Puja Time

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After our lovely sojourn in the cool, damp highlands, it was time to move on. The day we left Haputale was promising to be clear, but we had no regrets, we thought the mistiness of the high tea plantations added to the atmosphere of the place and we were lucky to have a clear period when we finally got up to Lipton’s Seat.

Haputale to Kataragama, our next stop, involved a total of four buses. Kataragama is near Tissamaharama (aka Tissa) on the south east coast. The bus system here is impressively frequent, though as I have described, heavily used and rather slow due to continual stops to pick up and drop off passengers seemingly wherever they like. Each time we hopped off a bus at a station, we simply said where we were headed and were immediately directed to a waiting bus for the next leg of the journey. Since we were at the starting point, we always had seats, and though the bus quickly filled to bursting on the journey it was really quite bearable. Five and a half hours for less than $2 each is probably the cheapest public transit we have ever been on.

We arrived in Kataragama by early afternoon. Our purpose in going there was to see the evening puja (temple ceremony) at one of the 3 most revered sights in Sri Lanka — the others being the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, and Adam’s Peak, reachable only by 4 hours of climbing steps so regretfully declined by your aging correspondents. This temple is unique in that it is equally revered by Buddhists (the Singhalese) and Hindus (the Tamils) and there is a mosque on the grounds. At the evening puja, supplicants come with trays of fruit and money to make offerings to the “god” inside, apparently represented by a sort of trident, but not revealed to the public. While waiting for 7 pm, the appointed hour, pilgrims circumambulate a large bodhi tree in the courtyard, to which they pray and offer sacred water. Other people offer coconuts at two different shrines in the front of the main temple. They use a ripe coconut, the kind with hair on them, ignite the coconut hair and then stand before their choice of the two shrines, one represented by a trident, the other by a spear. After concentrating on their request and offering a prayer in the direction of the temple, they raise the coconut over head and smash it down on the concrete surrounding the symbol of the god. It is extremely inauspicious if the coconut fails to shatter, so there is a great deal of concentration and effort involved. We saw two people whose coconuts didn’t co-operate, one climbed over the iron railings to retrieve it and tried again, the other slunk off as if humiliated. After a bit of this, the area around the shrines was soaked in coconut juice.

At 7 pm a bell tolled and everyone lined up with their trays of fruit and money, covered by red and gilt cloths at the ornate golden doors of the temple which were flung open as drumming commenced. As they filed up to a sort of altar, a priest took their trays of offerings and passed them behind a curtain from which they emerged hacked into pieces (the fruit) or absent (the money.) This went on for quite a while, and the heat got rather oppressive (we were standing at the side watching, as were other Sri Lankans who were not making offerings) so we left that temple and proceeded to a huge white dagoba (stupa) about 500 metres away which was completely surrounded by flickering oil lamps, very tiny little pottery cups filled with coconut oil which you could also purchase on the way into the temple. It was quite a sight with literally hundreds and hundreds of the flickering lights surrounding the huge white dagoba.

When we returned to the main temple (remember we are barefoot all this time, on rough sandy ground, you can imagine how tough our feet are getting) it was time to share the remains of the offering plates with the assembled throngs. We were offered so much fruit, but we kept to our rule of nothing we couldn’t peel, so sampled a number of unusual kinds of bananas and a pomegranate among others. People are so kind to foreigners here, but also very polite to each other.

During July/August, at the time of the full moon, when the special Esala Perahera takes place at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, pilgrims come from all around Sri Lanka, even from Jaffna in the far north, on foot to make special devotions to the Kataragama Shrine. The Hindu ones go in for self flagellation and other indignities to the flesh, and all of them bathe at the steps of the chocolate coloured river surrounding the shrine. For them there are many pilgrim rest houses, and pure veg food stalls, but not so much for tourists. However, we spent a pleasant night in a very Sri Lankan hotel where no one spoke a word of English, and headed on to Tissa by tuk tuk, a relatively luxurious way to travel, the following day.

Tissa is a very typically dusty Sri Lankan town, with two “wewas” or man made lakes beside it. However there are guesthouses for tourists as it is the nearest place to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka’s most popular, and also the amazing bird sanctuaries of Bundala and Uda Walawe (also famous for its herds of wild elephants.) We have spent a most pleasant 3 days going on safari early each morning (5 am) to each of the three parks. I will write a separate post about the wonderful bird and animal spotting we have been doing, as this one is already getting a bit long.

Just a little aside to give you some more idea of ordinary Sri Lankan’s lives. I have mentioned how relatively organized and clean it seems to us here, compared to some of our destinations. People are very courteous to each other, and to us, always greeting anyone they pass with “Good morning” etc, and often with us, stopping to find out where our home is. Big smiles always. They remind me of the Lao in that way, and though they are not as soft as the Lao, they tend to think it is not worth arguing over small things. In that way I think some European tourists take advantage of them.

Sri Lankans are struggling with rapidly rising costs, for example, the price of petrol jumped 30 rupees overnight on Monday, to bring it to 170 rupees a litre, about $1.55, quite a bit for a tuk tuk driver who gets about 60 rupees for the usual fare around town. Cars and drivers are also quite costly here, though most tourists who are on short holidays choose this mode of transport. A car for a day is $60 or $70 dollars and more if the driver has to stay overnight. Cars are also expensive, and even Sri Lankans who have them take the bus for shorter trips.

People bathe and wash clothes in the irrigation canals which lead from the wewas, just as they do in many other parts of Asia. It seems slightly odd here where it even little country huts have electrical wires going to them, and also water sources. However it must be a preference because whole families go down for baths in the evening. Last night we were walking by the wewa, bird spotting and trying to play “Find the Crocodile” which is surprisingly hard to do. It struck us as odd that a very prosperous looking couple, dressed for work, drove up to the canal running from the wewa into the rice paddies beside, lifted off their little daughter who rode between them on the bike, and they all proceeded down the bank to help the little girl have a nice bath and a hair wash and to wash up themselves. They had brought the shampoo, towels and other necessaries. Obviously no one washes directly IN the wewa, what with the crocodile hazard. They came over to talk to us and we had a nice conversation as the husband spoke very good English. It is a nice communal activity, and perhaps the water is quite clean, but for us who use our UV water purifier even for brushing our teeth, it kind of goes against the grain to see a whole family brushing their teeth in the water. Of course we have seen that done in much more polluted water, but this country seems to have reasonable health standards. Though sadly, they have the usual public/private health system where only the poor use the public which everyone distrusts, and whoever can mortgages their future to have private health care. Sad.

An American woman in Haputale gave me an interesting article she had clipped from The New Yorker about the conflict, by a writer who had interviewed the leaders of both sides dating back to the mid ’80’s. The account of the end game, which the government touts as the most successful crushing of a counter insurgency ever, is particularly horrifying, though there is no glossing over of the evils perpetrated by the Tamils any more than the Singhalese. However, the vision of the inhabitants of the Jaffna peninsula driven to the edge of the sea, and starving in bunkers they had dug themselves, as all who emerged were shot dead, including the residents of an orphanage led by their pastors, is really horrible. I provide the date in case anyone wishes to read it: Death of the Tiger by Jon Lee Anderson, January 17, 2011.

The next edition will be completely concerned with wildlife and birds which have been beyond our expectations. Hope all are well, Love Carol and Doug, still thriving in SL.
Sent from my iPad

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