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Kataragama is the most mystical of temple towns in Sri Lanka, and for over 2,000 years it has been a hugely significant centre of worship for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians alike. What fascinates at Kataragama is not just the architecture, this holy town is one of those wonderful destinations where legends swirl in magical clouds of incense, and the hypnotic rhythm of pilgrim life intermingles with the colourful, elaborate religious ceremonies and daily rituals. The series of temples and dagobas are linked by manicured paths where holy animals wander freely.

Maha Devale (also known as the Katirkamam Temple) is Kataragama’s most important shrine. This Hindu temple is dedicated to the six-faced, 12-armed Hindu war god, Murugan (also known as Skanda). Followers make offerings at daily puja, and outside the shrine are two large boulders, against which pilgrims smash burning coconuts while muttering their prayers. There are some devotees called bhaktars, who pierce their cheeks and tongues, to represent the divine javelin associated with Lord Murugan, and in extreme cases, pull large chariots carrying representations of Murugan with hooks pierced through the skin of their backs. This practice is known as kavadi and can be seen in the images here. The meandering and sacred River of Gems, or Manika River, runs through the heart of Kataragama, and is seen as a place of ablution. As legend has it the river is thought to have high medicinal properties, and one can be absolved of all impurities, and healed of all ailments, just by bathing in the river. Next to the river is a Hindu temple dedicated to the beloved elephant-faced God Ganesh, and this is the first structure you encounter as you enter the holy complex.

The second site you see as you pass through the holy compound is the Khizr Takya Mosque. This beautiful mosque features intricate coloured tile work and wooden lintels, and the tombs of two holy men who originated from Central Asia and India. According to ancient Islamic creed, Muslims come here to worship on the belief that Moses taught here. Buddhist pilgrims make for the huge, gleaming white dagoba of the Kiri Vehera Temple, an impressive 29 metre structure, located in the northern part of the sacred compound. It's thought to have been built during the reign of King Mahasena (AD 276–303) who also constructed the Jetavanarama Dagoba in Anuradhapura.

Every year the Kataragama Festival draws tens of thousands of devotees and pilgrims, who walk the pilgrimage, called Pada Yatra, from Jaffna to the Hindu Temple of Kataragama. This traditional procession of village devotees starts in May and takes two months to complete – it is a sight to see! Apart from festival time, Kataragama is busiest at weekends and on poya (full moon) days.

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The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.
Rudyard Kipling

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