Kathirkamam, the abode of Skanda

அருவமும் உருவும் ஆகி அநாதியாய்ப் பலவாய் ஒன்றாய்ப் பிரமமாய் நின்ற சோதிப் பிழம்பதோர் மேனியாகக் கருணைகூர் முகங்கள் ஆறும் கரங்கள் பன்னிரெண்டும் கொண்டே ஒருதிரு முருகன் வந்தாங்கு உதித்தனன் உலகம் உய்ய.
-கந்தபுராணம்

“He who is with form and without form, who has no beginning or end, who manifests as one and as many, who is the reflection of Brahman, the eternal reality, who originated as powerful flame of fire, whose six sacred faces full of grace and compassion, whose twelve arms ever extending blessings, who manifested as the brilliant rays of the rising sun, He is Muruga, the Lord I worship.”

Kachiappa Sivachariyar’s immortal works, ‘Kandha Puranam’, opens up with the above hymn.   If the devotees worshiping Kathirkamam Muruga happen to read these lines, they might think that Sage Sivachariyar would have written these verses with Kathirkama Muruga in mind, as every line of it is a true depiction of Lord of Kathirkama. According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman, the eternal reality, is without form. He appears as one and as many.  He appears as Muruga.   As the name ‘Su Brahmanya’ indicates, Muruga is the reflection of Brahman and is normally worshipped with form. Arunagirinathar’s Kandhar Anubhuti says: “He is with form and without form. He is and He is not. (“Uruvai, Aruvai, ulathai ilathai”). Though Muruga is described variously as Lord of knowledge (Jnana Pandita), Lord of compassion (Karunakara) and as a Guru (Swaminatha), Muruga is indescribable and indefinable because he has no form, no attributes (Nirguna) and no beginning or end.  He appears in Kathirkamam not as an icon or form (idol) but as a presence experienced deep within one’s heart.  According to Kandha Purana, Muruga first appeared in the form a fire from the third eye of his father, Siva.  Before the flame of fire that was consigned at Saravana River, the rays radiated from the fire became a power and selected this ideal location in Srilanka as its abode.  While the word ‘Kathir’ is referred as the brilliant rays,  ‘Kama’ means the desire that arises from the mind.  Kathirkamam would mean the rays that destroy desires. Kandha has come to be known as Guardian Deity of Sri Lanka. There are 10 important temples for Muruga at Sri Lanka. They are Kathirkama Murugan, Madambai Murugan, Thiruchendur Murugan, Thanthamalai Murugan, Nallur Kandaswamy, Kadirvelayudha Swamy, Puthiya Kadiresan temple, Kandy Murugan temple.  However, Kathirkama Muruga is unique for various reasons. 

Normally, as one approaches the Kathirkama temple, he finds a tall tower depicting the colourful images from mythology, but Kathirkama appears different.  Here one finds an arch building that leads to a humble structure inside.  Until recently the temple was situated in the midst of a forest. The main temple or Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya, as it is known in local parlance, is dedicated to Kathirkama Kanthan, the Lord of infinite beauty, power and compassion.   Within the same building complex, one finds small temples for Ganesa, Lord Siva, Vishnu and also for Valli and Deivanai.  A little away from the temple is situated the ancient Buddhist Stupa, which is one of the sixteen holy places in Srilanka visited by Lord Buddha.  There is also a Muslim shrine near the temple for Valli.   This shows that Kathirkamam is the confluence (sangamam) of different faiths. 

Though there are many shrines, the devotees first visit the Kathirkama Murga and offer worship.  There is a mystery surrounding Kathirkamam temple.  Devotees from far off places eagerly come here to have a glimpse of Muruga, but when they stand before the sanctum sanctorum, they see only a screen; the screen with the image of Skanda,  flanked by Valli and Deivanai.   The screen prompts the devotee to turn his attention inward so that he finds his own Self as the reflection of Muruga.      The Kapurala priests who hail from the local community called Veddas take the offering of the devotees, go inside, offer worship on behalf of the devotees and come back with the Prasad. The worship is done to the deity, which is in the form of a casket (Yantra), a round metal plate with the Omkara Mantra inscribed on it.  The mystery is revealed when the devotee detaches himself from the flurry of worldly activities and experiences the presence of Muruga within even in the absence of an image or deity.  The temple gives the message of Advaita that truth is one, though it may be perceived differently. He then returns with a great sense of fulfilment. Nallur Yogaswamy said:  “Why do you search for the Lover who has taken his abode at your heart?” 

There are other theories on how Kandha came to accept Kathirkama as his abode.    Lord Muruga appeared on earth in order to put an end to the atrocities of demon, Soorapadman and it was during his search to locate him, the Lord happened to pass through Srilanka.  The Lord was so attracted by the splendour and glory of the region that he decided to stay here on the banks of Manikka Ganga.     Another theory says Lord Muruga came to Srilanka in the course of his circumambulation of the world to win the contest set by Lord Siva for the sake of a rare fruit.  According to the popular belief, Valli, the tribal girl, was living near the Valli Malai, mainly a tribal region, whose occupation was guarding the millet crops.  Arunagirinathar says, “I worship the Lord who resides at Kathirkamam, who gladly accepted the Puja offered by the hunter damsel living in the forest” (Vanamurai vedan aruliya pujai…..Akaramum Aki—rendered at Pazhamudir Solai).

Valli, who was guarding the millet crop, heard about Muruga and ever since, she has been aspiring to reach Him and marry Him.  Lord Muruga had also heard from sage Narada the benign qualities of Valli.  When he came to Srilanka, he went to her and proposed to marry her.  Though Valli initially rejected, when she came to know his real identity as Muruga, the Lord she was aspiring for, she was immensely pleased and agreed.  In contrast to his marriage with Deivanai which became a spectacular event, the marriage with Valli turned out to be most simple and serene one.  Strange it may appear that Muruga, the Supreme Lord, who even acted as the Guru (Swaminatha) to his father, Lord Siva, was going after a poor, simple, tribal girl, soliciting her favour and seeking her hand in marriage. It is a glaring indication of who qualifies for Muruga’s grace.  It is only one whose heart is full of devotion, who has no other thoughts except that of Muruga, who has no other desire and who leads a simple quiet and austere life qualifies for Muruga’s grace.  The pure and perfect path adopted by Valli is regarded by Pundits as Valli Sanmargam.  Valli symbolized the qualities of detachment, dispassion, humility and love.  She transcended her own individuality without entertaining the notion of a separate ‘I’.   In his Kandhar Alamgaram beginning with the words, ‘Kinnam Kurithu’ Arunagirinathar explains this further.  “Oh Muruga, you have advised me that whoever worships me without a sense of “I” (ego), You become one with him.  Since Valli has lived the life that you advised for all, you went all out in search of her and after playing many divine sports, married her”.  “Valli Kalyanam” is re-enacted on auspicious days in order to highlight importance of Valli Sanmargam, the path of selflessness and purity followed by Valli.  Weather the meet and marriage actually took place at Kathirkamam or down South India may continue to remain a question but what is relevant  and important is the message it gives that when the individuality or the ‘I’ notion ceases, the Jivatma is merged in Paramatma.   

Kathirkama temple follows certain practices associated with the Srilankan tradition which are not followed in Muruga temples in South India.  Kathrkamam has a long history which dates back to several centuries. There are different theories about the origin of the temple. According to the records available, it was the Sinhalese King Dutugamunu Tuttakamini, belonging to 161 to 137 BC, who renovated the temple which existed even long before his period.  He did this as a mark of gratitude to Muruga for the blessing he received in restoring his kingdom back from the invaders.  Over the years, Kathirkamam has come to be known as the most sacred temple of worship. Another unique feature of the temple is its link with Kailash in western Tibet.  If a vertical line is drawn in the map from Kailash in the north down South, it meets at the exact point of Kathirkama.  This link has brought another name to Kathirkama as Dakshina Kailasa.  

In most of the temples of Kathirkama, we find Vel (spear) worship as the predominant form of worship.  Rather than Muruga, it is the Vel, the symbol of Muruga, which is venerated and worshipped. Vel worship constitutes one of the unique features of temples in Sri Lanka, especially in Eastern and northern regions where Tamils live in large number. The root word ‘Vel’ comes from ‘Velluthal’ which means victory and Vel symbolizes victory over evil forces.  The Vel held by Muruga is also known as Kathir Vel as it radiates the brilliant rays of knowledge (Jnana).  Arunagirinathar’s Vel Vakuppu describes the power of Muruga’s Vel thus:  “I worship the Vel which broke the strong chain by which Soorapadman bound Indira, the Vel that rescued sage Nakkeerar from the evil spirit, Karkimukhi and the Vel which helped the saints to ward off the ill-effects arising out of Karma.  (Surarkku Muni ..Vel Vakuppu 5).

The Kathirkama festival which falls in the month of July-August is famous for its rituals, pageantry, procession and overwhelming participation of devotees.  During this time, the Yantra representing the deity is taken out, carried by an elephant and goes through the area in procession.  Multitude of devotees, their body smeared with sacred ash; participate in the festival with great devotion.    Visitors coming here during this time will enjoy a grand feast; a feast for the soul, eyes and ears. There are two festivals; one the Kandy festival which transforms the city into a colourful pageantry of art and music and the other Kathirkamam festival, which is a visual treat with caparisoned elephants, percussion music and processions.  Festivals for all faiths take place simultaneously creating a congenial atmosphere of peace and serenity.  Yet another unique feature of Kathirkamam is that it remains as an outstanding monument of religious harmony.  

The Pada Yatra is an essential part of Muruga worship.  It is a tradition that is followed from time immemorial. According to Agama Sastra, a temple visit should invariably be preceded by observing certain austerities and disciplines and Pada Yatra fulfils this requirement.  In fact, by undertaking the Pada Yatra, the pilgrim prepares himself both mentally and physically to reach the abode of God.  When the body is exhausted and the mind becomes free from other thoughts, the devotee is detached from the world and qualifies himself to get the vision of God and get His grace.   During Thaipusam, we find steady stream of devotees walking long distance, foregoing food and sleeping in the open.   Overwhelmed in devotion, they march forward by singing songs or by chanting the holy mantra: “Hara Haro Hara Hara”.  Through songs, they express their devotion to Lord Muruga thus:  “These legs are meant to take steps towards your abode.  This voice is meant to sing your glory. These eyes are meant to marvel at your beauty. These ears are meant to hear the sacred mantras of Pazhani Andava.”

The Pada Yatra tradition is inalienably linked with Srilanka culture.   The tradition of walking towards Kathirkama temple dates back to several centuries.   Having discarded homely comforts, the devotees walk long distance; barefoot, dressed in simple garb with no other thoughts except Muruga.  They march ahead, foregoing basic necessities, braving the adverse weather and relying on whatever food offered by others on the way.  Devotees from Jaffna start their marathon Pada Yatra 57 days in advance of Adi festival and they are joined by other pilgrims on the way.   Their aim is not food or shelter, not any material gain  but only to reach the Lotus Feet of Kathirkama Kandha.  The moment they reach Kathirkamam, they feel rejuvenated and proceed towards the temple. Among the many saints and sages who undertook Pada Yatra, special mention should be made about Mrs. Maheswari of Trincomalee.  Baby Amma, as she is known, first walked with her family as a teenager in the year 1950 and she has been doing the Yatra for nearly forty times.  Mr Patrick Harrigan, a US scholar who has done many research articles on Kathirkama Muruga, a disciple of Swami Gauribala, has started the Pada Yatra practice in 1972 and he is continuing the Sadhana with great dedication even now.   Over the years, many changes have occurred in the sub-continent but the tradition of Pada Yatra continues with increasing participation. 

Among the many saints and sages who undertook Pada Yatra, special mention should be made of Muthukumar Vel Swami who walked over fifty times until the late 20th century and Mrs. P. Maheswari of Trincomalee who first walked with her family as a teenager in the 50s and has done the Pada Yatra for over 40 times.  

Kathirkamam remained one of the foremost centres of learning. Among the many saints who came here and did penance and meditation, special mention should be made about Kalyangiri.   Kalyangiri, an enlightened sage hailing from North India, came here and having recited the Sadakshara Mantra for years found spiritual fulfilment. Sri Kalyanagiri was succeeded by Swamy Balagiri who functioned as the head of the temple administration (Devasthanam). He was succeeded by Swamy Jayasingha Giri. It is believed that many saints are still continuing their penance here in their astral bodies and there are devotees who have experienced the invisible presence of these saints here.

Sri Arunagirinathar, the 15th century saint-poet, who received advice direct from Muruga,  visited Kathirkamam and composed songs on the glory of the Lord.  Though Arunagirinathar composed many songs some from Kathirkamam Murugan temple, some from Karimalai and Trikonamalai, only 14 songs could be retrieved.   In his song, ‘Udukka Thukil Vendum”, Arunaginathar says that this is the land where Ramayana events relating to Yudha Kandam took place.  By addressing Lord Muruga as ‘Malon Marugan’ (son-in-law of Vishnu), he relates Muruga with Lord Rama.  In another song, he says: “Oh Muruga, you are  the privileged one to be the nephew of Maha Vishnu who is embraced by Mahalakshmi, you reign supreme both in the earthly world and the celestial world, you are the one who manifested as Jnanasmbhandar, the highly venerated saint,   You are the one who resides in the heart of devotees, You are the one who moves on your beautiful peacock, you are the one who has his abode at Kathirkamam where waters flow like gems and pearls, Oh Muruga I worship you with a heart full of devotion.

In another song the poet says: “Oh Lord, who has his abode at Kathirkamam, accord me your grace by which I would cherish in my heart forever the grace of your Lotus Feet that gives devotion that has no equal and that gives peace and serenity.  Oh Lord, grace me with the determination to mediate on your Lotus Feet by which my thoughts are dissolved in Self.  Oh Lord, whose shoulders are like the golden peak of Mount Meru, whose language is synonymous with that Goddess Saraswati, who has cured the hunch-back of King Pandyan, I worship you. 

எதிரி லாத பத்தி …… தனைமேவி
     இனிய தாள்நி னைப்பை …… யிருபோதும்

இதய வாரி திக்கு …… ளுறவாகி
     எனது ளேசி றக்க …… அருள்வாயே

கதிர காம வெற்பி …… லுறைவோனே
     கனக மேரு வொத்த …… புயவீரா

மதுர வாணி யுற்ற …… கழலோனே
     வழுதி கூனி மிர்த்த …… பெருமாளே.