Believed to be the spiritual retreat of the God ‘Kataragama’, a divine power, which is believed to be endowed with life changing powers, Maha Siyambalawa Devalaya of Kebilitta is in the midst of a great jungle in the sector four of Yala National Wild Life Park.
Yet its’ difficult location or the dangerous journey to the devalaya had not disheartened the devotees who gather in hundred seeking blessings and favors.
Although the shrine at Kataragama along with Kiri Wehera stupa attracts thousands in search favors from God Kataragama, the belief that the divinity prefers to spend his time at the more tranquil environs of Kebilitta attracts the diehard devotees to this jungle temple.
The journey itself is a test of one’s self and belief and preparations are made weeks before the pilgrimage. Many a stories of lost pilgrims and elephant attacks on rowdy visitors who were behaving in uncouth manner, acts as precautionary tales and today one does not undertake the pilgrimage to Kebalitta for the fun of it. Many who plan to go, at times had not been able to reach the Kebiliththa Devalaya on their first try.
The drive is difficult, vehicles topple and at times winches were used to pull the vehicle as it struggled in the mud. Stories of overflowing rivers and unsuccessful travels are repeated as precautions and pre warnings to the reckless.
Abstinence is a must. One has to be a complete vegetarian for at least seven days prior to the journey. Furthermore, one needs to control one’s temper, refrain from using harsh words, lead a life of simplicity and not talk about the pending travel.
The journey to the shrine falls though the rough terrains of Yala and across Kumbukkan Oya, where at the crossing stands a small shrine dedicated to Goddess Pattini. Traditionally a lamp is lit every time a pilgrim crosses the river requesting safe journey and protection.
Once crossing the river and entering the dominion of God’ Kataragama’ the devotees cleanse themselves with lime and water, dress modestly in white and proceeds to builds a makeshift structure, with four branches as the cornerstones and a white cloth on top to cover. Then, a stove is built using three stones to prepare the Muruthan bath, or an offering of rice.
Seven holes are dug on the banks of the river, representing seven wells. Around each ‘well’ branches with leaves are planted and Turmeric added to each well to purify the water used to make rice and to wash the fruits that were required for the offering.
Offering of rice, fruits, beverage and flowers are prepared on the banks of the river before proceeding to the shrine lighting the way with oil lamps from the Bodhi tree to the shrine. Prior to the offering to the gods a Buddha puja is made, offering the first and best of the preparations to the Lord Buddha himself, followed by offering to Bodhi tree and chanting of pirith.
After the proceedings at the Bodhi Tree devotees with covered mouth and noses find their way to the shrine, that is also dedicated to various provincial Gods like Kalu Bandara, Kadawara Kalu Bandara, Kaluvedhi Bandara and Goddess Badra Kali. The prayers said in Sinhala echoes through jungle walls surrounding the shrine and after the prayers the devotees are led to a giant tamarind tree, the home of God Kataragama.
The Tamarind tree at the shrine is small that it looks like just a plant. Yet according to the legends the tree had stood on site for many years but had remained the same in size. It is said that there was a massive Tamarind tree at the shrine, the original home of God Kataragama. However, over the years the lighting of the oil lamps had had its toll on tree and what remains today is a sapling, which had stopped growing after a few years.
After the first tree was destroyed it is said that God Kataragama had chosen a second tamarind tree, which stands tall and alone in a small clearance a distance away from the main shrine.
At the back of the tree, the surface of the bark was formed depicting an sketch of God Kataragama, a deity with six faces and 12 arms, missing is his weaponry and finery , a deity in the stance of deep meditation.