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A God of Many Faces


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Crystal Thielkien
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« on: November 13, 2008, 01:32:29 pm »

Introduction: A God of Many Faces

In the dry jungle of remote southeastern Sri Lanka lies Kataragama or Katir-kamam, the (place of) 'light and love-passion', a shrine complex of exceptional antiquity and sanctity that attracts many thousands of Buddhist, Hindu and even Muslim devotees year round, particularly during the fortnight-long Aesala festival in July-August, when a small casket believed to contain the secret of the god's birth -- nay, the god himself -- is taken out in solemn yet joyful torchlit procession nightly, escorted by his women-votaries and troupes of riotous dancers representing the animal, human, chthonic and heavenly spheres. An archaic spirit of paradox, fertility, rejuvenation and play, the Kataragama god also preserves an essential soteriological dimension as the Divine Psychopomp who guides his followers beyond the Portals of Death into an unconditional realm of freedom from the tyranny of the pairs of opposites.


Sri Jna Pandita: Murugan as Expositor of Gosis with His symbols the Vl or Spear of Wisdom = axis mundi and vehicle/totem the peacock = Phoenix. Behind Him dawns the rising sun symbolising the awakened mind (bodhi). Early 20th cent. painting by NS Balakrishnan, Madurai
A host of local indigenous, Sinhalese, Tamil and Islamic legends purport to explain the origin, character and exploits of the Kataragama god, whose reputation for sacred or mysterious power extends far beyond his immediate forest domain. Broadly speaking, scholars and cult-adherents alike identify him with the ever-popular Tamil hill god Murukan ('Tender One'), who arose before the dawn of history and has long been considered as the Dravidian counterpart or expression of the pan-Indian wargod Skanda-Kumara, 'son' of the great mountain-dwelling god Shiva. Skanda, tutelary god of warriors, kings, yogis and scholars and (as Guha, 'The Hidden') patron of all secret knowledge and covert activities, once quit his home on Mount Kailasa in the trans-Himalaya and, according to various traditions, made his way south in a series of exploits culminating at Kataragama with his secretive courtship and marriage to the indigenous Vedda maiden Valli, which is the theme and substance of the Aesala mystery rites. Local tradition insists that Skanda-Murukan has remained in Kataragama ever since, ruling unseen over his domain as Kali Yuga Varada, the boon-granting divinity par excellence of the Kali Yuga, the recurrent cosmic era of tumult and quarrel -- our own present-day world.

Due to its isolation on the social and geographical margin of Sri Lankan society, Kataragama has long been insulated from the mainstream of religious change affecting Sri Lanka and South India. As Heinz Bechert has firmly established, this has enabled Kataragama to preserve archaic institutions attested in the ancient literature that have long since died out elsewhere in the subcontinent, such as the persistent tradition of the Four Guardian Deities common to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka who have always included a war-like 'Red God' (Tamil: Ceyon) identified with Murukan and Kataragama Deviyo respectively.1 From what has been said here and from what follows, it is hardly surprising that informed Western observers should readily identify Skanda-Murukan with Dionysus or Bacchus, the ancient Eurasian god of paradox, fertility, drama, epiphany and the dissolution of boundaries. Alain Danielou draws attention to the close similarities between the two deities and concludes that the 'Indian Bacchus' of the Greeks was none other than Skanda.2 Cultural anthropologist Agehananda Bharati earlier made the specific observation that Kataragama Skanda is a "Dionysian god".3


Fred W. Clothey, in his landmark study The Many Faces of Murukan, cautiously endorses the possibility of a common origin of the ecstatic cults of Dionysus and Murukan in the megalithic culture of the Anatolian plateau and western Iran of ca. 1500 B.C.4 Apart from these, however, no study has ever probed beneath Kataragama's teeming surface to uncover supporting evidence to associate the surviving cult of Skanda-Murukan in Sri Lanka with the cult of Dionysus which flourished in Western Asia and the Mediterranean world from remote antiquity until the third century AD, when it was forcefully suppressed by Rome.

In this study, I propose to demonstrate, using structural and thematic analysis as well as historical evidence and my own field observations, how Kataragama actually embodies the survival into the twenty-first century of one of humanity's most archaic religious traditions long considered to be extinct -- the initiatic mystery religion. Astonishing as this conclusion may appear to scholars, there are ample grounds for such an identification, which may be said to be inherent in the very structure of Kataragama itself. As such, Kataragama represents an extraordinary paradigm spanning both archaic and modern worldviews and over two thousand years of human history. How could such a remarkable phenomenon pass unnoticed by millions of pilgrim-observers and generations of scholars and what implications may follow for our understanding of ancient and modern cultures the world over? This study, although not exhaustive, presents an overview of the evidence and an outline of the reasoning behind this hypothesis.
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