God Skanda’s jungle shrines | Sunday Observer

God Skanda’s jungle shrines

18 July, 2021

The Kataragama festival in July, which pays homage to the Hindu God Skanda, brings together Sri Lankans of all faiths. I took time to explore a few shrines of God Skanda in the jungles of the southernmost corner of the island.

Kataragama is a unique place of worship. Chanting “Haro Hara, Haro Hara” Hindu devotees in their thousands throng the precincts of the Kataragama Devale – the abode dedicated to God Skanda (also known as Murugan among Hindu devotees and Kataragama Deviyo among Buddhists), who is often associated with Kataragama in the deep South of Sri Lanka.

In fact, many consider God Skanda as Sri Lanka’s guardian deity, having a strong sway over the southern part of the country.

God Skanda has been described in eulogies as a God with six faces and 12 arms. His assistance is sought for prosperity and protection by Buddhists and Hindus and vows are made daily across the country seeking the deity’s help.

Okanda jungle shrine

In search of the jungle abodes of God Skanda in the thick jungle of Yala East, I first visited the Okanda jungle shrine venerated by hundreds of Hindu devotees in a deep corner of Kumana, the edge of the Yala East National Park. The Okanda jungle shrine is believed to be the location where God Skanda landed in Sri Lanka in his golden boat from Mount Kailash in the Himalayas.The boat which turned to rock, still stands on the Okanda beach, known as ‘Ran Oru Gala’. On the rocky summit are two small shrines believed to be dedicated to Valli Amma, the consort of God Skanda.

I photographed the wall painting of God Skanda and his consort Valli Amma on the wall of a shrine on the summit to a beautiful natural rock pool in Okanda. One legend narrates that God Skanda had gone to Kataragama through the Yala forest, met the young and beautiful Valli Amma, brought her back to Okanda and married her, and spent some times here.

The Okanda shrine has been dedicated to Valli Amma. Hindus regard it as one of the most sacred shrines in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The final leg of the week-long ‘Pada Yatra’ walk commences at the Okanda Devalaya.

Legend, history and lore has it that, God Skanda made his way to Kataragama through the thick jungle of Yala. Kuda Kebilitta, a sacred, little shrine lies on the bank of the Kumbukkan Oya in the middle of the thick forest in the Yala East National Park.

Legend has it that God Skanda rested here for a while, on his way to the sacred tree shrine of Maha Kebilitta which lies middle of the forest.

The small shrine is dedicated to God Skanda and many Hindu devotees come here to offer poojas to a small sanctum in the shrine.

It is also one of the resting places of the ‘Pada Yatra’ pilgrims who engage in a week-long trek to Kataragama through the Yala forest. Kuda Kebilitta is where Hindu devotees seek divine blessings of God Skanda to fulfil vows. I stumbled upon a small jungle shrine, bordering the Yala National Park in Kotiyagala, Where I photographed the huge painting of God Skanda which is erected on a tree at an entry point on the way to the Kebilitta jungle shrine in the Yala National Park where devotees make vows to protect them from wild animals.

Thirty-three kilometres away from Kotiyagala along the green trail, you may stumble on Kumbukkan Oya on Yala’s North-East edge.

Spiritual abode

Today, wild animals such as bears, leopards and elephants roam the area known as Kebilitta, which is said to be the spiritual abode of God Skanda. It is believed that Kebilitta is a site of great divine power, where the God Skanda spent time meditating.

The belief that the deity prefers to spend time at the more tranquil environs of Kebilitta attracts diehard devotees to this jungle shrine in search of blessings.

The poojas are prepared on the river bed. Devotees stand in line and cover their mouths and noses with white cloth to ensure that their breath would not contaminate the offerings. The devotees then carry their poojas in single file to the sylvan shrine dedicated to God Skanda. The shrine has no concert buildings.

The devotees who seek divine blessings, offer pooja to the sacred tamarind tree at the shrine, believed to be the original abode of God Skanda. The Kebilitta jungle shrine is regarded as one of the purest sacred sites in the country.

Skanda soon transformed into a young man, married Valli Amma and the couple lived on the Kataragama peak, known today as Vedahiti Kanda (the mountain where the couple stayed), one of the seven hills of Kataragama. However, there was a hitch. Skanda already had a wife, Thevani Amma.

Ruling deity of Kataragama

When she heard of his second marriage, she was jealous and angry. She came with a retinue to Kataragama and persuaded the couple to come down from their hill and live with her. They complied and the three lived happily ever after.

There is a shrine dedicated to God Skanda on the summit of Vedahiti Kanda.God Skanda is the ruling deity of Kataragama.

The Kataragama sanctuary itself comprises a series of devales and the famous Buddhist dagaba, the Kiri Vehera.

What is remarkable about this is that the shrine has no image of God Skanda – only a massive painting of him on his peacock mount and his two wives, Valli Amma and Thevani Amma, on the curtain in the Maha Devale (main shrine) which together with six other curtains shroud the sacred relic, or Yantra, of the God.

Every night during the two weeks of the Esala Perahera, the relic is brought out of the Maha Devale by the chief priest. God Skanda’s favours are sought by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims alike.

The celebration itself is alive with colour, light and sound. During each day of the festival at the compound of the main shrine devotees bearing semi-circular ‘Kavadi’ on their shoulders dance in worship of their God, while others perform acts of penance.

The night air becomes filled with dust and fumes.

This jungle shrine will continue to wield a powerful influence as long as people feel the need for, and continue to believe in, the power of divine intervention in human affairs.