Key issue in Kataragama Dewale tussle Money or faith?

For the first time in history last week, the Ruhunu Kataragama Devale’s morning pooja was delayed due to an altercation between the Kapumahathayas and the Basnayake Nilame D. P. Kumarage. While the issue initially seemed to be over a key and who gets to open the gates of the Devale, Ceylon Today learnt that it was truly over a much larger problem.

On Tuesday (22 August) the religious rites at the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devale were delayed when the Basnayake Nilame had reportedly took the keys of the devale forcibly from the Kapumahathaya in charge. It was reported that the Nilame had arrived with a gang of men and forcefully grabbed the keys from a Kapumahathaya and barricaded himself in his residence.

Further reports claimed that angry devotees allegedly roused by the chief Kapumahathaya had broken into the Nilame’s residence and taken the keys back. Ceylon Today travelled to Kataragama to find out exactly what happened on that fateful morning when traditions were broken and a near bloodshed took place in a place of worship.

“From what we saw that morning, it was entirely Basnayake Nilame’s fault. Traditionally, the keys belong to the Kapumahathaya. It has always been the Kapumahathaya who opened the devale gates to perform the pooja. That morning, the Nilame tried forcibly to take control,” a resident of the area, and an ardent devotee who wished to remain anonymous said. He said, “I know both the Kapumahathaya and the Nilame and I cannot afford to lose either of their friendship.”

On the other hand, another devotee came out with a different version. “I respect the Ruhunu Kataragama Devale and the Kirivehera, but I do not like either the Kapumahathaya or the Nilame. I think the Kapumahathaya did something wrong. He roused the public against the Nilame. The keys should be in Nilame’s possession and not Kapumahathaya’s.”

According to reliable sources, including the chief Kapumahathaya’s son-in-law Lal Kapumahathaya, the year is divided into five and seven months. During the first five months, the five Kapumahathayas have the ownership of the key. The Basnayake Nilame would divide the remaining seven months among the Kapumahathayas according to his discretion. While this arrangement has been in force in a relatively peaceful manner for decades, the process seems to have been disrupted by the incumbent Basnayake Nilame D. P. Kumarage.

Lal Kapumahathaya’s son, Gayan, who is also a Kapumahathaya at the devale said the Nilame had bribed three of the five Kapumahathayas.

“We have been doing this service for generations. My grandfather is the chief Kapumahathaya and I am also a Kapumahathaya and someday I hope that my son too will be a Kapumahathaya here. This has been going on for generations and my family has always been serving the devale. However, after Kumarage became the Nilame, he has tried to disrupt the age-old tradition. That morning he arrived with a group of thugs and forcefully took the keys from one of our junior Kapumahathayas.”

He added that his father had lodged a complaint with the police asking for protection, but the police are protecting the Nilame.
“From what I understand, even the police are in the Nilame’s pockets. My father lodged a complaint the night before asking for protection because he anticipated something of this nature. However, when the Nilame took the keys and barricaded himself in his house, the police protected him. They were absent when the Nilame was attacking us.”

Officer in Charge Upali Kariyawasam said police protection was given to the Nilame because it was felt that his life was in danger.

“It is true that Lal Kapumahathaya lodged a complaint and asked for protection. However, he asked for protection for the noon pooja, not for the 4.30 a.m. pooja. He specifically said that because 12 was the time the keys were to be exchanged from the Chief Kapumahathaya Somapala Ratnayake to the next Kapumahathaya. He feared that the Nilame might attempt to interfere.”
“The reason that we gave protection to the Nilame was justifiable. By the time we got to the Devale, tempers were running high and there was a possibility of a riot taking place. The people were trying to break into the Nilame’s residence. It was our duty to protect the Nilame because at that moment he was another civilian who was in danger of a mob attack,” the OIC said.

However, Gayan Kapumahathaya said they did not in any way arouse the devotees.

“There were many people who were inconvenienced by what happened. There was one devotee who had borrowed
Rs 15,000 to fulfil a vow. They were rightfully upset.”

“I think that they’re both at fault,” a devotee who makes her living selling pooja trays, told Ceylon Today. “Devotees give a lot of money to the devale kept in the pooja trays and it undoubtedly goes to Kapumahathaya’s pockets. The Nilame is not on good terms with the Kapumahathayas and he is trying to take all the money for himself.”

Basnayake Nilame Kumarage said the Kapumahathayas, especially Somapala Rathnayake and Lal were causing damage to the sanctity of the holy place by engaging in malpractices for monetary gains.

“This is like a family business for them,” he said, adding, “the two Kapumahathayas are taking a share of the money placed by devotees in pooja trays as offerings and dropped into tills.”

While the Nilame called the two Kapumahathayas “pilfering thieves”, Lal said the same about the Nilame.

“He is a pilfering thief and he is disrupting the sanctity of this sacred place. He’s here for the money. It is because of him that we were unable to perform the religious rites on time that day for the first time in history.”

However, whatever said and done, it all boils down to one issue. That morning, the pooja was delayed because of an internal clash between two groups who were both after the same object. The tussle was who should have the key? Some people believe that we are gradually turning into a godless nation. Therefore, such internal conflicts at places of worship would compel even deities to leave their abodes.

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