Call of the Wild

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Dec 15, 2007

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Monday, November 26, 2007

The next morning was a 4-hour coastal drive passing through the towns of Matara, Dondra, Tangalla and Hambantota, before eventually arriving in Tissamaharama (usually abbreviated to Tissa - especially by me!).
Tissa's main attraction is as a base for trips to the nearby national parks of Yala and Bundala or the temple town of Kataragama, but it's a pleasant place in it's own right, bounded by an expanse of paddy fields and three impressive dagobas.  About a kilometre north of the town lies the beautiful Tissa Wewa, an expansive artificial lake.  Constructed in the second century BC, the shore nearest the town was busy with crowds of people bathing (no doubt on their way home from the Poya festival held the previous evening in Kataragama), whilst flocks of aquatic birds including bitterns, herons, and egrets skimmed across the waters.  The smaller adjacent lake of Debera Wewa, was another haven for wildlife, and has its entire surface prettily covered in water lillies - frustratingly due to flower in 2-3 weeks time.
In mid-October, the LTTE attacked military targets in Yala National Park, leaving it closed and forcing me to visit the quieter Bundala.  Bundala is one of Sri Lanka's foremost destinations for aquatic (and other) birdlife, and it's easier just to list some of the creatures I saw on display from the jeep.
Aquatic birds: ibis, pelicans, painted storks, egrets, spoonbills, cormorants, herons and sandpipers
Non-aquatic birds: green bee eaters, tailed bee eaters, parakeets, various species of kingfisher, sea eagle, black eagle, and numerous peafowl (peacocks)
Other animals: 4 male elephants - seen seperately and up very close, troupes of grey langur monkeys, deer, fruit-eating bats, mongoose, crocodiles, snakes, and lizard-like water monitors
I was really on my last legs by the time I returned to the hotel, but pushed myself on and took my only opportunity to visit the small and remote town of Kataragama - one of the three most venerated religious sites in Sri Lanka, held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike.  The most important of the town's various shrines is dedicated to the god Katagarama, a Buddhist-cum-Hindu deity who is believed to reside here.
Whilst the town is known to be incredibly sleepy, Katagarama's Sacred Precinct springs to life at puja times.  The evening puja starts at 7pm when flocks of pilgrims appear bearing fruit platters as offerings to Katagarama, and many violently smashed coconuts in front of his shrine (according to tradition, if the coconut breaks cleanly a wish will be granted, when misfortune attends those who fail to do so).
The Sacred Precinct would have been extremely busy on the previous (poya) day, and the fewer crowds meant I was able to get involved and close to the action.  As the evening puja begins (denoted by cessation of the lone bell loudly ringing) the long queue of pilgrims line up to present their offerings whilst a priest makes a drawn-out sequence of obeisances in front of the curtained shrine, known as the Maha Devale.  Eventually, with burning incense heavy in the air, the shrine is opened to the waiting pilgrims who pay homage to the god.  Inside the Maha Devale, deities and iconography from both Hindu and Buddhist religions intermingle making it impossible to work out where one religion begins and the other ends.  Finally, the fruit offerings are pulped and mixed with red rice to form a sweet and tasty handout to everyone present (including me).  As Karu led me away past brightly illuminated stalls doing a brisk trade in garlands, fruit platters and other colourful religious paraphernalia, I felt privileged to have have such an active part (not usually afforded to tourists).. 
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