Hidden Rituals

After the main ritual the big tusker covered in garlands of flowers makes his way back through the  temple  grounds
After the main ritual the big tusker covered in garlands of flowers makes his way back through the temple grounds

Juliet Coombe joined the exciting procession of regal elephants dressed in silk drapes, dancing girls and fire jugglers at the Kataragama Temple, where she learns about some of the mysteries that lie within these ancient temple walls.

As scented flower petals were thrown in the air, and incense smoke billowed in all directions, baskets of food were being loaded up to be taken inside as offerings to be given at the Kataragama Temple. I took off my shoes, out of respect, at the entrance step, which was already so covered in a sea of footwear that it had become totally hidden, and yet the colourful array of left-behind flip-flops and shoes was a clear demarcation that we were about to enter sacred grounds on a very auspicious day. I had come with a team from EKHO Tissa Safari who has created an exciting portfolio of curated experiences ranging from the deeply spiritual to hands-on plot-to-plate foodie safaris.

The biggest elephant ‘tusker’

Unlike most Perahera experiences I had in the past, at Kandy I did not have to buy a ticket and sit with thousands of other observers. My duomo guide wanted me to be part of their religious life and not watching the proceedings from afar. So, instead of a bandstand view, we headed off into the growing crowd of pilgrims to the epicentre of where the Perahera would take place, everywhere pilgrims were busy finding spots along the ganga (river) to sleep as this was the start of several weeks of festivities that would end on a full moon day, with a procession of over forty ornately dressed elephants in rich red plush velvet and golden threads.

The night air was pungent with crushed flower petals carried in baskets by those who had come to do their family puja in the temple’s inner sanctum, where they would throw them liberally over the tusker male elephant and his spiritual guru, who could not be seen by mortal eyes. Hidden inside a giant sack, he was led up and down the elephant mounting steps in front of the temple by holy men.

Luckily, as I was with EKHO Tissa Safari, we had a contact in the inner sanctum and were able to work our way through the crowd, several locked gates and, finally, the main area for offerings, which ranged from baskets of food to cinnamon scented joss sticks being lit around the stone alter, where no photos are allowed and one must keep one’s head bowed at all time. The stone steps and sacred ground were doused liberally with sacred water and flower petals, and then blessed with incense, carried by two fire bearers, swinging smoke in all directions as the pilgrims raised their hands to the air in euphoria. Dancing girls passed by with one elephant and then a troop of drummers, monkey men doing summersaults, and more costumed characters, who felt like the warm up act to the arrival of the biggest elephant ‘tusker’ I have ever seen.

Magical sweet taste

This mammoth beast of the jungle, controlled only by a small stick, weaved his way through the now immense crowds and was not only impressive, owing to his size and hugely grand regal attire, but also the hundreds of flowered garlands that hung from his tusk. Yet he could still wave a few of them around with his playful trunk as he stopped from time to time to be given food. He swayed sideways to the drum beat, as if dancing in time to it, ears flapping as if to remind all who watched that he is carrying the holy of holies - a living god all bagged up in a black sheet, escorted by a priest, who in contrast wore pure white. As the holy men in white snaked their way through the Katagarama temple to where the main evening puja and blessings were taking place, the once noisy huge crowd fell silent for the first time, as the single drum beat announced the importance of these ancient rituals. On their return from the alter, the crowd went crazy, screaming and shouting, as flowers scattered like confetti in all directions, reminiscent in many ways of Spanish Church festivals.

The elephant threw his head back with flower garlands swirling around in a celebratory formation, as the secret person returned to his backside giving blessings, while a huge tray of sweet rice, mixed with cardamom, was handed over by a high priest, for the pilgrims to eat. More smoke and several decisive drumbeats later, the elephant turned round and processed back along a road where all religions were represented. Here, at least for a few hours, the people of the different religions felt in harmony with each other, sharing a huge silver platter of blessed sticky sweet rice mixed with bee honey. One handful and you will be hooked by the special temple food and its magical sweet taste that brings a smile to the children and the elderly that share this sticky treat with all their friends and family members. There is something very different about sharing food with so many different people and in such a deeply sacred place.

As we tucked into fruits and green grams, the twinkly lights above us were only matched by the stars and the count down to the full moon day on the August 8, when the procession will take to the streets of Kataragama and continue well into the small hours. We all picked up fistfuls of blessed flower petals to give absent friends and, in my case, my two sons, then collected our shoes and headed into downtown Kataragama to refresh ourselves with sweet tea at one of the many night hopper stands. Here we try a sugary sambal with coconut roti and a kind of dunking doughnut fresh out of a boiling pot of coconut oil, something they only do during the festive season.

As a crowd gathered, we drank more cups of sweet tea and I listened to stories from my EKHO Tissa Safari team about all the other special things you can do on top of seeing the magnificent wildlife in Yala National Park.


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