The sylvan shrine at Ukanthamalai devoted to Lord Murugan
The sylvan shrine, Ukanthamalai Shri Murugan Kovil devoted to Lord Murugan - the presiding deity at Kataragama, is a popular pilgrims resort in the Ampara district.
Of all the places of Hindu worship in the district, this jungle shrine, far removed from human habitation represents a manifestation of divine power and sublimity and stands unique as a much hallowed centre for penance and prayer.
Pilgrims from all parts of the country, despite their varied religions faiths and cultures wend their way to this sacred rock temple with adorations for spiritual salvation. Nearly two thousand pilgrims on Pada Yatra from the North are now at this jungle shrine. Many more thousands are expected to arrive at the shrine in the next few days.
Buddhists, Christians and Hindus seem to believe that a prayer and an offering made at this shrine brings good luck and divine intercession in times of difficulties. Therefore, a pilgrimage to Ukanthamalai Shrine is not confined to any one particular season, or to a festival. It is pooja and worship at the shrine at all days and at all times by the ever flowing stream of devotees.
The shrine is situated approximately twelve miles south of Panama, on the Kumana-Panama jungle path, within the administrative limits of Lahugala Divisional Secretariat. To the North, South and the West of the temple are the seven sacred hills the ocean to the East.
A casual visitor on his first visit may be astonished to see the old and the young, the sick and the weak climbing the sacred hills for worship. Pilgrims arrive at the shrine with essential offerings of coconut, camphor, joss-sticks, plantains, betelleaves, and arecanuts for the pooja and to fulfil a vow.
Several festivals are conducted during the seasons of the year and the Esala festival at Ukanthamalai draws a larger crowd. The Esala festival at Ukanthamalai coincides with the festivals at Kataragama and the ceremonies begin with the hoisting of the Mayoora Flag and, the festival continues for fifteen days. The ceremony called "Theertham", or, Diya Kepima is on the Full Moon day in July.
The trustees have enumerated thirty-two festivals for the year to mark the important occasions connected with Saivite traditions. Pilgrims arriving for these celebrations engage themselves fully in meditation and worship according to tradition.
According to their calendar, the year begins with the "Thai Pongal" festival in January and thereafter it is followed by "Thai Poosam" (Full-Moon day) festival. "Maasi-Magam", - the day the Lord assumed the role of a Guru to enlighten Lord Shiva to teach what "Pranava" is. "Mahasivarathiri", "Panguni-Utharam", are the other important festivals and it is believed that any one bathing on this day in the rock-pond called Vishnu Theertham is freed of all sins. "Vaikassi Visakam" (the day the Lord descended to earth to destroy evil) is celebrated on a grand scale and it is believed that persons bathing in the rock pond are freed from all diseases.
Many devotees visit this shrine for the "Vinayaga Sathurthy" in August, the "Kanda-Sasty" in October, "Tiru Karthiga" in November and, "Tiruwathirai-Tiruvembawai" in December. The number of devotees arriving at Ukanthamalai seems to indicate that a worship at this jungle shrine is part of their religious life.
Kavadi dance is a special feature where persons who have made a vow to perform this dance. They travel on foot to the shrine accompanied by a band of singers of devotional songs carrying the kavadi gaily decorated with bunches of peacock feathers.
Kavadi dancers through mortification of their flesh with sharp silver arrow-headed pins piercing their cheeks across or tongues, in a state of ectasy dance to the tune of the "Nathaswaram" music and the drum. Amidst the cries of Haro-Hara by the accompanying relatives and the recital of sacred hymns by the swamies, the Kavadi dancers go round and round the Shrine.
Pilgrims with gagged mouths and carrying pots of burning camphor on heads go round the shrine and the hills in fulfilment of a vow taken, perhaps on granting of a wish by the Lord. There are the pilgrims who roll on the ground, on the very warm surface of the earth. They call it, the measuring of their body within the precincts of the shrine." Devotees explain that the worshippers inflict physical pain for atonement and the reparation of their sins. Deep injuries caused by mortifications are healed by the application of the holy ash on the wounds.
Nearly forty thousand devotees on pilgrimage participated in the last festival. Apart from the pilgrims to Ukanthamalai shrine, the pilgrims on foot to Kataragama spend a number of days at this shrine by way of penance. The many spreading trees around the shrine, the majestic hills and the golden beach opposite the shrine offer the pilgrims a place to meditate and rest.
For all those who worship Lord Murugan at Ukanthamalai, the Lord is a Living manifestation of the divinity.
Through his benign grace, the worshippers are rescued and emancipated. The Lord is being loved, identified, idolised and revelled in prayers.