Kataragama hums with activity at the time of pujas (offerings or prayers). Devotees laden with offerings move lightly, barefoot, up the temple steps. From inside comes the sharp sound of breaking coconuts as worshippers begin their devotions. It’s just after six in the evening, not long now to the evening puja. A queue snakes round the shrine’s inner walls; the people stand patiently, clutching plates heaped with fruit and flowers and decorated with brilliant red garlands made only for Skanda, son of Shiva and the god of war and wisdom, for whom the main shrine in Kataragama is dedicated. It is said that Skanda rested on the mountain at Kataragama after defeating an army of demons.
The Kataragama shrine is ancient. Legend has it that it was built by King Dutugemunu in the 2nd century BC, but it is apparently even older than this. There is an old pilgrimage route to Kataragama that starts in Jaffna and runs down the east coast, passing through Yala. Because of the war, this route is sadly too risky to undertake. But pilgrims still make the trek up the mountain. At dusk you can see the lights from the shrine on the mountain from the precincts of the Kataragama shrine.