Posted by: lrrp | June 16, 2007

Kataragama Shrine and Its Staff (= Theva Madulla)

The history of constructing shrines dedicated for gods runs back to the time when the belief of gods entered the minds of people and this history blends with the distant past. Numerous references about such shrines that existed during both pre-Buddhist and Buddhist eras in India are found in Buddhist literature[1].

Although Sri Lankans were in the habit of worshipping gods since time immemorial, a record about the construction of shrines is found for the first time during the reign of King Pandukabhaya. Mahavamsa very clearly states that King Pandukabhaya who reigned in 4th century BC, constructed two shrines for two demons, Chittaraja and Kalavela[2]. The existence of this shrine up to the time of King Mahasen can be assumed because of a mention that King Mahasen constructed a stupa at this location[3].

Bodhivamsa has another archaic citation about shrines[4]. It maintains that King Devanampiyatissa, while engaged in marking boarders came across a Brahmin shrine called Divya Vasa. Reverend Walpola Rahula commenting on this, guesses that the particular building could be the residence of some Brahmin but not a shrine[5].

Out of these accounts, it could be deduced that during this early period shrines were built for the demons, but later with the spread of the worship of gods, the trend veered aiming gods.

At the very outset, it has to be stated that the history of Kataragama shrine dates back to time immemorial because of the folklore related to this shrine is much older than the records written later, thus incapacitating the verification of folklore. Still, the information about a three-storied building constructed in Kataragama by a Singhalese king is in the book of hymns called Kandamala. According to the same source, this colossal building with an entrance consisting of seven plights of steps was constructed for Skanda Kumara[6].

According to folklore, a shrine was constructed for God Kataragama for the first time in Sri Lanka by King Dutugemunu. Although there is no other historical source capable of proving this, it is subject to popular belief. Folk tales highlighting that King Dutugemunu was friendly with a god who had an arboreal abode and the story aforesaid have a close relationship.

Prince Gemunu who was born in Magama in Ruhuna, after taking control of Ruhuna following his father, decided to wage war with Dravidians who held power in Anuradhapura. Therein, expecting the favours of God Kataragama, he made a vow at the Palaruha Bo tree (a sapling from Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura) in Kataragama. The vow was; to construct a shrine for God Kataragama provided he emerged victorious as expected. Undoubtedly, the Palaruha Bodhi mentioned here should be the historical Bo tree standing to date near Kataragama shrine. Since it was regarded that God Kataragama dwelled in this Bo tree, it is reasonable to determine that this sylvan deity was none but God Kataragama.

One day, King Dutugemunu having made religious observances pertaining to quarter-moon days, fell asleep while he was remaining thoughtful at Divurumgala[7] (a part of Menikganga). While asleep, he saw in a dream that he was speaking to somebody who was riding a peacock. During the discussion, this stranger pledged assistance to King Dutugeminu and in turn King Dutugemunu promised to construct a shrine[8]. Having won the war with Dravidians, King Dutugemunu constructed a shrine near the Palaruha Bodhi, fulfilling his promise.

Although it could be guessed that his construction would have been the shrine admired by the authors (poets) of ancient Singhalese sandesa kavyas, the building visible at present cannot claim an antiquity dating back to the time of Dutgemunu. The present building does not seem to be older than 05 centuries. The building referred in Singhalese sandesa kavyas may have perished due to attacks by invading enemies or due to exposure to the elements.

Present building standing at Kataragama may have evolved to the present status possibly in three phases. Inner chamber of the shrine can be regarded as the oldest section. This structure is seven feet each in length, breadth, and height with walls over two feet in thickness.

The platform (watapila) built around the chamber is a later addition. The front section is in the shape of a hall with pillars is a construction added still later.

Land allocated for the main shrine is no more than ¼ of an acre. Within this precincts enclosed by a huge parapet wall about 10 feet in height, the main shrine, site for smashing coconuts in homage to god, kiri viharaya, the temple of Ganadevi ( Ganesha), kitchen for preparing offerings, several small devalayas (shrines), Ashta Pala Ruha Bodhi, and another bo tree called Kadawara Bodhi are located. There are four large gateways from four directions to enter holy area.

The Structure of Kataragama Main Shrine at Present

Main shrine consists of two main sections (gabada)[9]. Devotees can enter only into the outer section. One who enters through the main gate to the compound would espy Kola Pandalama – a structure like a trellis with leafy twigs of branches are hung. One has to pass through this kola pandalama to enter the main shrine. The area of the main shrine entered through kola pandalama is called Pita Gabadawa. Large door frame adorned with ornamental brass fittings generates a feeling of respect in any viewer. Two large door panes fitted into this frame too are decorated with brass plates. The key about the size of a hand axe reminds one of a royal palace of the old. Although the Sandakadapahana (the slab of stone in the shape of a half moon) that embellish the doorstep is a work of recent past, it is a marvelous creation depicting traditions of local art. In addition to the main door, two other small doors also are used to enter the shrine.

Pita gabadawa constructed with pillars and a pillar top which resembles a hall reflects features of ancient Hindu and Dravidian architecture. Folklore has that there were murals drawn on the walls of pita gabadawa depicting the story of God Kataragama and Valli Amma[10] but there are no signs of such artwork visible today. This hall darkened with soot from lamps and filled with the smell of joss-sticks and camphor, is capable of generating a mystical feeling in those who visit.

Next, one comes across a location covered by two walls at the entrance to the inner section. This is called wattarama. This area is utilized for the needs of alaththi pooja conducted by the group of women called Alaththi Ammas[11].

The door to the inner section is decorated with a slab of granite decorated with carvings called Korawakgala. This door is covered with a large curtain with a picture of God Kataragama so as to be seen by anybody who enters the outer section. Near the door step of this door, at a place allocated for the purpose, a vessel containing water mixed with sandal is kept to wash the feet of attendants who enter the inner section. This place is called Sandun Madapaya.

The area beyond sandun mandapaya is Latha Mandapaya. The verandah between sandun mandapaya and latha mandapaya is decorated with a canopy and lighted with two large brass lamps that burn always. The lamps used during the alaththi pooja by alaththi ammas are lit out of these brass lamps. Yet another tradition worth mention is that two valuable elephant tusks are kept in this verandah during the festival season. It is believed that these tusks originally belonged to King Dutugemunu. This sanadun madapaya is used as the holy enclosure (pirith mandapaya) to chant pirith during the festival season.

It is not possible to have any information regarding the inner section because it is regarded as extremely confidential.

Roof of the main shrine is thatched with copper plates.

One definite lineament observable to the inquisitive eye is that various sections have been appended from time to time. However, aforesaid kola pandalama remains unchanged

According to oral tradition, kola pandalama was built by King Dutugemunu. It is said that this was suggested to him again in a dream. Annually this kola pandalama is renewed. There is a traditional ritual followed in this renewal. That is, after five days since the commencement of annual festival rotten twigs are removed and new ones added. The peculiarity here is that only branches of trees with latex are used.

Attending Staff (= Theva Madulla) of Kataragama Shrine

There is a staff with definite work assigned on a traditional basis to attend to all activities related to the main shrine. This staff is in the belief that their work allocations follow a royal decree. There is an ancient document in the possession of the main shrine that carry reasonable information about this working pattern. Total content of the said document written on a sheet of gold dating back to 1658 Buddhist Era (about ACE 1114) is as follows:

Highly Venerated King Dutugemunu who brought the who brought Sri Lanka under a central rule for stability over a long period of time and protection from possible dangers established at the shrine of Kataragama, the seat for the four gods Kihireli, Saman Boksel, Vibheeshana, and Ayyanayaka enabling them to remain within the shrine with compassion for the inhabitants of Sri Lanka, bed for sleeping, and discussion hall (katha bas karana salawa)for residence.

Appointment of 18 caretakers were made with all necessary facilities for providing uninterrupted security over night and day, 12 kapuralas ( god’s attendants making offerings), 24 virgins for alaththi duties, 04 mahouts, one mohotti secretary to collect taxes due for the shrine, and one to pray for the god and settle disputes. A Basanayake Nilame was appointed to take charge of processions for paying homage to god. Duties and meals are as aforesaid. Maha Bethme Nilame was appointed to remain near the tusk and the eye of the right side while proceeding with the procession because the procession repeats eighteen times with the ornaments of god on the back of an elephant.

A second Bethme was also appointed to proceed on the left side (of the elephant). A Bethme carries twelve times honourific status compared to a nilame. To maintain this, he has been offered two-tenths of the main income together with paddy. According to the royal decree by King Dutugemunu, for the development of Ruhunu Kataragama main shrine and Kirivehera, on full moon day of 1658 Buddhist Era, that is the 41st year of reign of King Maharanadhipathi Sri Sangabodhi Sri Parakramabahu, born to sun clan having and descended from Maha Sammatha, adorned himself with 64 ornaments of jewelry and wearing crown in accompaniment of King Sri Kena of Matara Palace together with ministers appointed Prince Bhatiya who descends from King Vijeya, to the post of Maha Bethme to carry out procession with allowance for his wife Devinuwara Ranpatabendi Kiriethana to proceed with the procession taking the lead. For their sustenance, leaving shares aside for the gods and Lord Buddha, cultivable land of extent 18 amunas, evary pandama, Parapath Manikyamaya Desange oya, and Yalagama are awarded in order that the ownership continues so long as desired by them and their generations.

These properties are bounded by the river called Thumbodhi to the East, Akasagala to the West, Kataragama galpaya to the North and the sea coast to the South with the right of receiving one fourth of the volume of bee’s honey and wasp’s honey collected within the said area, and the right of charging money if there had been a delay for more than 15 days, while exempted from paying taxes to the government, and the surname of Abeysinghe Wickramasooriya conferred to perform duties to god in the capacity of Maha Bethme with affirmation to continue so long as the sun and the moon exist. In accordance with the order, this is written on the gold sheet by the minister, Lokeshwara.

Attending Staff (=Thewa Madulla)

Attending staffs appointed for uninterrupted performance of traditional daily chores of Ruhunu Maha Kataragama shrine are 55 in number. Each individual has a specific duty assigned and they sacrifice themselves to adhere to those duties with great care. Namely they are as follows.

Pirith Nilaya

Pavada Laying staff

Devana Nekath Rala(Assistant Astrologer)

Maha Basnayake

Torch Bearers

Alaththi Ammala

Deveni Basnayake

Horane (horn) Blowers

Wata Vee Genu

Maha Bethme

Muthukuda (Pearl Umbrella) Bearers

Me Vadanna

Kuda Bethme

Peramune Rala

Vidane Henaya

Maha Adikaram


Etha Vana Bendeeme Thevakarayin

Kuda Adikaram


Vidane Panikkiya

Maha Lekam

Nekath Rala(Astrologer)


Bandara Lekam

Flag Bearers

Nettuwa (Dancer)


Gampahe Vidana Rala

Sixteen guardians of Mandapaya


Aramudale Kankanama

Anaberakaru (Drummercommunicating messages)

Perahera Balana Rala

Aramudale Mukarayin


Gabadakara Rala

Thavalame Kankanama

Buththala Gampahe Duraya

Diyakapana Rala

Thavalame Muhandiram

Paraveni Karayan

Gotu Mahanna

Gamdahaye VidanaRala

Uliyam Pangukarayan

Davul drummers

Hewa Rala (Watcher)

Guardians of Handun Mandapaya

Thametta drummers

Kath Nilayan (Pingo Carriers)

Conch Blowers

Nila Pangu arayin

Viyan (Canpoy) Makers

Thavalame Badukarayain

In the possession of the Secretary of the Main Shrine, there is an ancient ola leaf document that spells out their duties. Due to withholding of permission by those in charge of the shrine, the writer had no opportunity to lay hands on this document[12].


Appointment to duties of Kataragama shrine is termed by the particular word ‘gevadeema’ (=initiation). Other than those who have had appointment according to ancient traditions, nobody else is allowed to enter the inner chambers of the main shrine and the shrine of Valli Amma. On these grounds, gevadeema is treated as an important and serious issue. There is a separate panel of officials to attend to gevadeema. They are:

I. Basnayake

II. Bethmes

III. Adikaram

IV. Lekam (Secretary)

V. Kapuralas

Ritual of appointing new attending staffs commences amidst the chanting of pirith by Maha Sanga. Balance of the process continues with the supervision of four officials who have undergone gevadeema already.

This activity which reminds the coronation of a king in the olden days takes place in complete observance of the auspicious times calculated by the astrologer of the shrine. To begin with, the novice purifies by bathing in Menik river after smearing boiled lime on the head and dousing the body with young coconut water. Idea behind this ritual is to dispel any kili (foul environment). Following this, chief kapurala dressed himself in white cloth (piruvata), pierces the ear lobes of the novice and puts on golden ear rings. A golden filament is used to pierce the ear lobes. Thereafter, the novice has to worship god in a process called nava vendum – bowing in nine ways.

This paying of obeisance which takes place at the gate of the shrine, in the hall area, and at the curtain covering the inner chamber of the shrine is carried out in a certain order; i.e. three times with the right foot forward, three times with both feet together, and three times with the body in half-bent position completes nava vendum.

Next, after novice takes oaths at
mini bendi mandapa promising that he would not let the secrets of the shrine to outsiders. This whole process is called gevadeema.

Pirith Nilaya

The designation entrusted with the responsibility of conducting Buddhist religious observances according to the demands of Kataragama main shrine is titled as pirith nilaya. There are several service villages (nindagam) assigned for the expenses of pirith nilaya. In devala seettuwa[13] explains the duties of pirith nilaya as follows:

“…to deliver sermons and attend to the activities of the temple a pious and disciplined monk who leads a group, a vidane, three groups (of monks) with another pious monk and on the day of Esala (July – August) procession for Lord Buddha or on the other days…”

The aforesaid devala seettuwa sheds light to the fact that chanting pirith was among the practices that continued uninterrupted inside the shrine. Also, it is clear that three bhikkus participated for this but at present this custom is fulfilled only during the festival season. Present custom is to invite bhikkus living in Kirivehera informing the date and time by the Secretary of the shrine after offering a sheaf of betel leaves. It could be guessed that this ancient custom may have weakened due to difficulties in finding bhikkus with the forest invading the area and people reducing in numbers.

The paddy field that has been offered for pirith nilaya is called ‘Pirith Nile Kumbura’. This paddy field which is three amunus[14] in extent is situated in the village of Aluthwala in Buttala area.

Although, in the olden days, there had been a house allocated for chanting pirith, at present it is done in a special pavilion constructed for the purpose. Only the water obtained from the ford called Jeevamali on Menikganga is used for pirith. Long held tradition is to pour pirith water into a golden receptacle (kendiya ) and keep in the shrine. Also, apart from the income from pirith nile kumbura, the offering of presents after the festival season to the bhikkus who participate in pirith chanting is an ancient custom.

Basnayake Nilame

Basnayake Nilame is the chief of staff of Ruhunu Kataragama shrine. He is entrusted with all administrative and managerial functions of the shrine. These include key functions such as appointments related to the shrine, wages, payments, administrations of service villages of the shrine, and collection of income.

Up to recent times, the post of Basnayake Nilame remained as a traditional legacy of a particular generation. Folklore suggests that the first Basnayake Nilame was appointed by King Dutugemunu. This had been a nephew of the king.

Although informed sources related to the shrine mention that the generation of Basnayake Nilames belongs to the family called Walawwatta of Matara, there are no historic sources or further details about this claim. According to the archives available today, oldest appointment belongs to 160? AD. Kirigalpotta Bandaranayake Mudiyanse Ralahamy[15] had his appointment in this year.

Due to the Ordinance of Temples and Shrines of 1932, the appointment of Basnayake Nilame which was a traditional legacy up to then, took a turn[16]. Under this, the control of Kataragama shrine was handed over to the Department of Public Trustee.

At present, when the vacancy exists for the post of Basnayake Nilame, a suitable individual is selected through vote. District Secretary (Government Agent), 09 Divisional Secretaries (Assistant Government Agents), Trustee of Kirivehera, and trustee of Kotabowa are the voters. Period of office for a Basnayake Nilame is 10 years. Due to this reason, election is held once in 10 years.

From the ancient times, the individual who assumes office as Basnayake Nilame in a shrine (devalaya) was regarded as a respectful person. This being an appointment of royal patronage made by the king himself should be the reason for this veneration. In the past, the duration of office was continued so long as the king desired.

Main duty of the incumbent was to attend to gevadeema. A description of this ritual was given in the beginning of this chapter.


The foundation of Vedic culture was the devotion to god[17] whereas the base of Vedic worship is performing yaga. The purpose of yaga is to please various gods and deities. Winning wars, achieving good health, seeking childbirths, and gaining prosperity are some of the objectives of pleasing gods.

Intermediaries or ‘brokers’ who maintained links between gods and humans were Brahmin priests. Their task was to conduct yagas. Brahmins who carry out yagas using the materials provided by people, distributed these materials among devotees at the end of yaga.

Vedic literature sheds light as to how Brahmins established the privilege to conduct yagas for gods during the Vedic era, and continued to institutionalize caste system[18]. They brought their caste to prominence saying that they were born out of the mouth of the Brahman[19], and kept god aloof of ordinary people.

Similarly, those who deal with devils and demons are called yak-edura, yakedura, kattandiya, yakdessa etc. roughly meaning ‘the tamer of devils’, those who make offerings on behalf of devotees are called kapurala or devala pulliya etc. Origin of kapuralas in Sri Lanka can be seen as an expansion that followed the pattern of Brahmin priests.

Practically in all devalayas (shrines) in Sri Lanka there is a person dedicated to go before the god and carry out rituals. This is kapurala. He possesses a specific position above the ordinary people. According to the acceptance by ordinary people, gods possess enormous powers. Making presence before gods, chanting hymns, and making appeals about grievances have to be done with great honour. Due to ignorance of proper approach, it is not impossible to be subjected to wrath of gods by trying to seek divine favour. Therefore, these activities have to be performed by those who are knowledgeable about the procedures. According to Vedic acceptance, those who chant hymns erroneously are punishable by gods. Through this belief, there emerged kapuralas in Sri Lanka too who are similar to Brahmins in India, functioning as middlemen between gods and humans. In this background, ordinary denizen developed an unfounded fear even to go near a statue of a god[20]. In truth, the reason for having this fear instilled in the minds of ordinary folk was the fraudulent tactics of Brahmins who made a living out of the belief of gods. This situation offered a greatly profitable environment for kapuralas of our country as well.

At present, rituals or offerings in devalayas are conducted by kapuralas[21]. It has to be specifically mentioned that those who hold this position at present are Singhalese Buddhists[22]. In devalayas allocated only for Hindus, priesthood is held by a group called poosaris dressed in brown coloured attire. Although the functions of kapuralas and poosaris are similar, they are different by the dress. Kapuralas wear only white clothes.

Kapuralas attached to Kataragama shrine get ready for attending to their duties after washing their heads, bathing, and cladding in white clothes. Generally, this makes the difference between an ordinary individual and a kapurala[23]. Special task assigned to them is to carry out poojas three times a day during the morning, noon, and evening. Apart from the time during which they are involved with devalaya rituals, they spend the rest of the day attending to their various livelihoods like the ordinary folk.

There are two groups of kapuralas serving in Kataragama shrine.

1. Theve’ Kapurala
2. Mase’ Kapurala

Out of them, theve’ kapuralas have only a few activities under their charge. They are responsible for tying elephants, cutting poles in the jungle, and carrying statues in procession during the festival season.

Mase kapuralas have a wider responsibil
ity. It is apparent that they are so named meaningfully. Mase’ kapuralas have their turns for duties every other month. During the month they are on duty, they have to prevent themselves from getting polluted due to kili and are prohibited leaving the premises. Cooking (muruthen bema)[24], making offerings at the scheduled time, and sacrificing the poojas brought in by the devotees to the god are the main responsibilities of mase kapuralas[25].

Mase kapralas who are in charge of the daily ritual of offering milk rice (kiri bath), and meals (muluthen), accept pooja vattis (trays of offerings) from devotees and sacrifice them to the god having taken those to the inner chamber. Thereafter these trays are returned to the devotees with half of the contents. When inquiring into ritualistic practices at Kataragama shrine, a special feature observable is that no incantations are recited while making offerings. However, it has to be born in mind that in all devalayas (shrines) scattered throughout the country and in those within the premises of Kataragama shrine, incantations are recited during the offerings and poojas.

As well as all the legends about Kataragama shrine, the history of the office of kapurala also runs back to the times of King Dutugemunu. According to oral tradition, it is perceptible that the post of kuparala of Kataragama shrine was delegated to Nandimithra and his descendents. For this the king had granted Katagamuwa as a service village. A kapurala of Kataragama shrine in a discussion about this issue insisted that this belief could be baseless for Nandimithra being a low-caste person. However, it is difficult to discard this story completely because there are ruins of a dagoba called Nandimithra Cahithya visible even today in Katagamuwa area.

Nandimitra was one of the ten giants of King Dutugemunu (dasa maha yodhayas). He was born in the village of Kadadora, south of Anuradhapura, and had unparalleled physical strength. Regarding the physical strength of Nandimithra, Rajavaliya records thus…” Having tethered Nandimithra to the grinding stone by the waist, his mother went to the well. When child was crawling on his fours to come out of the house with the grinding stone pulling behind him, the stone entangles with the door-step. When he pulled to free himself, the rope snapped. Having observed this immense strength, parents took Nandimithra to Magama in Ruhuna, and handed over to Prince Dutugemunu[26].

This narrative is important to us because it reveals that Nandimithra was resident in Ruhuna from a very young age. It is not possible to infer whether Nandimithra held office as kapurala because of his low-cast. According to the tradition flowing down the ages, low-cast people are not allowed to enter the shrine beyond kola pandalama at the entrance.

Alaththi Ammas

Alaththi is a Tamil word meaning ‘invoking blessings’[27]. In royal palaces during the feudal period, it was customary to bless the king. A close look at alaththi pooja sheds light to the fact that this practice of blessing remained until the end of Kandy Period. Later this was continued in favour of gods as well. According to ancient conviction, he king also was a god. He was the god of the Earth. For this reason, the word ‘prithiveeshwara’ was used to praise the king.

Due to respectful fear of the subjects towards the king, following the death of the king, he was treated as a god in some instances. Due to efforts taken to continue the rituals performed in respect of the king (while he was alive) after his death as well, the customs confined to royal palaces apparently found their way into devalayas too. A strong factor to arrive at this decision was that alaththi pooja was not found among the devalaya rituals in the old.

Alaththi pooja is a rhythmic offering of lamps in front of the god. It has to be noted that this practice, also specially termed as alaththi bema, seems to be a certain process of invoking blessings[28]. In the bygone days, this task had generally been entrusted to high cast people. The importance and specific nature of this activity is imaginable by the fact that there had been service villages allocated for those who were engaged in it. There is evidence that this practice took place in the royal household when the king was waking up from his sleep. In the palaces, both men and women were involved in this invoking of blessings.

Alaththi bema is observable among the customary practices of Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) as well. This is done in devalayas (Hindu shrines attached to the Temple) and only women are involved. Although alaththi ammas of Dalada Maligawa are dressed in a white cloth (cambay ) and jacket, those in Kataragama shrine are dressed only in an ordinary white cloth and a brassier. The process of conducting this observance that continue from ancient times in royal palaces, Dalada Maligawa, and devalayas seems similar; i.e. raising and lowering of lighted lamps carried on the palms, chanting the sentence “kappanthirekata thirahath kalayakata ira handa pavathinathek ayu bo vewa”(May there be longevity till the end of kalpa which is long time and so long as the sun and moon exist).

According to the contents of Ridi Vihara Asna[29], there had been alaththi ammas in the palace numbering in thousands. There was a special location for this purpose called alaththi mandapaya. There is evidence to prove that this custom existed in Buddhist temples as well during a certain period[30]. Ridi Viharaya is one such place and only women attended to this.

Dr. Ananda Kumaraswamy who analyzed the practice of alaththi ammas and noted the practice as a reflection of devadasi system in India.

Devadsi system that was very popular in India during a certain period exist today only for the name-sake[31] because, with the dilapidation of the feudal era, its appendages too disintegrated.

Anthahpura (Harem or inner city) is a part of the royal palace. A large number of beautiful damsels were retained there for the physical and mental appeasement of the king. People who saw a similarity between the king and the god, established an inner city in the shrine for the god also. This is the origin of devadasi system. When Muslims attacked Somanatha Shrine in 1026 AD, it is mentioned that there were 500 devadasis.

Singing, chanting incantations, and dancing in praise of god were the tasks assigned to devadasis. Save for the early period of the practice, as the time passed on, it is apparent that they faced difficulties to sustain themselves due to non-establishment of a proper source to take care of their necessities. The result was that they were subject to sexual harassment of so motivated men. As this condition grew into a social evil, during the British rule, administrators imposed severe laws. Because of the over-powering blind faith and ignorance of people, these laws failed to curtail devadsi system and the social evils associated with it.

Ignorant Indian parents sacrificed some of their children to god after retaining the number adequate to the family. In some instances, having believed that certain natural sicknesses that gripped the girls were due to the wrath of gods, such children too were handed over to the shrines. Not only that they accepted the handing over of children to the service of god as the best approach to salvage themselves from the curses and wrath of gods, but also they believed that the practice amounted to fulfilling their duty to the god. However, having felt that the system did not agree with the changing times, it was neglected. In a way, the similarity between the alaththi ammas and devadasis seen by Dr. Kumaraswamy is justifiable because both practices originate from a common root. But, the past of alaththi ammas is clean compared to devadasis. The praise given in Kahakurulu Sandesaya[32] about alaththi ammas is a living example.

Alaththi ammas of Kataragama shrine have to attend to alaththi bema and drawing water for nanumura m
angalyaya (Ceremony of bathing the god)[33].

It is appropriate to place in record a folk tale about alaththi ammas dedicated to the service of Kataragama shrine. According to information gathered from the alaththi ammas in attendance at present, alaththi ammas signify the bodyguards of Valli Amma, one of the two spouses of God Kataragama.

In keeping with ancient tradition, kapurala provides lamps, wicks, and lights them for alaththi ammas who are present in proper dress. The lamps are lit from another lamp placed at the inner door of the shrine. Inside the shrine, alththi ammas who recite the alaththi sentence while facing each other with lamps in their hands, proceed to outer skirt of the building, repeat the pooja and thereafter place the right thumb on the forehead. This ritual is performed daily after the offering of meals.

Twelve alaththi ammas participate for the ritual of bathing statues (nanumura mangalyaya). During the festival season, there wont be any departure of the procession from the shrine or return or carrying of statues without the presence of alaththi ammas. These prove the responsibility of alaththi ammas in divine duties.

Traditional payment to alaththi ammas include an annual payment of Rs. 2.82 and a monthly supply of 16 kurunis of paddy.

There is a host of rituals associated with Kataragama shrine that are continued uninterrupted through ages. There are reflections of both Buddhism and Hinduism in these and symbolic of an admixture of Buddhist and Hindu practices. Next chapter would give details of rituals.

[1] Sutta Nipathattkatha pp. 301

[2] Mahavamsa Chapter 10 – Stanza 84

[3] Mahavamsa Chapter 39 – Stanza 44

[4] Bodhivamsa pp. 95

[5] History of Buddhism in Ceylon pp. 75

[6] The Pictorial Surevy of the People and Art pp. 66

[7] A section of Menik River which flows by the side of the shrine

[8] JRSH Vol. XXIV – No. 77

[9] Davy Dutu Lankawa pp. 35

[10] One of two wives of God Kataragama

[11] A description of these women is given later

[12] This information about the shrine was available through the kind contribution by Mr. Somapala

Ratnayake – a kapurala of the shrine

[13] Devala Seetuwa: An ancient document giving details of the rituals of the Kataragama shrine. At present,

this is in the possession of the Secretary of the shrine.

[14] Amuna : Refers to a measure of grain and is a traditional measure of sowing area of paddy based on the

volume sown

[15] By the authority of the Secretary of the shrine

[16] Vihara Neethi Viththi – pp. 92

[17] Buddha Darmaya saha samajaya pp. 181

[18] Asirimath Indiyawa (Wonder that was India) pp. 426

[19] Brahmansya mukha maasid, Baahu rajanyah kruthah:

[20] Devey Dutu Lankawa – pp 77

[21] Eda Hela diva – pp. 02

[22] Discussion wit Somipala Ratnayake (A kapurala at Kataragama Shrine)

[23] Lakdiva Mahayana Vadaya – pp. 192

[24] A description about this is forthcoming.

[25] Somipala Rathnayake (Kapurala)

[26] Rajavaliya – pp. 173

[27] Sinhala Vishva Koshaya – pp 663

[28] Sinhala Samaja Sanvidhanaya – pp. 36

[29] Ridi Vihara Asna – documents in the Museum

[30] Sinhala Samaja Sanvidanaya – pp. 77

[31] Femina Vol. IV – 1981-04-19

[32] Kahakurulu Sandesaya – Verse 164

[33] Discussion with Ms. Babynona who had attended to alaththi pooja for 12 years.



  1. hi, My name is Paramjeet Bernad from New Delhi, India. I would like to request you to find one of the name Famous as Gayathri or gayatri. She was famous Bharatnatyam Dancer probably 16,17, 18 or 19 Century from Place Known to be Kadirgramagiri, kadirgama or may be some similar name. She was Brahmin and cursed by her guru as she has insulted her.
    I would like to share that i am keen to know about it and would love to visit if this palce or the family member of this women.
    Recently i been to Nadi Astrologer and who told me that i was born in somewhere in shrilanka a place called kadirgamagiri may much before 100 years as Gayathri who was very famous.
    Please write me back if you know some history about the place and history.
    why i believe on nadi astrology because each details of my present life was correct and that is why wanted to search for my past life if you could help.

    Paramjeet Bernad

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