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Sunday, 20 July 2003  
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Paada Yaatra from N-E to Kataragama : National vision to lay roadmap to peace and prosperity

With the annual Kataragama Esala festival flag-hoisting ceremony fast approaching, the entire east coast from Mullaitivu to Kataragama has been resounding with spirited cries of 'Haro Hara' from hundreds of traditional foot pilgrims.

The Paada Yaatra pilgrims walk from as far as Jaffna and Mullaitivu districts, taking as long as two months to reach the sylvan shrine. All along the way, villagers wait for their chance to offer annadanam to the growing bands of swamis and sawmi ammas, who are mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Some are even in their 90s.

Many villagers make vows to join the Paada Yaatra as it passes through their district, so the parties of pilgrims tend to swell from day-to-day. Already some parties had grown to over 300 pilgrims even before leaving Batticaloa District, with weeks still remaining before the flag-hoisting ceremony on July 28. According to Kataragama Devotees Trust spokesman Manik Sandrasagra, traditional Paada Yaatra is neither a protest nor a peace march, but rather an exercise of the spirit.

The point of the exercise is to cultivate bhakthi and to invite grace upon oneself, one's friends and family, and upon the whole planet.

"Paada Yaatra is certainly not about mental or political agitation," he says, adding: "The Lord Kataragama is highly venerated today precisely because He is above all politics and artificial differences that divide peoples and nations. Indeed, He is not just above sectarian politics-He is above sectarian religion itself for that matter."

National vision

Setting aside politics for the sake of islandwide peace, justice and prosperity is exactly what the Paada Yaatra pilgrims have been doing this year.

Some have been helping the committee for a national vision, a joint Government and private sector body, to solicit the opinions and suggestions of villagers all along the route of the Paada Yaatra throughout the remote North and East.

The national vision aims to lay out a roadmap to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka that is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, and plural society, where cultural diversity is recognised as a source of national wealth and strength.

Foot pilgrims on their long march from Mullaitivu to Kataragama have been collecting villagers' own appraisals of their village's problems and ideal solutions. The project aims to stimulate open discussions, collect villagers' insights, and forward results to the Committee for consideration and incorporation into a national vision. Coastal veddhas

Even Tamil-speaking east coastal Veddas are having their views heard in Colombo for the first time ever. For instance, one coastal Veddha matriarch, 75-year old Bairavamuttu Ponnamma, observed that her Veddha hamlet of Palchenai hamlet near Kathiraveli does not receive nearly the same level of Government attention and amenities that neighbouring villages take for granted.

"In Palchenai there is no local employment except seasonal field labour. There is a school but no qualified teacher. Local officials pay visits but nothing ever gets done," she says.

These are grievances that deserve to be rectified. Without justice and prosperity, the 'peace' can only be temporary.

Most villages in the North and East are populated by Tamils. The survey, however, also covered Sinhala enclaves like Seruvila, whose inhabitants express optimism about the future, and only request that they be provided with adequate agricultural support services in order to live self-sufficiently in peace with neighbouring Tamil and Muslim communities.

Some 500 foot pilgrims-mostly village elders crossed Batticaloa District by the second week of July. Their numbers are expected to grow dramatically as the parties approach Pottuvil where the pilgrims assemble to purchase dry rations before beginning the week-long trek through Yala National Park.

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