Once a year, for three months, a group of devout worshippers from different faiths descend on a three month long pilgrimage through Sri Lanka, traveling only by foot, from Jaffna (in the north) to Kataragama (482km south).
The history of the pilgrimage is uncertain, and many stories surrounding the origins are shrouded in myth and yet one thing is clear – those who have taken it upon themselves to take this pilgrimage is there to celebrate and worship the Lord Kataragama.
The pilgrimage is not limited to any one particular faith, with the majority of participants being of Christian, Hindu or Buddhist belief. This harmonious and peaceful acceptance of others transcends into the energy that can be felt all around, and the generosity by all who encounter the travellers on route. Many who embark on this journey from the beginning, carry very little other than the essentials and thus rely on villagers along the way for supplies, which is gifted without haste. This usually comes in the form of sweet coconut, buttermilk and water to relieve the pilgrims of their discomfort from the blazing tropical sun.
For 5 days, this journey continues through the Yala National Park. Shouts of ‘Haro Hara’ echo through the jungle, loosely translating to ‘may God protect us’ as participants of the pilgrimage voyage into the unknown, deep into the territory of Leopards, Elephants and other wildlife. This is a dangerous route, and at least one person from the group must take night-watch duty, to ensure the safety of their fellows. While walking is an essential part of the pilgrimage, the average pace is 25-35km per day which occupies only 5 hours of each day – leaving plenty of time for praying, chanting, eating, bathing and deep philosophical conversations.
The purpose of the pilgrimage is ultimately to give blessings to Lord Kataragama and to find inner peace. The end destination of Kataragama is home to the sacred jungle shrine, described as a ‘magical, mystical place governed by an ever-youthful Spirit that defies human comprehension’. News of the journey had reached more touristic towns like the popular Arugam Bay on the east coast and some non-locals joined for a few days to experience the true ancient tradition first-hand.
The spiritual energy is said to be like nothing else you will ever experience, and this is just one reason to pursue the pilgrimage every year.