Kataragama: First Impressions
The first words I hear as the bus pulls into the Kataragama depot. I find the place I’m supposed to be staying at and drop my bags. I meet Mr. Gopal Raman, my grandfather’s friend who helped find me a room while every other place was full. He tells me there’s a perahera going on right now and if I head to the devalaya I’ll be able to catch it. I head straight to it.
The crowd is immense, and yet among all those people I manage to be distracted by the lights around me. There’s lights of every colour hung up in the sky, red and orange glowing orbs hanging from trees like fruit on a vine. I walk through the crowd with my head raised, taking in all the colours. We reach a bridge but the cops won’t let us through, “use the other one” the policeman says. I ask him where it is, he says he doesn’t have the time to tell me. I look around and find a stream of blue lights crossing over the river. I walk towards it.
Crossing that bridge for the first time was a surreal experience. The lights were shades of blue, and they outshone the stars and beat the starriest night I had ever seen. It was tranquil and entrancing, I tried not to bump into anyone as I walked along. At the end of it I found myself inside another crowd, this one even bigger. I saw elephants and circling trails of fire above the heads of the crowd. I walked towards it to get a better view. There were maybe 8 elephants and a bunch of dancers next to each one. Some carried fire, while the others played drums. It was enchanting alright, but a sound from a distance caught my attention.
I walked towards it to find the Sivan kovil. There was no room to enter the kovil, and I might as well have gone deaf if I had. There were four bells in the kovil and a woman holding each one, ringing it constantly. I wondered how come it was just the women ringing the bell and not any of the men. I watched them do this countless times, their eyes fixed in a perpetual gaze towards Shiva. I found myself in a trance, the bells overlapping and becoming one, like the beat of a heart, pounding.
I stayed there for a while before crossing the river for the first time. I folded up my jeans and walked through the water with the others, simply to avoid the crowd as they left. The water was cold, and shallow, with pebbles beneath. I think I saw a fish swimming by too, or maybe it was a leaf. I climbed back up and made my way back to the resthouse. And I had no idea why I was there or what I was going to do.