The foot pilgrimage, more familiar as ‘Pada Yathra’ from Jaffna to Katharagama is a time honoured annual tradition. The journey begins from Selva Sannithi, a temple for Lord Skanda in Thodamanaru , the northern most tip of the country, winds its way through the eastern coastal line and ends in Katharagama. Said to be the longest foot-pilgrimage in the world, it covers a distance of around 450 kilometres and takes more than a month to complete.
Hundreds of ardent devotees of Lord Skanda, men and women of all ages, take part in the pilgrimage, deeming it a spiritually fulfilling act. Shanmuga Priya, a Jaffna born devotee of Lord Skanda, now living in the UK, undertook the arduous journey in 2004 during the ceasefire between the LTTE and the Security Forces and penned down the experience, giving a fascinating glimpse into the life of a pilgrim who has forsaken the comforts of everyday living for the hardship of life on the road and spiritual fulfilment.
Shanmuga Priya, who later converted the writing into a book, says learnt about the annual Pada Yathra through an American devotee, Patrick Harrigan. She says she was inspired by him to join the group though many warned her against the perils, the arduous journey, health and safety and even political issues. “Yet my intention was to do it. I set off armed with basic clothing and medication. Without any ties, attachment or inhibitions, I was able to get a glimpse of the other world and experience the interconnectedness of all beings which, brought meaning to my life,” she writes.
Beginning this week, Latitude will be featuring Shunmuga Priya’s writing, giving a firsthand glimpse into the joys and pain of walking 450 kilometres to spiritual enlightenment.
Start of the Yathra
Many religious practices’ like pilgrimages and related religious rites are undertaken by almost all religions. Not all devotees are attracted to these practices. Some spiritual seekers are drawn to these rituals, as though pulled by a magnet, undertake these journeys.
One such pilgrimage undertaken by Kaumara (Lord Skantha devotees) pilgrims is the patha yathra to Kathirkamam. This has been in practice for a very long time and devotees like Arunakirinathar, Yoga Swami, Gauribala Swami (German Swami), Palkudi Bawa, Soulbury Swami, Sellathurai Swami and Narikutty Swami undertook this pilgrimage. The American Kaumaran, Patrick Harrigan (also known as Hariharan Swami) followed in his guru Gauribala’s footsteps.
In ancient Sri Lanka, the Kathirkamam patha yathra started from the Thondamanaru Selva Sannithy Temple in Jaffna and followed the coastal route through Yala sanctuary to reach Kathirkamam. However, since the ‘80s, due to the conflict between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it started from Trincomalee.
The Lord Skantha temple situated by Thondamanaru River is very powerful and referred to as Sinna Kathirkamam (small Kathirkamam.) During British rule, the temple was destroyed and the present temple was built by some local people. However, internal disputes led to the closure of the temple. At this juncture, Lord Skantha appeared to Maruthar Kathirkamar, offered him a Vel (lance) and persuaded him to perform pujas (ceremonies) in a non-Agamic manner as in Kathirkamam.
The deity in Thondamanaru is referred to as Anna Kanthan, because food is offered to all and sundry who visit the temple. Selva Sannithy temple food is said to possess healing qualities. To this day, devotees believe that Selva Sannithy Kanthan leaves with the patha yathra group to attend the Kathirkamam festival and return to Selva Sannithy after the festival. Ceremonies depicting this are still in progress.
On the 20 of May 2004, after twenty years, patha yathra started from Selva Sannithy and left for Kathirkamam through the old coastal route.
I went to Sannithiyan Ashram, managed by Mohanadas Swami, to meet up with other devotees. In the afternoon, Hariharan Swami arrived in a vehicle with driver Aruna Swami. Together, they were seeking necessary permission for the trip and were delayed by the LTTE at Killinochchi.
Patrick Harrigan was born and educated in Michigan, USA but chose to live in India and Sri Lanka. He is a disciple of Gauribala Swami and accompanied his guru on many patha yathra trips. In recent times he leads the walk. This would be his 18 patha yathra. It was announced that the yathra would leave the following morning.
The basic code of conduct stipulated certain conditions. It followed the “Murai” (the traditional code) and all participants were expected to adhere to this. All on the pilgrimage were addressed Swami, as it was believed that Lord Skantha would accompany the devotees incognito. Hence everyone was treated with the respect befitting the Lord. Pilgrims were expected to behave in a manner becoming Swamis and refrain from disgracing the yathra. It was to be spiritual journey for spiritual seekers.
That night, all devotees slept on the soft golden sand outside the Selva Sannithy temple. This was the first of 60 nights that pilgrims would sleep out in the open in a temple ground with the star studded sky as the roof. The first lesson for the pilgrimage was learnt.
21 May 2004 (2)
In the morning, devotees woke up to bathe in the river which was cold, clear and refreshing. Dawn was breaking and the ceremony started with the beating of the drums and ringing of bells. The priest performed the ceremony with his mouth covered by a cloth as in non-Agamic tradition.
He handed over the blessed Vels to Hariharan Swami. A group of 10 devotees gathered to receive blessings from the priest and amidst arohara (Praise the Lord) set off towards Kathirkamam. Hariharan Swami led the pilgrimage with the Vels and the flag in the lead. Encouragement was given by other devotees in the temple and the pilgrims marched with determination. The sun was getting hotter and the tar on the road was beginning to melt! But the keen bare footed, pilgrims kept moving forward steadily!
Soon the pilgrimage reached Atchuveli Chitra Velayutha Murugan Temple. A warm reception party received the group, washed their feet and offered coconut water. Around 50 to 60 local villagers had gathered to cook food. They were cheerful and hospitable and took good care of their guests.
The Chief Priest narrated the history of the temple. He talked about the temple dynasty and the connections with Kerala in India. In the past, the temple was renowned for its healing powers, but over the years these traditions had been forgotten. The holy sanctum sported a unique blue light adding ethereal quality.
As the sun went down, the Vel set off to Avarankal. It became tradition for Hariharan Swami to tie his turban and all others would take the cue and line up to move to the next destination. The village was badly affected by war and Avarankal Sivan Temple was under re-construction. In contrast to the reception in the morning, there was nobody to receive the patha yathra devotees. However, soon people arrived with refreshments. Having thanked the Lord for small mercies the group planned to sleep outside on the golden sand mounds. This was spoiled when local people revealed that the area was un-cleared of land mines. Promptly everyone moved into the temple.
22 May 2004 (3)
The next morning the pilgrims advanced towards Puttur Sivan Temple. This was a small wayside temple, yet the villagers had gathered to welcome everyone with young coconuts. They came forward to cheer and greet the devotees as they arrived in the temple.
The next destination was Mattuvil Pandithalaichi Amman Temple. The roads leading to the village were eroded and were uneven with potholes and stones. The landscape was quite barren with paddy fields covered in weeds and shrubs. It carried the scars of war. There was a deathly silence.
We arrived at the temple and surprised the temple Trustees who claimed ignorance of the patha yathra. As we all looked at the leader, Hariharan Swami announced “Well, we are here now” and sat on the floor, leaving everything in the hands of Lord Skantha.
As though in answer, a devotee walked up to the group and offered cakes of sweet rice! That was the next lesson for patha yathra devotees... Leave everything in the hands of the Almighty. Devotees chanted the food prayer and having thanked higher forces ate the food. This was the beginning of many such incidents when basic needs were mysteriously taken care of by some invisible force.
23 May 2004 (4)
The next morning the yathra started off before sunrise, and proceeded to Sarasalai Vinayagar Tempe which was situated away from the main road. The villagers were occupied with the flag hoisting ceremony to be held the following day. They were busy but still found time to be friendly and hospitable. Devotional songs were played on the speakers and all raised their voices above the speakers to be heard!
We had to walk through paddy fields, with ferocious bulls grazing on long leads to reach a large lotus pond to bathe. The group sat and talked for a long time. Hariharan Swami talked about his experiences with Gauribala Swami and the lessons he learnt from his guru.
24 May 2004 (5)
Kodikamam Kanthaswamy Temple situated next to the A9 was the next destination. The temple had undergone major reconstruction work and had recently held a Kumbabisheham (a revival ceremony). Contrasting dark colours were utilized to paint the life like sculptures. They appeared vibrant and flamboyant creating an affluent environment.
The Trustee’s daughter was to get married in Colombo and a feast was organized for the entire village. The pilgrims too join in blessing the couple. Special pujas were performed on behalf of the newlywed couple.
Kodikamam Swami, a 75 year old dynamic and energetic female, was one of the devotees participating in the yathra. She wore knee high sari in a traditional village fashion and adopted an uninhibited stance with a bundle of clothes tucked under her arm. This confident woman exuded so much energy she put the younger devotees to shame. Very often she lagged behind the rest, but would scrounge a lift from a biker or motor bike and catch up with the rest of the pilgrims!
In the afternoon the pilgrimage started weaving towards Ushan, but was stopped by Kodikamam Kali Amma Temple Trustees who requested to offer food for the devotees. Unfortunately it did not fit into the tight schedule. It is Hindu tradition to offer food to swamis, sadhus, truth seekers, family members and all those who join the patha yathra to reach the religious destination. The pilgrims finally arrived at Mirusuvil Siddi Vinayagar Temple and spent the night.
- Continued next week