"Kataragama" Kataragama by Maxus

Kataragama Travel Guide: 13 reviews and 30 photos

Gods, Goats and Burning Coconuts

After Sri Pada, Kataragama is the second most sacred place in Sri Lanka, not least because according to legend the Buddha himself came here on his third and last visit to the island. The main Dagoba is apparently built on the spot where Lord Buddha met the local king.

From downtown Kataragama you can cross the river (Menik Ganga) on various footbridges and into the temple complex, the place does not really close but the ceremonial puja’s only take place daily at 04:30, 10:30 and 18:30, The evening session is arguably most atmospheric. The Kataragama festival takes place annually over two weeks in July and August, the precise date depends on the full moon, in 2006 this will be Saturday July 29 until Sunday, August 13, you can check these dates with the Ceylon Tourist Board.

Dress with respect, legs and shoulders should be covered and take your hat off. You will be expected to remove your shoes before entering the walled area, you can leave them with the blokes in the hut to the left of the arch for 50 rupees.

You and your donation (bring lots of small change) are welcome to visit all the Buddhist and Hindu areas but I was told that you are not welcome in the mosque if you are not of the Muslim faith.

To be honest the first part of the complex can be a bit of a religious theme park with blaring music, coloured lights, elephants and all the wonderful paraphernalia of eastern religious worship, there is all sorts going on and its usual quite loud. During festivals you get people walking on hot coals and others with hooks in their backs and skewers through various parts of their anatomy, people approaching the shrines on their knees and blokes smashing burning coconuts do not even get a second look. Things quieten down considerably as you approach the great Dagoba, where assorted gods are left behind and Buddha, bathed in incense and surrounded by offerings of flowers, sits in serene silence.

There are lots of animals around the place including monkeys and numerous lucky cows who have been saved from the butchers knife and retired to the temple grounds where they dine on the mountain of fruit brought to the temple as offerings to the Hindu deities (Buddha gets flowers and incense, both of which can be bought from the numerous stalls throughout the town and all along the route to the Dagoba).

The fish in the Menik Ganga are also protected creatures, there are lots of them and if you swim in the river you are liable to get well nibbled. Try not to get any water in your mouth either because pilgrims wash in the river on arrival at Kataragama before entering the complex making the water taste distinctly soapy.


There is plenty of accommodation in Kataragama ranging from sleeping halls for groups of pilgrims (it would not be usual for westerners to try and stay here) to the upmarket Rosen Renaissance Hotel, I should imagine rooms will be scarce during the main festival. We originally booked by telephone into Sunil’s Rest (recommended in Lonely Planet) but when we arrived they had given our rooms away, which was a bit of a nuisance because it was already dark. Luckily the Kataragama Rest House came up trumps with reasonable rooms and good food. Like lots of places in Kataragama the Rest House is vegetarian.

When and how to arrive

As a key place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike, Kataragama draws Sri Lankan visitors by the thousand during the season of pilgrimages and festivals but is much less crowded the rest of the year. There are maybe not as many western tourists down here as there is up in the cultural triangle, I came out of season, late August 2005, and barely saw another white face. I was travelling with Sinhalese people so I did not get bothered by touts, however I am sure they are about. Nearby Tissa is one of the most tout ridden places on the planet, the sight of my white face passing through was enough to have touts chasing after the bus on bicycles.

We got to Kataragama from the west coast by train to the end of the line at Matara and then by bus via Tissa. We left on our way to Rakwana on the 11am Colombo bus which was quick.


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  • In a nutshell:Weird and Wonderful
  • Last visit to Kataragama: Aug 2005
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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  • PierreZA's Profile Photo
    Jan 9, 2010 at 5:47 AM

    Mark, you have such a great knowledge of Sri Lanka. Your tips and pictures are great.


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