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Kataragama Festival
He’ll light up your life
- Part II
by Reggie Fernando
(Continued from yesterday)

The next surprising episode took place in 1956 on the last day of the hartal connected with the beginnings of the ethnic problem. There was no war as such but the animosity towards the Sinhalese and vice versa was reaching dangerous heights. Earlier that week I met an old friend of mine who owned the Kalido guest house at Kalutara North which was swallowed up by the tsunami last December. Knowing that I was a true devotee of God Kataragama he suggested that we do a trip and attend the three pujas. Kalido was the place where all motor racing stalwarts met after the race meets at Katukurunda had finished and the prize distribution was over. It was a sort of rendezvous for the spectators, racing officials and the racers themselves.

I went to the Kalido one evening so that I could stay there and leave for Kataragama with my friend the next morning. It was a peaceful night. I woke up rather early the next morning as I wanted to start at dawn. I got ready and just before breakfast I walked up to my car to check it out and to my utter shock I found one of the tyres flat. Immediately with the assistance of a worker I changed the tyre but the chef of the hotel who was preparing our breakfast appealed to me not to continue on the journey but to travel the next day. He said it was a terrible omen and something disastrous may happen. By the way my car was a Morris Minor Convertible and the registration number was EY 8021. This became a famous car because the next year it was used by a close friend of mine, the film actor Ananda Weerakoon in the film ‘Podi Putha’. He wanted the car as the hood could be lowered and was ideal for a particular scene in the film where Ananda drives along Galle Face with his lover.

I didn’t listen to the Kalido chef but continued on the journey and we reached Kataragama by early evening. We carried out all the rituals, attended all the pujas and started off home bound after lunch the next day. As the day was overcast and no sun was visible I decided to have the hood down and drive in style. Towards approaching Dickwella it began to drizzle and I stopped the car and raised the hood, and slightly tightened the two butterfly nuts. I got in and started proceeding and with my right hand I began tightening the screw while my friend tightened the screw on his side. The road was not only wet, it was muddy, slimy, slippery and sloppy and suddenly I saw two old men crossing the road a few yards ahead of me, carrying some fishing gear. I was forced to brake and the car got into a skid. I saw a public well on the right of the road reserved for women and I can tell you there were a dozen or more of them around the well. Next to the well was a king size kumbuk tree and in order to avoid this bevy of bathing women I corrected the skid but hit the two men and the car continued its journey until it crashed on to the kumbuk tree damaging the entire front. The two men were lying on the road motionless. I quickly got down from the car and so did my friend. It was quite frightening and I rushed up to them and called for assistance to take them to the nearest hospital which was Matara. My car was a total wreck and luckily a passerby took the two men to the hospital. Meanwhile some people living in the area rushed to me and advised me to leave the spot as the two men involved in the accident were the fathers of two fishermen well known in the area for their violent behaviour. I was feeling dizzy and frightful and turned towards Kataragama and prayed in my mind for help. At that point a fair, buxom woman living in the adjoining house which looked stately, offered me the key of her car – a green Standard Vanguard. She inquired from where I was and advised me to get out as quickly as possible. I remember well her telling me that they will chop me up into pieces and my parents will be able to pick up the pieces on the Mount Lavinia beach. It was the last day of the haratal and moreover I was still in the clothes that I wore for the last puja I attended at 11 am that morning - a white cloth and a national dress shirt with plenty of holy ash on my forehead. I looked a Tamil alright and I was easy prey. I went up to her house started the car and attempted to reverse it out of her gate but the engine stalled without petrol. I was losing control of my senses and now I was really getting scared. I called my friend and walked towards a row of vans stopped alongside the road. The owners were fish mudalalis who had come to the daily fish auction. I walked hurriedly along the vehicles just to see if any one of them had the key so that I could get away to the police station with my friend. No such luck I thought but strangely the last van, a Morris Minor, had the switch key in its place and I jumped in with my friend and did a Le Mans start and ended up at the police station few miles away. I remember the only thing I did in the excitement was to remove the statuette of God Kataragama from my crashed car given to me by Mr. Subramaniam. When I walked into the place carrying the statuette there was the officer in charge – a sub inspector - seated at a table right at the entrance holding a bren gun pointed towards the gate. Lying on the table was also a revolver. Those were the days when there were no T 56s. And what’s more he happened to be a friend and a well known sportsman. He said there was too much tension over the Tamil issue and he was expecting the people to attack the police station. I related the incident and he got me to make a statement which was recorded and signed but within minutes he received a message from the police post at the Matara hospital that both victims had died. At that point my police friend said it was very serious and he would have to put me in the cell but asked a policeman to take both of us to his quarters and ordered his appu to treat us with tea. Later in the day a magistrate better known for his brilliant table tennis came for the inquiry but declined to conduct it stating that he knew me. He returned probably to Matara and another official arrived but history repeated itself when he too said he is well known to me and declined to carry on with the inquiry. Next was a crown proctor (attorney at law) who carried out a full inquiry after which I was released. At that point I telephoned a friend at Browns Hill, Matara who lent me a car to proceed to Colombo. The moral of the story is that God Kataragama saved me from a violent assault or even death by answering my prayer and appeal for some sort of assistance to get away from that deadly situation. Who would have kept a van with the switch key for me to escape from the spot? I believe it was my God Kataragama. I spent a vast sum of money on the two funerals and also gave some cash gifts to the wives and children of the two dead men. Months later the case was heard and I was acquitted.

However there was an interesting part to this whole incident as well. Soon after the case was over my police friend from Dickwella approached me and asked: "Reggie, you remember that woman who asked you to get away from the scene using her car. She has run away from home. Do you know anything about this?"

I, in my usual easy going style smiled and thought of God Kataragama and told him in a jocular manner that - "Honour and shame from no condition arise – act well your part, there all the honour lies." It went down well as the cops of my day were English educated and had read the greatest of writers and poets by the time they were 16 years of age.

There are hundreds of such incidents I can relate and it can go on till the cows come home but let me finish up with two happenings in the recent past after I returned to Sri Lanka some months back.

I was having my country residence constructed at Nuwara Eliya when my main contractor said that he may want another one million ruppees as advance for the construction of the second road to the rear entrance of my house. Obviously I had to get this money from my bank in London and immediately sent a fax to the National Westminster Bank requesting a transfer of the required sum. This obviously takes time. But as usual in such instances I pray to God Kataragama to expedite the transaction. The very next day was a Monday and the telephone rang around 10 in the morning. I answered and it was from the Hatton National Bank Nuwara Eliya branch. It was a bank officer who asked me who I was and when I identified myself he congratulated me saying that my wife had won the HNB jackpot of a million rupees. Here again when I needed the money and quickly too, my god came to my rescue. In this case too like the buxom woman in the Dickwella crash, the million rupee win almost caused a rift in my marriage. It was my wife’s savings account that won her the million rupees but the draw had taken place on July 22 which was my birthday. So shouldn’t I also get some of the credit for the victory? Well my wife insisted it was her luck but as time settles all problems and the days went by we agreed it was more than anyone’s luck it was God Kataragama answering my request. How wonderful it was.

In another incident – this time quite recently in my Colombo flat – a relative visited me without any notice and requested a loan of Rs. 80,000 urgently. My wife and I use a Master Card for all cash transactions and no cash is ever kept in the flat. We were forced to say sorry and my relative left totally dejected. I of course went up to my statuette and prayed that he helps my relative who needed the money to send his daughter to a hospital in India for treatment. We had moved into the flat only a few months earlier and our stuff was still in suitcases, bags and boxes. My wife soon after lunch that day began clearing the stuff and while doing so she came across a number of illustrated magazines relating to the life of Diana. She was going through them and what do you know – she came across an envelope in which there were thousand pounds sterling in crisp fifty pound notes. I rushed to the bank, cashed them and drove up to my relative’s home and handed over the money.

I told him it was the work of God Kataragama. He was not only thankful but grateful as well for within six months as promised he returned the money and brought me a large picture of God Kataragama which he had bought specially for me in south India. That’s not all. He too had bought one for himself, had it framed and now it hangs at the entrance to his home.

There have been much more important and serious happenings and successful events in my life connected with God Kataragama but telling all that can hurt many people including some from the journalistic tribe as well. In my book hurting someone is terribly wrong.

When in Sri Lanka I visit Kataragama once a month at least and something astonishing happened around two weeks ago – June 30 to be exact. I was driving from Nuwara Eliya to Kataragama via Ella and I stopped at the former Ella resthouse now known as the Ella Hotel. I had a refreshing cup of tea and was coming out of the hotel when I noticed an aging farmer that resembled the veddah chief. Knowing that the veddah community play a major role at Kataragama, specially during the Esala festival, I thought to myself how wonderful it will be to have a photograph taken of my self with the veddah chief within the precints of the Maha Devale itself. That was only a thought and I continued to the land of my god.

As always I carried out all the usual rituals which I have done over 200 times till now and began participating in the Maha Puja. It was rather warm and the devale overflowing with devotees and almost bursting at the seams was taking its toll from me. My eyes were closed and I was praying but being unable to bear the heat I opened my eyes and reached for my hanky. And who was there in front of me? None other than the veddah chief Uruwarige Wanniyala Aththo (58) and his son Uruwarige Gunawanniyala Aththo. Now wasn’t that amazing? After the puja I was introduced to the veddah chief who obliged me by standing beside me with his son for a photo session. He also invited me to his village and solemnly promised an interview.

Unruffled by the arrival of everything modern this beautiful abode of God Kataragama retains its magic and more than anywhere else in this enchanting island of ours, it is here that the Sinhalese and Tamils live cheek by jowl. It is a great temple of reconciliation and love and occupies a very special place in the nation’s heart. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers have all attended the Maha Puja at some time or another and asked for help. No wonder Sri Lankans of all nationalities, religions and class have developed such affection for this magnificent place of worship. Those of us who are true devotees of God Kataragama feel that our fate is bound up with it conglomeration of the Maha Devale and the many other devales and Kiri Vehera, the temple.

God Kataragama has given me my fill of love, my share of the fame and all I need to live a happy and peaceful life. I felt the nearness to him many decades ago. He speaks to me quite often and when I am in the Maha Devale even sense the lingering presence of God Kataragama himself. For all what he has done, I, in return, strive to let as many people as possible know that he’ll light up your life if you are loyal to him, honourable and above all do not hurt others.

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