraphernalia and papers. They sat behind this box on open streets conducting their transactions. They kept the box neatly packed.
Every morning they would reverently open this box to start the day’s work and if you happened to peep in, you would see a Vel (Spear – Murugan’s weapon; also used as a symbol to worship him).
They would reverently take out this Vel and worship it before starting the day’s transactions. The deity was also given a cut on all profits made. The very first entry made in the ledger for the day would be his name – and his balances would be calculated later on. courtesy: Ceylon Today
Vel procession makes stop-over at Temple Trees:
Pix By: Sudath Silva