Kebilitta: Tree shrine of God Kataragama

Almost inaccessibly hidden deep in the virgin forest of the Yala East National Park is a hallowed spot where Vaddahs worshipped in the past and gathered to curse, swear and seek punishment for wrongdoers

Legend has it that when an offence was committed, both complainant and suspect used to come here with suitable offerings and lay their grievance(s) at the foot of the jungle ‘Deviyo’ and retire to two rocks nearby.

It was the belief that during the night a leopard was sent by the guardian god to dispense justice and dispose of the guilty party.

In ancient times a tamarind tree had stood there and the place was still called Siyambalawa Devalaya by the villagers of Kotiyagala (which interestingly means leopard rock) - Okkampitiya in the west and Siyabalanduwa - Moneragala in the north. They are reputed for visiting the place even now, trekking through the forest, offering the finest grain after the harvest and for ceremonies involving curses and vows.

Spiritual abode

Today, the haunt of bear, leopard and elephant is known as Kebilitta. It nestles near the left bank of Kumbukkan Oya in the Yala Block IV, around 32 kilometres from Kotiyagala.

Kebilitta is said to be the spiritual abode of God Kataragama. As such, it is believed that Kebilitta is a site of great divine power.

Although the Maha Devale of Kataragama along with Kiri Vehera Chaitya attracts thousands in search of favours from God Kataragama, the belief that the venerated deity prefers to spend his time at the more tranquil environs of Kebilitta attracts the diehard devotees to this jungle shrine.

One does not go to Kebilitta for fun, it is a religious pilgrimage where one needs to prepare and be true to one’s faith and belief in God Kataragama. Abstinence is a must.

You have to be a complete vegetarian for at least a week prior to the journey and one needs to control one’s temper, refrain from using harsh words and lead a life of simplicity before travel. Before the spiritual journey we became completely vegetarian for two months.

Our group comprised 15 males, young and middle aged, a few first time visitors including my son and I. Our experienced guide or ‘Kapu Mahattaya’, Chetiya Chamika is a pure vegetarian from Ruwanwella. Looking at him, it is apparent he is a great devotee of God Kataragama. For years he has served God Kataragama with great reverence, and organised well-arranged journeys along with his chief organiser Nadan.

Before we set out on the pilgrimage, we first venerated the Kiri Vehera at Kataragama and decided to take the route from Siyambalanduwa through Kotiyagala, which is said to be more difficult than the other routes. Since we did not have a 4x4 drive vehicle, Chetiya arranged two tractors which is the most popular mode of transport to Kebilitta.

As there are no facilities, camping-equipment, water, food and most importantly lamps need to be taken. Furthermore, all the required elements for the Poojawa too need to be taken. We drove through Kotiyagala passing the burnt and stripped virgin forest canopy, as burnt giant trees looked at us, shedding tears on their branches since there is no one to tell their agony to. In fact, it was a tragic scene of deforestation.

Ratu Aiya from Siyambalanduwa was driving his tractor carrying Chetiya and friends in front and his deputy was driving our tractor behind. Both tractors were full of passengers and baggage.

Experienced and vigilant drivers are a must as you are travelling through the wilderness away from the city. Prior to leaving Kebilitta, Chetiya lit a lamp, incense sticks and left the branch of a tree at the base of a tree where a small shrine had been made for God Kataragama in the form of a bequest, seeking a safe and successful journey.

Having driven through the bumpy and winding track under the green canopy for nearly eight hours, we reached Kumbukkan Oya which was flowing calmly with little water.

Beside the river bed and across the river lay the abode of God Kataragama. When we reached Kumbukkan Oya, tractor loads of devotees had already arrived to offer Pooja on Esala Poya day.

After a dip in the Kumbukkan Oya, we camped one night on the right bank, sleeping under the stars after a dinner cooked on the spot. Kapu Mahattaya, Chamika, Nadan and the rest of the group started organizing the various items that we had to prepare for the Pooja.

The stanzas chanted by devotees in the Bodhi Pooja reverberated across the forest till 12 midnight and then the whole forest remained calm and quiet when the devotees went to sleep. The silence of the forest was broken only by the hooting voice of a bird called Ulama(Devil bird) which pierced the still air. 

Murthan Batha

At 5.30 a.m. the next morning, Chetiya advised us to get ready for the Pooja. Prior to crossing the river to go to the shrine, one needs to take a cleansing bath in the Kumbukkan Oya. We had a bath and dressed in a white shirt and sarong. Then we moved into a waterless river bed and built a makeshift structure with four sticks as corner-stones and a white cloth on top to cover. A stove was built using three stones. Then oil lamps and incense sticks were lit on betel leaves.

We were preparing to make the Murthan Batha (an offering of rice). According to the instructions of Chetiya, seven holes were dug on the sandy river bed which represented seven wells.

Around each well branches with leaves were planted.

It is this water that was used to make the Murthan Batha and also wash the fruits that were required for the Pooja fruit basket.

While the Murthan Batha was on the stove, others in the group prepared the fruit Pooja Watti which comprised red banana, oranges, lime, ripe jak fruit (Waraka), king coconut and various sweetmeats.

Nadan worked hard to ensure that everything was prepared systematically while Chetiya too oversaw the preparation. After every item was placed in the Pooja Watti, all the baskets were covered with a red cloth which is the colour of Kataragama Deviyo. As a tradition, prior to the offering to the God, a Buddha Pooja is offered to the Buddha. We proceeded to the Bodhi Tree on the river bank and offered Pooja after lighting oil lamps and incense sticks and chanting Pirith.

The Bodhi tree and the main shrine do not have any permanent buildings, the trees of the jungle are the ‘walls’ and the sky is the ‘roof’.

Returning from the Bodhi Tree to the river bed where we made the Pooja, we stood in a line and covered our mouths and noses with white cloths to ensure that our breath would not contaminate the divine offerings. We retraced carrying the Pooja in single file to the shrine that is also dedicated to various deities like, Kalu Bandara and Kadawara Kalu Bandara. The shrine itself had no signs of any concrete buildings.

Sacred Tamarind tree

The Tamarind tree at the shrine is so small that it looks like a plant, yet, according to legend the tree had stood at the site for many years. It had apparently remained the same size.

It is said, there was a massive Tamarind tree at the shrine, the original abode of God Kataragama. However, over the years the lighting of oil lamps had taken its toll on the tree and what remains today is a sapling, which had stopped growing after a few years.

We offered Pooja to the sacred Tamarind Tree at the shrine, believed to be the original abode of God Kataragama.

After the first tree was destroyed it is said that God Kataragama had chosen a second Tamarind tree, which stands tall and alone, a few yards away from the main shrine. At the back of the tree, the surface of the bark depicts a sketch of God Kataragama.

We worshipped at the main shrine and proceeded to the sacred Tamarind Tree. With deep reverence we once again offered the sweet fragrance of the incense sticks. We walked around the tree again in deep meditation, our thoughts only between us and the divine.

We brought our hands together in worship, took a couple of steps back, bowed our heads and turned back to return to the campsite. After a meal of rice with soya meat curry, we journeyed back to Siyambalanduwa and then to Ratnapura enriched by the entire experience.

After terrorism was crushed in 2009, more and more devotees throng the Kebilitta shrine. It is regarded as one of the purest sacred sites.

The traditional Kapuralas say the presence of female devotees at the site may affect the purity and divinity of the site. We also glimpsed some female devotees washing linen in the waters of Kumbukkan Oya and drying them on the branches of trees close to the shrine.

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