Kataragama with Sri Pada are both important places of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. However, Kataragama seems to be more popular among the Hindu population, largely made up of Tamil ethnic group.
The Ella trip to Kataragama took almost three hours, with the road winding along the valley, with dangerous descents, becoming flatter as you walk south toward Tissamaharama. Soon the landscape changed from forest to extensive rice fields, that at this time of year (January) are of an intense green. The heat of the afternoon made the short bus ride seem longer, with the tropical humidity mix with the sweat, letting the skin moist and sticky.
But at about five in the afternoon, after resting the bus ride, is the ideal time for a quiet walk through the streets toward the Temple Park, a wide forested area where the several temples concentrate: a Hindu temple, a Buddhist stupa and a Muslim mosque. Along the way, increase the number of shops selling religious articles and offerings for the puja, indicating that we are near the entrance.
After passing a small river, where some pilgrims bathe following religious rites, we walked through an avenue where cows wander slowly between pilgrims carrying trays of fruit decorated with plastic ornaments, creating a colorful scene toward the temple. Behind stays the almost deserted mosque in a mostly Hindu area.
Passing the entrance gate, where the shoes must stay outside guarded a zealous staff, is a walled enclosure with temples and other buildings and at the center has the Maha Devale, a small Hindu temple unable to accommodate the hundreds of people here heads for 6 hours, at which time begins puja.
Around other temples also attract devotees who also carry offerings and performing prayers. But it is around the bodhi tree, the same species of the tree where Buddha attained enlightenment and considered sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, which families gather praying, meditating or reading sacred texts while children run and play losing laughter and shouts that break the solemn atmosphere of the place.
But while the puja doesn’t start is the time to walk down a long avenue until the end of the park toward Kirivehra, a Buddhist temple-shaped stupa, white immaculate painted. Along the way small kiosks selling lotus flowers, ghee (clarified butter, ie cleared of traces of water or impurities) and incense that pilgrims use as offerings, with ghee to serve to keep lit lamps that as the sun goes down on the horizon offer a higher brightness, in contrast with the sky that is becoming dark.
But back Maha Devale which has already started the puja, a small crowd of pilgrims, visitors and tourists, if gathering at the three temple entrances, trying to observe the puja ritual that takes place inside where only one dozen of people has space to stand. Suddenly, after a prolonged silence that allows you to enjoy the calm and serenity of the place, already shrouded in darkness, begin the bells start to ring inside the temple, which along a big and heavy bell that is outside, forming a compact mass of sound, hysterical and aggressive, breaking the stillness of place, but whose devotees seem to be indifferent.
The stay in Kataragama offered a different view of Sri Lanka, away from the tour groups, the boutique hotels, the world heritage tag, the inflated prices, the international food… here beyond the usual friendliness and smiling faces, we are received with warm and sincere smiles that blend some curiosity, a humble and relaxed atmosphere that makes us feel genuinely welcome.
According to the guidebooks, it is better to stay in Tissamaharama and visit Kataragama on a day-trip, and this is the option followed by almost everyone, as in the evening after the puja there were more foreigners in town. But it is worth staying, at least, one night in Kataragama, enjoying the quietness of the streets at dawn, where the few people move without hurry, but with time and availability for a short chat and a friendly smile. The streets are quiet, away from the usual mess of traffic or beeps, and even the national road that crosses Kataragama, the Tissa Road, is away from the usual movement and bustle of others.
Spending the night at Kataragama, gave an opportunity to walk around the city streets and the park next to the temples, lighted by the soft light of dawn, when the air is still fresh and you can see the awaking of town… a place that looks sleepy until puja time, where it get busy.
Where to stay in Kataragama:
Right next to Kataragama bus terminal, it is not even necessary to cross the Tissa Road, is the Lake House Pilgrim Rest. Despite the tablet have an indication Lake House Resort, the place has nothing fancy, offering reasonably priced and cheaper than other places marked on tourist guides as budget options. According to the receipt, this property belongs to “The Associated Newspapers of Ceylan, Ltd.”, is designed for pilgrims but is open to all visitors.
double room with bathroom: 900 LKR (no hot water, but the temperatures in this region, even in January are very warm).
An annex building, more modern, are the most sophisticated rooms with air conditioning, wi-fi and other amenities.
The location is great and quiet, with some rooms with a balcony overlooking a sea of green formed by rice fields.
The staff speaks little English.
Address: Pussadewa Mawatha (right next to the Kataragama bus terminal)
Where to eat in Kataragama:
It is not difficult to find local food restaurants, but who is looking for international food does not have many chances in Kataragama, with maybe the exception of some fancy hotels.
By indication of local people, the lunch was at Ruhunu Bakery and Hotel that despite the hotel name only serves food. Serves a competent rice and curry, whose vegetarian option costs 80 LKR, and is available from the beginning of the day. In addition, some are also many pastry snacks. It is not easy to communicate in English with the menu and the prices posted on the walls in Sinhalese.
Address: Abhaya Mawatha, Kataragama, Hatton, Kandy
Along the central streets of the small and concentrated Kataragama, there are more restaurants also serving rice and curry, rotis, kotus, hoppers, etc… with the choices changing according to the time of day. They are also groceries selling delicious coconuts, whose existing variety in Sri Lanka called King Coconut, with yellow skin, very juicy and flavorful, and sweeter than the usual green coconut shell.
As dinner is hard to find rice and curry, Kataragama offered the chance to try the hoppers (also known in other countries by apam) are a kind of pancakes made from rice flour and coconut milk. In Sri Lanka the hoppers can be eaten at breakfast or in the evening as a meal, with or without egg, being soaked and small bowls of spicy curries.
Transport in Kataragama:
The town is small and can be covered on foot, and from the bus terminal to the main entrance of the complex formed by the various temples is not more than 5-10 minute walking.
From the quiet of Kataragama bus Terminal, depart frequently buses to Tissamaharama, Buttala, Wellawaya, Matara, etc …