The white stupa of the Kirivehera, a temple in the Sacred City of Kataragama
Kirivehera, a Stupa at the Sacred City of Kataragama

Sri Lanka, the splendid island in the Indian Ocean, is a country where people belonging to several ethnicities and religions live in harmony. Thus, it is not a secret that there are many iconic religious places all over this country. Some of these religious places are major tourist attractions too. The historical backstory of these places, incomparable architecture, historical ruins, faith, and the cultures around the place attracts tourists in large numbers, as they reveal to them the amazing Sri Lankan heritage. Among these religious tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, Kataragama takes a special place.

The interesting fact about Kataragama is that it is not just special to one religion or community. Buddhists, Hindus, and the Vedda community (Sri Lankan aborigines) constantly visit the holy city to take blessings. Apart from being a cultural center, this wonderful city is also popular for many other reasons. Continue reading to know all about them!

History and Culture Related to Kataragama

As one of the most reputed cities in Sri Lanka, Kataragama has a long and interesting historical story behind it. In fact, the great historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, ‘Mahavamsa’ also has a mention of Kataragama. It introduced this city as Kajjaragama, as it mentions the incident where the dignitaries of Sri Lanka received the holy Bo sapling sent by King Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire in India.

Besides, the city functioned as the capital for the kings of the Ruhuna Kingdom. Kataragama went out of notice during the 13th century. Afterward, it is stated that Kiri Vehera was either built or refurbished during the first century BCE. According to beliefs, King Dutugemunu built the shrine in the 2nd century BC. History reveals that even Lord Buddha has blessed the site by visiting it during the reign of King Mahasen. 

Who is the God of Kataragama?

The main shrine in Kataragama is dedicated to the Kataragama god who is also known as Skanda Kumara and Kartikeya. Devotees believe that the Kataragama god is the guardian deity of the country. Buddhists believe that he is the protector of Buddhism. Hindus believe that he is the Hindu god Murugan. So, this God is important for both these religions.

According to legendary stories, the god Kataragama initially lived in mount Kailash in the Himalayas and later moved to Kataragama. Then, he married princess Vali who belonged to the Vedda community. It is the connection between the Kataragama god and the Vedda community. Some believe that the Kataragama god is the reincarnation of King Mahasen as a deity. He ruled the Kataragama area during Lord Buddha’s third visit. Further, the devotees believe that the Kataragama god is spiritually residing in the jungles of South Eastern Sri Lanka known as Kebiliththa. 

Apart from all these, there are many beliefs and mythical stories surrounding this deity as well. So, the Kataragama god is probably the most popular deity among the Sri Lankans. Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya is dedicated to the Kataragama god. As the legends reveal, King Dutugemunu built the shrine in 160 BC to fulfill a vow. This building is a simple architectural structure, yet rich with values.

According to popular beliefs, this site has the blessings of the Kataragama god to fulfill the vows of beloved devotees. That’s why many Sri Lankans and even South Indians ensure to take the blessings from the Kataragama god before a special occasion.  

Kataragama Perahera Festival

Kataragama Perahera is an annual cultural festival that usually takes place in the months of July or August. It lasts for about two weeks. The perahera is a tribute to the Kataragama god.

As you might know, the Esala festival in Kandy starts with the ‘Kap situweema’ ceremony held soon after Poson poya day. It is a tradition that marks the beginning of the Esala perahera Festival in Kataragama. The perahera or the procession is the main event of the festive season. This perahera starts from the Kataragama Devalaya with traditional dancers, drummers, decorated elephants, and many other elements.

Firewalking ceremonies are another highlighting aspect of this festive season. Here, devotees tread on red-hot ambers to prove their faith and take blessings from the Kataragama god. Many devotees take part in such items to show their gratitude for fulfilling their various vows. This unique cultural affair portrays the richness and the authenticity of Sri Lankan culture.

Places to Visit in Kataragama

There are many noteworthy locations in Kataragama. Some of these are religious sites and there are other tourist attractions as well. Kataragama is suitable for a family tour to explore Sri Lankan culture and religious practices. Here’s a list of must-visits in Kataragama and the relevant information to plan your trip accordingly.

1. Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya

This is the main shrine devoted to the Kataragama god. Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya is actually a temple complex. This religious site is revered by Buddhists, Hindus, Veddas, and Muslims too. Inside the complex, Kiri Vehera and the holy Bo-tree represent Buddhism, shrines dedicated to Hindu gods represent Hinduism and the mosque represents Islam. However, anyone can visit here irrespective of any religion.

Many claim that they feel the spiritual power inside the premises. Normally, people carry fruits, flowers, and other offerings for the pooja. There are many boutique shops in the area to buy such offerings. However, you have to wait in a queue to participate in pooja as it gets crowded most of the time. 

In the past, this had been a religious site situated in a jungle area which was very difficult to access. But now the area is properly developed with easy access. It is compulsory to behave and dress appropriately in this religious site. This is one of the most celebrated landmarks in the Kataragama area.

2. Kiri Vehera

Kiri Vehera is a majestic and ancient stupa situated very close to the Kataragama Devalaya. Also, it is one of the sixteen most sacred places for Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

This is a large stupa with a circumference of 280 feet and a height of 95 feet. The word ‘Kiri Vehera’ in Sinhala means ‘milk stupa’. The stupa is actually milk-white in color and stands as an elegant structure. Buddhists usually worship Kiri Vehera before visiting the Maha Devalaya. They offer flowers, chant Gathas, and meditate on the premises. The close proximity between the Hindu temple and the Kiri Vehera symbolizes the peace and harmony between the Buddhists and Hindus. Kiri Vehera is reputed among Hindus, Catholics, and Muslims too. This is a beautiful example of how religion has unified all Sri Lankans.

History reveals that this stupa was initially famous as ‘Magul Maha Seya’. Also, according to the chronicles, the stupa was built in the place where the Lord Buddha meditated during his third visit to Sri Lanka. Besides, there is a belief that one of the eight saplings of the Bo tree where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment is close to Kiri Vehera. As such, the religious significance of Kiri Vehera is immense. Often, there are many pilgrims in the afternoon and holidays in Kiri vehera. But it doesn’t disturb the peaceful and spiritual vibe in the surrounding area. However, it is better to visit the place in the early morning or evening. It is necessary to wear appropriate white clothing and remove any head coverings and footwear to visit Kiri Vehera.

3. Sella Kataragama Temple

This is another prominent religious site located just 5 kilometers away from the Kataragama main city. Sella Kataragama has many kovils. In fact, there is a Ganapathi kovil, a Siva kovil, a Kataragama kovil, a Valliamma kovil, a Lakshmi kovil, Saman Devalaya, and a temple devoted to king Mahasen in Sella Kataragama.

Many make sure to visit Sella Kataragama before or sometimes after visiting Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya. So basically, Sella Kataragama is like a small cultural village next to the Menik river. Sella Kataragama is considered the first home to God Skanda and his Goddess Vali. Even today, many newlyweds visit Sella Kataragama to take blessings.

There’s a scenic road to Sella Kataragama. Although Sella Kataragama gets crowded usually, it has a peaceful atmosphere for worshipping. Here also, it is necessary to dress respectfully. So if you visit Kataragama, don’t forget to pay a visit to Sella Kataragama too.

4. Sithulpawwa Rock Temple

Sithulpawwa rock temple is an ancient Buddhist monastery situated just 40 minutes away from Kataragama. This temple’s history goes back to the time of the 2nd century BC and it was earlier known as ‘Cittalpabbata’.

The dagoba in the Sithulpawwa temple is believed to be built by King Kawantissa. The term ‘Sithulpawwa’ means ‘the hill of the quiet mind’. As the word suggests, the temple is situated in a quiet and soothing location with picturesque surroundings. This atmosphere is ideal for meditation and history reveals that the temple and the hundreds of caves in its surroundings have provided shelter for more than 12000 Buddhist monks for meditation. This is an important place of worship for Buddhists and a major tourist attraction in Southern Sri Lanka. There’s a relatively easy and small hike to reach the temple. 

The surrounding environment of the temple is also very interesting. You might spot leopards, monkeys, wild pigs, deer, different species of birds, and even a crocodile on the way to the temple. There’s a magnificent viewpoint from Sithulpawwa rock temple. There are many historical buildings, ruins, and several rock inscriptions in this temple complex. This sacred Buddhist temple has a great history, immense religious significance, and breathtaking views. So this place is a highly recommended must-visit in the Kataragama area. Avoid traveling in the afternoon as it is almost impossible to travel here under the scorching sun. It is not allowed to access the temple after 6 p.m. 

5. Tissamaharama Raja Maha Viharaya

Tissamaharama Raja Maha Viharaya is another reputed Buddhist temple that everyone should pay a visit to when in Kataragama. It is one of the four major Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka. The huge and majestic dagoba in Tissamaharama Viharaya was built by King Kavantissa in 200 BC and a sacred relic of Lord Buddha is buried in the dagoba.

The dagoba takes the shape of a bubble and is a huge landmark visible anywhere in Tissamaharama. Lord Buddha also visited the temple during this third visit to Sri Lanka. The Stupa looks huge from the premises as its height is 55.8 meters. Due to these reasons, Tissamaharama Raja Maha Viharaya is well known across the island as one of the largest and important Buddhist religious sites. The temple looks serene amidst the lush greenery and paddy fields. 

The scenery of the magnificent temple, green paddy field, and the nearby lake create an amazing picture. There’s also a statue of the legendary queen Viharamadevi next to the dagoba. The majestic spectacle is the pride of Tissamaharama. It is located just 25 minutes away from Kataragama. The large temple complex has ample space for many pilgrims so it is very peaceful there. Thus, Tissamaharama Viharaya is perfect to have a tranquil spiritual moment.

There’s easy access to the temple as it is right beside the main road and there’s a huge parking lot too.

6. Tissa Wewa

The massive Tissa lake is an artificial reservoir that lies beside the Tissa-Kataragama road. According to history, the lake has been built by either King Mahanaga or King Yatala Tissa of Ruhuna for irrigation purposes.

This is a nice place to relax for a while after visiting Kataragama. The views of the lake are absolutely beautiful and the cool breeze which flies through the lake is so refreshing in the hot weather. There are boat services in Tissa lake to explore around the lake. Also, there are walking paths around the lake to take a much-needed walk or a bicycle ride. If you want to get the best view of the lake amidst the large trees, visit the lake in the evening. The vibrant colors of the sunset over the huge water body are an exquisite sight.

Tissa lake is just 30 minutes away from Kataragama. This is the dry zone and it is always very hot. So if you need to take a dip in refreshing waters, you can go to Tissa lake. Still, be very careful and avoid going to the deep waters. Tissa wewa is popular for boat rides, bird watching, freshwater fishing, and as a relaxing spot too. Also, don’t forget to taste delicious fried freshwater fish from a vendor near the lake as well!

After all, Tissa lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Tissamaharama area. So, if you are a nature lover, you should not miss this lake when in Kataragama.

7. Kebiliththa Devalaya

According to popular beliefs, Kebiliththa devalaya is the spiritual residence of the Kataragama god. Hence, this is a highly religious and sacred place. Also, both Buddhists and Hindus visit this place for homage. Devotees of the Kataragama god believe that the god is meditating in Kebiliththa. That’s why many visit the place to take blessings and especially to fulfill vows. However, Kebiliththa devalaya is not as crowded as the Kataragama Maha Devalaya.

Anyhow, it shouldn’t be just a trip or a fun journey to Kebiliththa. So it’s better to visit the devalaya for religious and spiritual purposes only. Devalaya is in the Yala national park, block 4. The route to the kebiliththa devalaya through the jungle is very difficult.

The devotees have a lot of faith in the miracles of Kebiliththa devalaya. Therefore, you need to follow a few traditions if you visit Kebiliththa. It is a must to be a vegetarian and refrain from using alcohol or smoking at least 7 days prior to the visit, Then, the visitors should not use harsh words in this journey. Thus, the journey to the Kebiliththa devalaya should be conducted with extreme care. The reason for this is to respect the Kataragama god and also devotees believe that visitors have to face bad luck if something goes wrong. So, you can choose to visit Kebiliththa Devalaya if you are especially on a spiritual journey. 

8. Yala National Park

National parks are probably the most sought-after tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. Yala national park is the most popular park in the country and it is just 3 kilometers away from Kataragama. It also goes by the name of ‘Ruhuna National Park’. The park is located in the Southeastern region of Sri Lanka. The park belongs to both Hambantota and Monaragala districts. Yala park has the characteristics of a dry zone tropical thorn forest and there’s a wide variety of wildlife in the park. Many tourists visit the Yala national park to witness its diversity of wildlife and birdlife. There are 32 different species of mammals in Yala including elephants, leopards, water buffalos, wild boars, and golden jackals. 

Yala is a large national park with 5 blocks. A jeep safari is the best way to explore through the thick woods and to see the undomesticated animals. Yala safaris are very famous among tourists. February to June is the peak season for Yala tourism. This is the best time to spot a lot of leopards and elephants. There are full-day and half-day safaris with professional tour guides. You can arrange them according to your requirements.

Yala national park offers a unique experience to nature lovers with its unique flora and fauna. Indeed, Yala is the most famous national park for a reason and you shouldn’t miss the chance to visit Yala if you are in Kataragama.

9. Lunugamvehera National Park

The immediate catchment area of the Lunugamvehera reservoir is the Lunugamvehera national park. It is just 40 minutes away from Kataragama.

This park is between the Yala protected area on its east and Uadawalawe national park to its west. So, the park acts as a link for elephants to travel between the two parks. This is a less popular and untouched beauty established in 1995. Since the park is not crowded with tourists, it is ideal to have a peaceful exploring experience in the wild.

Lunugamvehera national park belongs to both Hambantota and Monaragala districts. The park is in the dry zone, so its characteristics are shaped with an annual drought coinciding with the southwest monsoon.

Lunugamvehera park is also home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. According to the records, there are 21 fish species, 12 amphibians, 33 reptiles, 183 birds, and 43 species of mammals in the park. However, the park is most famous for elephants, sea eagles, and spotted deer.

It is always a wonderful experience to observe wild animals in their own natural habitats. So remember to go on a safari in Lunugamvehera national park when in Kataragama because it is so worth a visit.

Weather and Climate at Kataragama

Kataragama is in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. So, there’s hot weather in the area almost all throughout the year. However, the warmest months are April, May, and July. The average temperature in Kataragama stays between the range of 28°C to 31°C. Kataragama receives the most rainfall during the months of April, October, and November. It receives the most rainfall of 105 mm in November. Kataragama stays dry for 148 days a year. So, all these factors prove that Kataragama has a savanna climate.

During the months of December, October, and August, Kataragama gets very busy. Generally, tourists visit Kataragama throughout the year. Many recommend that the best time to visit Kataragama is during its warmest months which are April, May, and June. However, if you are not into the hot climate, it can feel quite uncomfortable to travel in the scorching heat. Hence, the best time to visit Kataragama is the evening or the nighttime to have a more comfortable traveling experience.

How to Reach Kataragama?

Kataragama is in the Monaragala district of Uva province. As a major tourist destination, it is rather easy to travel to Kataragama and there are many travel options as well.

Kataragama is located 278 kilometers away from Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. The easiest way to travel to Kataragama is to take the bus. You can take a bus to Kataragama directly from the Colombo Bastian Mawatha bus terminal. The bus journey will take about 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Another option is to take the train from Colombo Fort station to Beliatta railway station and take the remaining distance to Kataragama by bus or taxi. This whole journey will take about 6 hours. However, if you do not prefer to use public transportation, you can easily arrange private transports from the airport itself too.

Kataragama is around 210 kilometers away from Kandy. If you are traveling from Kandy, you can take the bus to Colombo from the Kandy Good Shed bus station and then take a bus to Kataragama from Colombo. It will take about 9 hours to reach Kataragama. You can also arrange private transport for a more quick journey.

If you are traveling from Galle, it is easy to take a domestic flight to Weerawila from Koggala and go the remaining distance by taxi. If not, there are buses and taxis to Kataragama from Galle too. The distance between Galle and Kataragama is 148 kilometers.  

Accommodation Facilities at Kataragama

Thousands of tourists visit Kataragama every year. Hence, there are many types of accommodation facilities in the area inside the town and in the surrounding areas as well.

Many local residents offer rooms from their houses for both local and foreign tourists. It is kind of cheaper and also an easy option. Food won’t be a problem as there are many restaurants in the area. But try to read the online reviews beforehand to know more about the hygiene and the facilities of such places.

If you are looking for a more comfortable stay, there are many hotels in the area that you can choose from according to your budget. From average rest inns to luxury hotels, there’s a wide variety of accommodation options to choose from in the Kataragama area.

The Bottom Line

Kataragama is one of the holiest cities in Sri Lanka. However, as you know by now, it is not just a religious city. It is more of a multicultural city which reveals an important dimension in Sri Lankan culture and religions. One of the best methods to understand one’s culture is to go through its religious practices and festivities. So, if you are interested in Sri Lankan culture, then Kataragama is a must-visit because the city has it all. Apart from that, as you have many other attractions around Kataragama, a visit to it is never going to be a waste. So, don’t miss out on the chance of visiting Kataragama while in Sri Lanka. Happy and safe traveling!