Adi Vel procession takes to the streets tomorrow

29 Jul

Hindu devotees will be thronging the thoroughfares of Colombo in colourful processions over the next few days. Chariot processions, coconuts being smashed, people decked in their brightest colours worshipping with camphor and flame, youngsters dancing the Kavadi dance and many other features of the Tamil Hindu community will be displayed on the streets of Colombo, instead of behind their temple walls as is usually the case.

This is one of the most important Hindu festivals hosted in Colombo; the Adi Vel Festival which has a unique history going back to 1874. While many other pilgrims from other parts of the country are on their way to Kataragama even now, Colombo is one of the few places that brings the famed deity and his annual festival to the doorsteps of its own people.

The festival, celebrating the Kataragama deity’s triumph over evil forces and his marriage to the Sri Lankan Veddha girl Valli, has been taking place in an elaborate 14 day festival at Kataragama and is reaching its culmination about now. Pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka, who started out on a pada yatra (pilgrimage on foot) to Kataragama will have reached or are almost at their destination by now. Colombo is the only place from where most of his devotees opt to stay back instead of making the annual pilgrimage. That is because they have their own festival to celebrate him right here.

Called Murugan / Skanda or Kataragama deiyo according to the denomination of his devotees, this particular God has a huge following not only all over Sri Lanka but also in India.  Legend goes that he is the younger warrior son of Shiva and Parvati. One of his most famous battles was with the demon Surapadman and his brothers. The battle raged for several days and Skanda had to use six fortresses in different towns to fully finish the battle. All six of those towns are famous sites of pilgrimage with major temples dedicated to him on each site. The last of these towns in which the battle reportedly finished is Thiruchendur, situated at the southern tip of India.

Just before he was about to be killed Surapadman asked for mercy. It was granted in a roundabout form. He had to turn himself into a peacock and serve the God as his official mode of transportation. That done and this being the tip of India, he decided to fly over to Sri Lanka on his new peacock vehicle for a restful holiday – and landed in Kataragama.

There, he saw the Veddha cheiftain’s daughter tending to a field and proposed marriage. He happened to be married to Deivayanai, the daughter of the King of Heaven, Indra already but that didn’t deter him. He could have of course approached Valli as he was but being a prankster, he first approached her as a hunter and then an old man, annoying her with his repeated proposals.

Since she kept refusing him, he enlisted his elder brother, the elephant headed God Ganesh’s help. Ganesh changed himself into an elephant and came charging at Valli who having no-one else nearby ran to the old man for protection.  He promised to save her if she accepted his proposal and under duress she gave her word. Whereupon he chased the elephant away and turned to face the very young Valli, now extremely upset at her predicament. It changed to joy however, when he revealed himself in his true form. And that is how Valli, a veddha native of Kataragama attained goddess status in Hinduism, being revered even in India. Look for her in his pictures. She is the wife, usually placed on his right, the dark skinned one.

There are different legends by different communities on who the Kataragama Deiyo is and how he came to marry the native Veddha girl. The above is the one predominantly believed by the Hindus of Sri Lanka as well as many parts of South India.

Different Skanda temples celebrate the successful culmination of the war and the union of Skanda and Valli at different times but in Kataragama, it is taking place right now. In this pilgrimage center, the Kataragama Deiyo has a temple of his own while his two wives also have separate temples of their own.

The other noteworthy feature of Kataragama is that here, he is worshipped as a yantra – a small metal plate with a mystic diagram on it, instead of as a statue.

The Kataragama festival currently ongoing is a celebration of the young lovers’ honeymoon period. Every day, for 14 days, the priests of the temple will take the God (in his form as a yantra), in a royal procession to the temple of Sri Valli and leave him there for a couple of hours. On the day before last of the festival, the assumed ending period of the honeymoon, he spends the entire night with her. The last day is the ‘water cutting’ ceremony where the deity is carried to the Menik Ganga to purify himself. The Kapurala (priest) officiating will dip the yantra into the water to signify his bathing and purification.

So widespread is this God’s worship in Sri Lanka, that it is known of as a cult following. He has widespread followers among both Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. Even people of other denominations are known to visit the shrine and as such, Kataragama is considered one of the unifying places of pilgrimage in the country.

For centuries, during this peak festival time, people from all over Sri Lanka – though mostly from the North and East, had been in the habit of walking from their areas to Kataragama. This pada yatra (pilgrimage on foot), is an annual feature for many Tamils.

It isn’t hard to understand why this worship is considered a cult. Tamils in Colombo were devastated when in 1874, a cholera outbreak made the then colonial government prohibit the pada yatra for that year.

Thus was born the Colombo Vel Festival, a minor replica of the Kataragama Festival. Unable to go to their beloved deity in Kataragama, the Colombo devotees made do with the local Murugan temples in their own place. It was so successful that it eventually became an annual feature in Colombo.

At the present time, the deities are brought in a procession from the Sammangodu Sri Kathirvelayutha Swamy Temple in Pettah to the Sri Manickavinayagar temple in Bambalapitiya and separately, from the Kathiresan Kovil in Pettah to the New Kathiresan Kovil in Bambalapitiya.

The Pettah kovils, founded by the Chettiar community in Sri Lanka are over two hundred years old. The Bambalapitiya Kovils are however fairly new. According to Rajendran Chettiar, a trustee of the New Kathiresan Kovil, when the Colombo Vel Festival first started in 1874, the current temple spaces in Bambalapitiya were occupied by ‘maddams’ – places of rest for weary travelers.

“This area was undeveloped shrub land at that time, what was called Wattas. The pilgrims however needed the festivities that they had become used to at Kataragama and so all the rites and rituals done at Kataragama are also done here in the same manner. Part of that was carrying the deity in a procession from one place to another.”

Over time, the Chettiar community (businessmen from Chettinad, India), purchased extensive amounts of lands in Bambalapitiya and built two temples in that area too. For the final water cutting ceremony, the deities are given a dip in the Wellawatte sea to substitute for the Menik Ganga.

Traditionally, devotees in Colombo have become accustomed to two sets of chariots – a wooden one drawn by tractor and a silver one, 110 years old, drawn by bullocks. It happens to be a competing procession by the different managements of the two sets of temples though they are of the same community of Chettiars.

Silver chariot of the Kathiresan Temple

This year though, due to renovation work at the New Kathiresan temple, the silver chariot won’t be out in procession. Devotees will have to be satisfied with the sole procession of the wooden chariot, which will travel the streets of Colombo over the next four days.

Wooden Chariot of the Manickavinayagar Kovil

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2 Responses to “Adi Vel procession takes to the streets tomorrow”

  1. kataclysmichaos July 29, 2012 at 6:39 am #

    Very informative, yo. So much I didn’t know. Thanks 🙂

    • Tulie July 29, 2012 at 10:26 am #

      Welcome 🙂

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