Sri Lanka is a small island that hosts unique mixtures of religions, languages and cultures which have influenced each other over the years. An example of the intertwining of these varied groups could be seen during our visit to Kataragama.
Not many in Geneva, New York had ever heard of Sri Lanka. So when describing our destination, my parents would often tell people it was a small island nation near the Southern tip of India approximately the size of West Virginia. I parroted those and many other facts I heard about the country without ever really thinking about them until I grew much older. Such an array of flora and fauna, religious traditions, ethnicities, architecture, ecosystems, ancient sites and natural wonders all found within the approximately 25,000 square miles of the country is truly amazing. Because the nation is so relatively small, and because we had an entire year to explore, we were able to see many diverse Sri Lankan treasures which taught us a lot about the history and culture of the country. From East to West, the island is no wider than 139 miles and from North to South it is no longer than 268 miles, but traveling from end to end, you will encounter as many cultures as ecosystems. Rivalry among the populations is long-standing and at times violent. There are influences from the most ancient indigenous cultures to remnants of colonization from the Dutch, Portuguese and British.
The first known inhabitants of the island were the Veddhas who would have migrated on foot more than 16,000 years ago when sea levels were low and Sri Lanka was still connected to India. These hunter-gatherers have continuously inhabited the island and although they have mingled with other immigrating populations, their genetic makeup more closely resembles the aborigines of Australia or the bushmen of Africa than the other modern ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.Like many indigenous groups, the Veddhas have struggled over the years to maintain their forest-dwelling way of life and receive proper recognition and sadly their forest-dwelling culture is fast disappearing.
The largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka is the Sinhalese who make up approximately 74% of the population. This group is thought to have their ancient roots in Northern India. They speak Sinhala, an Indo-European language, and are largely followers of Therevada Buddhism although there is a minority Christian population. Tamil-speakers are a minority making up approximately 12-18% of the Sri Lankan population. Tamil is a Dravidian language which has its origins in India and binds together two distinct groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamils have been living in Sri Lanka since ancient times while Indian Tamils emigrated from India or descended from Indian immigrants that came during British rule to work on island plantations. These groups are united by language and largely by religion most Tamils are Hindu with a small percentage being Christian. Also living in Sri Lanka are Muslims (about 7%) most of whom trace their identity to Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka or Southern India and a smaller minority are more recent colonial immigrants from India. Another group of Muslim Sri Lankans are Malay Moors who trace their roots to Southeast Asia and came largely when the Dutch held colonies in both Indonesia and Sri Lanka. A very small group of Sri Lankans identify as Christian Burghers who can trace their families to Europeans living in Sri Lanka. The ethnic, religious, and historical identities of Sri Lankans are complex. They manifest themselves in intermingled cultural and religious elements but have also caused tensions throughout history.
The blending of cultures and religious traditions was evident during our visit to Kataragama. The city in the South-East of the country has a plethora of religious sites where lines between especially Buddhist and Hindu traditions are blurred. Pilgrims from both traditions make Kataragama a destination and the area is also important to Sri Lankan Muslims, Christians and Veddhas. We arrived at Kataragama and visited the 95 foot tall Kiri Vehera, a large cream colored stupa that is the most important Buddhist site in the town. Kiri means milk -remember kiri bath, the sweet milk rice that the cook made for me in Colombo? The stark pearly color of the Kiri Vehera Stupa made the shining structure almost painful to stare at in the bright August sun. Stupa comes from the Sanskrit term meaning heap and Kiri Vehera is a 280 foot wide bulbous structure. Although it is circular and the same on all sides, I explored the entire circumference and saw the many worshipers who came to the site. Just below the spike at the peak was a box like structure decorated with what looked to me like a nautical ship’s wheel which reminded me of something you might find on a New England lighthouse. Our Sri Lankan guide told us the stupa was built by King Mahasena who ruled in the area around 580 BC and was visited by the Buddha. The King enjoyed listening to the Buddha and erected Kiri Vehera on the site where the Buddha orated. Like many ancient places we explored, it struck me that people had been visiting the spot where the Buddha had preached for centuries and I wondered how many feet had made the circular path around Kiri Vehera as mine had.
We also visited the nearby Bo tree, which is said to have grown from a cutting of a Bo tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, which was a cutting from the original Indian tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment. The trunk was surrounded by golden spikes, but the branches extended beyond the confines and some of the gate seemed to have been cut away to accommodate the boughs which had been growing since the 3rd century BC. Women in white sat around the tree, some on mats and others directly on the dusty ground.
We were to attend a Hindu festival later that evening, but first we took a look around the Hindu temple at Kataragama which was much more colorful and decorated than Kiri Veheda. The dimly lit temple was filled with the smells of incense. My father gave the history of the deity who crosses over between Buddhism and Hinduism in its importance. An image of the Kataragama dieyo greeted us at the temple entrance. Depicted riding a peacock with multiple faces and multiple hands, this Hindu god is also a patron of Buddhism and has some roots in the Veddha culture as well. Kataragama is therefore a perfect example of how ethnicities and religions living side by side incorporated each other’s traditions. The priests are said to be descended from the Veddhas, so that group also feels Kataragama is important. We walked around the various shrines of the town all day while Janelle sat in her stroller with a coconut almost as big as she propped in her lap for much of the time.
Outside the gates of the temple, a large pile of logs was burning. The bonfire was surrounded by barriers and tended by men in white sarongs. When we came back that evening for the important fire-walking ceremony there was a large crowd on two sides of the fire which had now collapsed in on itself. Drums and cymbols were beating with hypnotic rhythms and a Hindu priest was chanting in nasal tones. We and many others in front of us sat to watch as the drummers played and played and the coals of the fire were raked into a long flat path. The ceremony went on for so long that the top of the pile was now ashen and there were no glowing embers visible. I deduced that the trick to fire walking was to show great spectacle and let the embers cool before walking on them.
The day had been long and we were very tired. Despite the incessantly banging drums, Janelle, with head slumped to one side was asleep in her stroller, a half chewed biscuit clenched in her fist. I was beginning to nod off as I rested on my father’s shoulder. Barefoot worshipers lined up at the head of what was now a heap of ash and I wasn’t that impressed as men with embroidered sarongs and neck pieces dance and twirled around the ashes. However, just before the first person ran across the coals, the sound of the drums increased in intensity and two men took a long bamboo pole and skimmed it cross the top of the coals revealing glowing embers beneath. Another two men ran behind them with branches and fanned the fire. Once again we could see the heat rising from the pathway, distorting the air above and obscuring my view of the waiting firewalkers at the far end. As shoeless devotees started to run across the now red coals, I could see that fire walking at Kataragama was no trick. Some sprinted while others began their passage at a leisurely pace but quickly gained speed as they crossed the coals. I recognized on the faces of some of the participants the look one has when they are trying to look nonchalant but are actually afraid. A smiling man in a white tunic crossed the path with eyes closed and hands in the air in what appeared to be a religious trance. A white-haired woman in an orange sari which matched the hue of the coals ran across with high knees smiling the entire time and then continued dancing into the crowd to the beat of the drums seemingly unfazed by the fiery ordeal. A tough-looking mustached man with slicked back hair collapsed at the end of his journey into the arms of those waiting at the end of the path and was clearly in pain. There was still a line of enthusiastic participants awaiting their walk across the blazing path when my family sleepily picked through the crowd with the remaining students and made our way back to our rest stop.
My ten year old self was impressed with the spectacle of Kataragama – drums and dancers, firewalkers and ancient shrines. While those colorful memories are impressed in my brain, looking back, the most important take away for me in Kataragama was the demonstration of how cultures and religions living side by side can affect each other. Like the co-opting of the pagan festival of lights by the Christians to celebration of the birth of Jesus, the diety of Kataragama was embraced by multiple groups showing sometimes cultures can peacefully merge and create new traditions. Sadly in Sri Lanka, like most places around the world, the blending of cultures does not completely erase preconceptions about race and religion as evidenced by the violence which broke out near the end of our stay in the country.