Kebilitta, Arugam Bay And Kumana

Over the last weekend I visited the Eastern Province with a group of friends. Having left Colombo at 4.00 in the morning, after almost a seven hour journey, we reached our destination; Arugam Bay.

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"Arugam Bay"

By KanchanaA?Ratwatte
The closest access to this much sought-after surfing beach of Sri Lanka is via Ratnapura, Uda Walawe, Wellawaya, Monaragala, Siyambalanduwa and Pottuvil. While on the way, passing Uda Walawe and Lahugala, we did see quite a few elephants. The road network as in the case of all main roads in the Eastern Province, was well laid out with a new carpet and the drive was one great experience.
As we entered the bustling township, the first observation was the number of tourists that had gathered for the internationally publicized surfing festival which had concluded the previous weekend. It had a typical Hikkaduwa atmosphere. The architecture too resembles Hikkaduwa to a great extent. Almost all the guest houses are reasonably priced ranging from Rs. 3000 a?? 5000 for a room. The first three places that we checked out were full and were lucky with the fourth which was a modest guest house with 15 rooms.
The check in, a wash, beer and a mainly seafood lunch later, followed the walk to the beach and across the city. While there, we had the chance of sighting this road sign which read 34 km to Kumana. The time was 2.30 in the afternoon and that was ample time for a drive to the park.
Having put aside the weariness of travelling from early morning, we decided to drive there. By 3.15 we were at the park entrance with one STF check point to pass in Panama. Five minutes at the gate for ticket formalities and we were in the park with a very knowledgeable and eager tracker.
The first thing that we sighted in this massive bird sanctuary was not the birds, but the thousands of pilgrims making the difficult trek through Kumana to the chanting of haro hara on their pada yatra to Kataragama. This was the point at which they entered the jungle track for the last phase of their pilgrimage. Some, we learnt, had started from Jaffna and others from various locations in the East.
While some had done the total distance by foot, others had come up to the point of the Kumana entrance in buses and vans. The total distance that they walk within the park is almost 15km. They carry all their requirements, including cooking utensils, for the five to six day journey through the Kumana jungle and then into the next phase through Yala. Halfway through the Kumana park, we noticed a clearing near a lake where the pilgrims camped for the night and did their own preparation of meals.
At the end of the park on the banks of the Kumbukkan Oya, is the last stop in Kumana for the pilgrims. There too a sizeable number of pilgrims had gathered to rest for the night. The minor place of worship that the pilgrims pay obeisance to, is more an open Devale rather than a conventional closed one. This is also the stop where all pilgrims to the famous Kebilitta Devalaya, worship before making the final journey through the rough terrain, which can only be crossed by four-wheel-drive vehicles or by foot.

This is the closest route to reach this much-venerated Kebilitta Devale.A?One maintains piety by non-consumption of any meat and refraining from any kind of sin for a week before embarking on the journey. This is the place where Lord Kataragama meditates and the tranquility of the place is maintained by the limited number of pilgrims who make the journey.
It takes about an houra??s driving time to reach the bank of Kumbukkan Oya in the Kumana National Park. This is relatively a smooth drive compared to the next 17km of difficult terrain which follows in order to get to Kebilitta.
From this point onwards the journey takes one about 5km along the Kumbukkan Oya bank, before the first river crossing is reached. Here, the depth of the river at the deepest point is about four feet. The soggy conditions on the river bed make it very difficult even for four-wheel-drive vehicles to cross. A winch is an absolute necessity for the river crossings. There are three more such crossings and the second is the most difficult to cross with an angle of almost 50 degrees to climb. This 17km takes the best part of six hours due to the ruggedness of the terrain.
The rituals that are performed there, are unique in nature as the conventional Devalaya and Kapu Mahattaya are conspicuous by their absence. The hundreds of brass lamps (pittala pahan) piled up and panduru hung on the tamarind trees indicate the number of devotees that have visited the premises. After camping on the banks of Kumbukkan Oya for the night, the pilgrims after early morning ablutions, dig nine wells on the river sand and collect the water from them in order to prepare the muluthan batha (milk rice). This information was gathered from the tracker who was well-informed and very passionate about the work that was performed by him.
From the Kumbukkan Oya we returned and on our return journey we managed to do more of the bird watching which was the primary purpose of our journey to the park, rather than looking at the thousands of pilgrims on the pada yatra and the haro hara. There were the occasional sighting of elephants, though not in big herds and the buffalo, sea and lagoon crocodile and deer were the other animals that were sighted. Another forty minute drive and we were back in our guest house, tired but thrilled with the rich experience.
In the night we ventured out to a sumptuous Thai cosmetics and meal at one of the more up-market restaurants in the area. That was a bit expensive compared to the modestly priced food that is offered in the other restaurants.
The next morning we got up early in order to see the sunrise and made a bee-line to the beach. Alas, the sun had beaten us to it and had risen before we did. However, we decided to check out the fish and to our surprise they were selling Seer at Rs. 500 a kilo.
We got back to the hotel after a sea bath and were ready to leave back for Colombo after breakfast. The return journey with a lunch break in Ratnapura took seven hours, too. Another attraction, on the way, is the Eastern, hand woven, cotton, multi-coloured sarongs that are produced in Pottuvil. A sarong costs Rs. 700 and with a little bit of bargaining, one gets almost a 20% discount.


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