Monday, July 16, 2007

Pada Yathra (literally Foot Walking)

Today I am clean with no dirt under my fingernails and no sand in my underwear. This was not true for the rest of the week, but that is only a minor detail.

Our pilgrimage, or Pada Yathra, was great. This particular Pada Yathra is to celebrate the marriage of the Hindu god Skanda-Murukan (son of Shiva, brother of Ganesh) to his Sri Lankan wife (he had two, an Indian and a Sri Lankan). Well, actually the official Web site ( says that the Pada Yathra is older than any of the current religions practiced on the island, but people we walked with told me the Hindu purpose. This is the oldest Pada Yathra in Sri Lanka and I believe the longest too. We walked about 125 km from Okanda to Kataragama all through Yala National Park. Sewalanka doesn’t participate for the Hindu god points (my terminology), but as a demonstration of peace. See this Pada Yathra starts in the north and the real pilgrims walk for more than sixty days through the northern and eastern parts of the country. This is currently where all of the fighting is happening. So Sewalanka, which employs both Tamils and Sinhalese takes staff from all over the country and we walk together. We had a Buddhist monk and a Hindu swami with us also. We also had a group of 25 Tamil orphan boys who led us and chanted (they were really good singers) the entire way.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. First the bus ride to the East. We left at 5 a.m., which is really a bad time of day for me. I was told by our H.R. director that I wouldn’t need my passport for the pilgrimage, but I was told this when we thought they’d need it to get my resident visa. Anyway, I didn’t pack it thinking it is better to not carry things I don’t need. Well, we only had to go through about three police check points on the way to the pilgrimage and another two while on the pilgrimage. Luckily the “my passport is with immigration” worked and nobody really batted an eye. The check points are really just to check I.D. numbers with their records of known Tigers. The lesson here is that you can avoid a lot of heartache if you carry your passport, but it won’t end your trip if you forget it.

On the bus there was just Jodi (Australian working for Sewalanka) Ynys (Jodi’s friend on the same Australian volunteer program, but works for another organization) and about 15 local guys who work for Sewalanka. No woman from the Colombo office attended, which I hope to change next year. We were entertained the entire way as the guys sang the entire 14 hour trip. It was pretty hilarious.

Wildlife sighted near our destination included a herd of elephants and wild peacocks (but no peahens, very curious).

We arrived in Okanda after everyone else. The “foreigners” had to stay on the same tarp of the Chairman of Sewalanka (people literally just call him Chairman). So we were segregated at night, but when we walked we could be wherever we wanted. We had a lovely meal of rice and curry (a recurring theme throughout the walk) and then went to bed on fake grass mats under the stars.

We awoke at 5:00 a.m. (another recurring theme) and got ready to leave. First, we had to stop at the temple to begin our journey right. Our Swami led us in some sort of blessing for a safe trip and we were off.

Apparently there was some problem at the gate into Yala, but we cleared it up with our monk saying it would be between the guard and Buddha if he didn’t let us pass (it pays to travel with the right religious leaders).

The first day was the longest bit we had to walk. We got started around 6:00 a.m. and found our campground at 12:30. We had to cross the river twice, once where it was nice and deep and suitable for swimming. We had to cross again further down river as that spot next to the deep section was too “used” by other pilgrims (the real pilgrims were ahead of us at this point) and we needed a cleaner spot. Unfortunately this second spot didn’t have very much water in the river, which made for an easier crossing, but very difficult to clean yourself after a long day walking through jungle. I also have to say that I truly miss the mandi situation we had in Indonesia. I know I complained then that we were using the restroom over the river, but at least we had small walls around us. Try finding a quiet spot in the jungle when you are camping with 300 other people (of course, this was actually easy, later when we met up with the other pilgrims I had to find a quiet spot with 3,000 people around and many very interested in what the white people were doing).

Before we got to camp we did take a nice long break at the lake to watch the painted storks – this is their nesting area and there were hundreds.Stork Nesting Area

So once you arrive at camp, you have nothing to do, but sit around and read, talk to other people or watch for wildlife.
As we are foreign and don’t know how to do anything correctly, food and tea were served to us on a regular basis and when we tried to help we were really just in the way. A very lazy life, but very nice all the same.

The second day was more of the same, only this time I developed blisters between my third and forth toes. By the end of the week I had lost most of the skin between these toes. I’m not sure why this happened as I’ve worn these shoes before (they were what I used in Indonesia), I’ve walked this far before and this was all flat. All the foreigners developed blisters and we think it might have something to do with the getting our feet wet and then walking with wet feet inside shoes as all the Sri Lankans were wearing flip flops and did not develop blisters. All I know is I’ll be taping those toes together next year as it became extremely painful to walk by the end.

The beauty of walking the Pada Yathra when you are new to Sewalanka is that you get to meet a lot of the staff you’ll be working with that work out in the field. I finally received some information on some of the projects on which I’ll be working (paper making in villages surrounding Knuckles National Park, bio-cataloging in the south, etc.). So that was nice. I also learned my first Sinhalese word, Arrohara, which means something like “praise to God.” People yelled it the entire way to Kataragama. The tougher the walk, the louder the chanting.

The night of day three we camped near the river again, but this time we were really in the heart of rouge elephant country. Whenever a lone bull elephant (they call them ‘tuskers’ here) starts to terrorize a village they apparently send them to Yala. So there are all these delinquent tuskers in Yala, and we were camping near one of their hangouts. We went to a little jungle temple for another Hindu ceremony (interesting fact: you get to eat the offerings made to the gods after the ceremony is over!), and on our way back in the dark, you could just make out the outline of a giant elephant about 100 feet from where we were sleeping. We built giant bonfires near our camp and hoped that would be enough to keep him away. It worked, because I’m here to write about it.

On day four we got up really, really early to get an early start as we had now caught up with the other pilgrims and there was a military check-point we all had to get through, which included a luggage check. This check-point was more for drug smuggling then war issues. Apparently many officials think the Pada Yathra is just an excuse to smuggle marijuana from the North to the South. Anyway, the situation once again proved that traveling with a swami and monk is a good thing (and that Sewalanka has a lot of pull in this country) because we got through and only a handful of us had our bag checked – that is those of us in the front of the pack and I was in the front because I had no I.D. and we wanted to make sure this didn’t delay others. They never asked for my I.D, but they were interested in the photos on my camera.

We ended day four outside of the park, just two hours from our destination. I wasn’t sure why we stopped when we were so close, but I found out the next day.

Now we were with thousands of people. Our only natural water source was infested with crocodiles (a few local Tamil boys walked us over to show us all the crocs – they wanted to show us the dead body of an older woman who passed away on the trek, but we declined this offer) so Sewalanka brought in their bowser (water truck). It was the cleanest I’d felt the entire trip, but I still wasn’t really clean (I had to “shower” with my clothes on). That night we were terrorized by another tusker. The park service was dealing with him via fireworks and guns (shooting into the air), but it lasted most of the night. We never actually saw this one, but we could hear him. This made using the restroom even more challenging as he was supposedly in the woods behind where we were camping, which was the only place to go for a little privacy. This particular tusker actually trampled someone the year before, which is why the park service was so concerned.

There was one other very exciting moment. An old man came out of the woods near our tarp and left a bag and then rode away (he was on bicycle). Thomas (foreigner working on tsunami relief) looked inside and found a great deal of marijuana and alerted the group. So about 25 Sri Lankan Sewalanka staff took after the old man (some via truck, others on foot), caught him and brought him back to the camp. They asked why he would leave this near us and he said he was worried about getting it through the check point. The Sewalanka staff were concerned that he was trying to frame us. We are all one big group and we’ve been known to pick up a bag if it looks deserted to get it to the rightful owner. He just happened to leave this bag of contraband right next to a sizable group of foreigners and it would be easy to alert the authorities and they would believe it was ours as foreigners have this reputation in Sri Lanka. The guys worked out a deal with the old man that they would just take him and the bag to the wildlife authorities and not the police, but he was to stay away from us (Sewalanka staff still feel he was framing us – the bag he was using was one from another group that seems to have issues with Sewalanka). I don’t know what the wildlife officials did with him, but we were in the clear.

The next day, our last day, I realized why we didn’t try to finish in four days. We spent three and a half hours getting our group through security. This was actually not that long as we cut in front of the other pilgrims (a theme of the week) – I don’t know how long they stayed, but it had to be many hours longer. This last day was also the most uncomfortable as we were now out of the park and walking on a road with traffic.

Once in town we went to the big temple (which is part Hindu, part Buddhist, with a mosque nearby) and tried to break a coconut to make our wishes come true. My coconut did not break, if anyone was wondering (too weak from the Pada Yathra I guess).

My coconut (which did not break for my wish)

The temple monkeys here are gray langurs.

Langurs on the Roof

The temple is very Vegas with colorful lights all over the place. There is a giant, white plaster stupa there for the Buddhists and then a bunch of small temples for various Hindu gods. We went into each temple to check it out – all had swamis inside to bless you for your pilgrimage.

That night we had a Buddhist ceremony (I received a special, blessed yellow string that turned my whole wrist yellow) behind the stupa to even things out and then we attended the Perahera. The Perahera is a big parade with dancers and elephants of various sizes (one very cute baby led the way). Here is where things get confusing. The whole trip I was told that this was a Hindu pilgrimage, but the ruling god in Kataragama is both Hindu and Buddhist and the Perahera is a Buddhist tradition. According to the official Pada Yathra Web site, “In a colourful and joyous yet dignified torchlit procession, one trained tusker elephant carries on his back a relic-casket symbolising Lord Buddha's presence while another tusker follows carrying King Mahasena's presence as contained within His six-cornered yantra device.” Now that sounds clearly Buddhist, but this all took place in a Hindu temple and the flowers were prepared by Hindus, so clearly I have no idea. I think maybe it has a place in both, which just further shows how ridiculous the fighting here is as their religions share so many traditions.

So we sat down around 9:30 p.m. in a surprisingly open space near where the parade was to take place. A police officer came over to tell us we couldn’t sit there and Laden told him in Tamil that we had just completed the pilgrimage and couldn’t we please stay here. Surprise, the cop let us stay, but we had to ask anyone else who followed our lead to leave. So we had front row seats!

We wanted to sit on this random stairwell that was near where we were (it went up to nothing), but they wouldn’t give in to this request. Moments later we found out why—the stairs were used to reach the top of the tusker as part of the whole relic-casket show.

The parade moved at a snail’s pace and we were seated at the water station for parade marchers, so a lot of my photos have random kids dressed in all white, Red Cross uniforms, providing water to the marchers. There were guys dressed in cocky, monster costumes (they loved hamming it up for our cameras), girls in peacock costumes shaking the butts the entire time, kids playing with fire sticks and fire rings, drummers and flag bearers.

Playing With Fire

Then the largest temple tusker shows up and they walked him over to the staircase to put millions of flowers and other unidentifiable objects on his back. And then, just as suddenly as it started, it was all over. Seriously, it was fairly anti-climatic. We went back to the temple to see if anything else was happening (we heard there were people in trances hanging about), but nothing was, so we left.

And that is the story of my first Pada Yathra. I plan to go again next year. On the drive back we saw numerous elephants hanging out near the road (of course, my camera batteries were dead). The guys wanted to take a swim near the dam (just outside the famous elephant orphanage). We really wanted to get home to do laundry (I spent six hours last night disinfecting my clothes) and so luckily another Sewalanka vehicle headed to Colombo stopped and we joined them rather than take the bus. Trust me, we saved hours doing this as the guys on the bus like to make the bus stop in almost every town to get tea or buy snacks. I mean, this isn’t a big country; it shouldn’t take 14 hours to drive across it!

For more information on this year’s Pada Yathra see this article:


Jen and Dima said...

Jessica, I'll have to catch up with my reading about your adventures. Did you hear about mine? Our daughter was born Friday the 13th, 2:57 pm, 7lbs. 13oz., 20 in. Lydia Violet Ekzarkhov. Check out the blog for more: We blogged from labor and delivery! No worries, nothing to see that we wouldn't want the world to know about. ;^) Take care and keep the adventures and amazing photos comeing. Jen G.

Jessica L. said...

Yes! And I spent the better part of the day reading your baby blog. What a beautiful little girl. I have to admit, I thought you were having a boy too, what a surprise!