Kataragama is a place of great religious and cultural interest, where three major religions meet – Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. People from different religions come here to worship in their own way, either in the ancient shrines themselves or in their own places of worship, without a trace of rivalry or animosity. It is truly a unique place in the world today. Apart from the festival time, Kataragama is busiest with pilgrims at weekends and on poya days (full moon holidays).
Katirkamam as Hindu’s call this place, is revered as a sacred Hindu pilgrimage site, famous for its fire walkers and water cutting ceremonies during the predominantly Hindu Festival in July and August. To participate in the festival, pilgrims walk from as far as the Jaffna peninsula in the north of Sri Lanka in the two-month “pada yatra” or foot pilgrimage. Although Katirkamam is normally a quiet and serene place, during the festival it is a place where devotees practice extreme acts of mortification of the flesh and infliction of physical pain. Silver headed pins pierce their lips or cheeks to gag their mouths, while others hang themselves from beams by hooks piercing their backs.
Such practices, meant for atonement for sins and for the purpose of acquiring merit for spiritual salvation, are common sights during this time. The most important Hindu shrine is the Maha Devala supposedly containing the lance of the six faced 12 armed Hindu war god Skanda who is identical here with the Kataragama Deviyo. Tradition has is that King Dutugemunu in the second century BC built the present shrine to fulfill his vow to the god Kataragama commemorating his successful expedition against King Elara (205—161 BC).
Buddhists believe Kataragama is one of the 16 principal places of Buddhist pilgrimage in Sri Lanka. Buddha is said to have visited Kataragama and meditated there to sanctify the place.
The sanctity attached to the place by local Muslims revolves around a mysterious being called al-Khidr or ‘The Green One’. Muslim commentators are not agreed on exactly who he was. Some say he is a prophet while others say he is a “wali” meaning one who is close to God, in other words, a saint. His presence is believed to pervade the sanctuary with which he is associated, namely, the Khalir Makam in the Muslim quarter of Kataragama not far from the Menik Ganga (the river). Indeed, there are those who believe that it was this Khidr who gave his name to Kataragama.