KD Devappriya is a photographer who has covered the Kataragama Esala Perahera for the past 35 years. His interest in photography was fuelled by the work of two other members of his extended family, his father and grandfather. Devappriya’s father, KD Jinadasa, used his own camera to capture pictures of the pageant while his grandfather, Martin Kaluarachchi, who didn’t own a camera, collected pictures taken by tourists. This family had a lab at home where pictures were printed. According to Devappriya, more than 75 per cent of the pictures displayed at the Kataragama Devala Museum are owned by this family, which represents three generations of photo enthusiasts.
“My first photograph of the pageant appeared in Mihira newspaper. I was just 12 years old. It was of a group of kavadi dancers,” is how Devappriya began recalling the years he has put into photography in an interview with Nation.
Devappriya, now aged 47, said that it was essential that photographers capture scenes of the procession in a manner which the heritage of the country and the pageant is preserved. “There was an instance when a photographer captured a kavadi dancer sporting a cigarette in one of his ears. This picture went viral for all the wrong reasons. These types of pictures might portray in a wrong manner that the Kataragama Esala Festival shares similarities with a pageant happening in a country where Bob Marley’s culture is dominant,” he said. Devappriya affirmed that when capturing a segment of the procession where sharp objects are pierced through the skin, photographers must avoid capturing pain and portray the beautiful side of the picture, so that people develop bakti (Devotion).
This year’s Kataragama Esala Procession began on July 5 (Tuesday) with elaborate plans being made to have the Maha (Main) Perehera on July 19 (Tuesday) and the Water Cutting ceremony the following day. According to Devappriya, hordes of travelers from the north and eastern parts of the island are arriving on foot to witness the pageant and obtain the blessings of God Kataragama, also known as God Skanda. As many as 7,000 people are expected to make the journey to Kataragama on foot this season. This centuries-old trek is called Pada Yathra (Pilgrimage on foot).
Historians state that the Kataragama Devala (Shrine) was built by King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC). Devappriya said that the Kataragama Esala Festival is the oldest religious procession in the island. The Kataragama Esala procession celebrates the marriage between God Kataragama and Walliamma.
According to him, it also proceeds on the shortest course designed for a religious procession of this nature in Sri Lanka. The participants parade along a course that takes them around the premises of the shrine and does not exceed two and a half kilometres.
He noted some disturbing events that have taken place at the shrine premises over the years. According to him, scores of beggars and merchants having invaded the holy site have greatly inconvenienced devotees. Respective local bodies which have authority in this area seem to be the least interested in keeping a control of this situation.
Kataragama has now developed into a tourist attraction over the years. There are more Inns and motels close to the shrine rather than houses. Devappriya, however, said that he was satisfied with the conduct of foreign tourists when compared to certain local tourists when they enter the shrine premises.
“The authorities can’t put strict rules on anybody because this place is recognized as one of the few places in the world which attracts devotees from different religions and races. Also you can’t be too strict with devotees and impose laws because Sri Lanka is now known as a nation where citizens run to the Human Rights Authority when they have the slightest grievance. Discipline must be developed from within,” he said.
Devappriya said that some of the lucky devotees have seen God Skanda and take great pleasure in relating these experiences. “There was once an instance when a small child was lost in the crowd. Inquiries and searches proved to be fruitless. Then an old man, who had suddenly appeared, led this grieved family to the lost child, who was found in monk’s robes,” is how Devappriya recall one such incident.
Kataragama is a buzz now and the pilgrim season is now in full swing. A word of caution for those who intend travelling to the holy city; guard your mouth and ask for God Skanda’s blessings for all what you do during your trip to Kataragama.
(Pics courtesy: KD Devappriya)