Perhaps no other deity in Sri Lanka embodies the bewilderingly syncretic nature of the island’s Buddhist and Hindu traditions as clearly as the many-faceted Katharagama. The god has two very different origins. To the Buddhist Sinhalese, Katharagama is one of the four great protectors of the island. Although he began life as a rather unimportant local god, named after the town in which his shrine was located, he gained pan-Sinhalese significance during the early struggles against the South Indian Tamils, and is believed to have helped Dutugemunu in his long war against Elara. To the Hindu Tamils, Katharagama is equivalent to the major deity Skanda (also known as Murugan or Subramanian), a son of Shiva and Parvati and brother of Ganesh. Both Buddhists and Hindus have legends which tell how Katharagama came to Sri Lanka to battle against the asuras, or enemies of the gods. While fighting, he became enamored of Valli Amma, the result of the union between a pious hermit and a doe, who became his second wife. Despite Katharagama’s confused lineage, modern-day visitors to the shrine generally pay scant attention to the god’s theological roots, simply regarding him a powerful deity capable of assisting in a wide range of practical enterprises.
Katharagama is often shown carrying a vel, or trident, which is also one of Shiva’s principal symbols. His color’s is red (devotees offer crimson garlands when they visit his shrines) and he is frequently identified with the peacock, a bird which was sacrificed to him. Thanks to his exploits, both military and amorous, he is worshipped both as a fearsome warrior and as a lover, inspiring an ecstatic devotion in his followers exemplified by the kavadi, or peacock dance (see The evening puja), and the ritual self-mutilations practiced by pilgrims during the annual Katharagama festival – a world away from the chaste forms of worship typical of the island’s Buddhist rituals.