Last week I went to Udappu. Udappu is a small Tamil fishing village on the arid coast of western Sri Lanka, a couple of hours north of Colombo. Off the main road, visitors to Sri Lanka don’t go there. Not even many locals know where it is, or have a reason to go there.

udappu -6But Udappu is a very special place. It has a large Tamil Hindu community, with a large temple. And once a year there is a very special festival. For a couple of weeks from the end of July to the beginning of August, 1000s of Hindu people descend on the otherwise small and sleepy town. Many camp on the beach. The festival centres around the Mahabharata epic. Each day the community comes together for parades, and story telling, and music, and special temple poojas. And it all culminates with a big evening of fire walking.

udappu-2Back in January, we had been a for a little road trip, exploring this part of the coast of Sri Lanka, stopping at windswept fishing villages, and driving along narrow sandy lanes. We went to Udappu – and there is nothing ‘touristy’ about it. Which is what makes this whole thing so special. It is such an important part of the community, of the families involved. Nothing about it is put on to make money, or attract tourists – it is just an important part of the life of this Tamil Hindu community. It is very hard to find much information about the details and the specifics of the festival online. We found out about it through a photographer friend.

I went late one afternoon last week. As we pulled into town I wondered if my information was correct. This town seemed as sleepy, as wind swept and as dusty as it had been in January. Wasn’t there supposed to be a big festival happening?udappu -5

We parked the car, and I decided to try and visit the temple. I left my shoes in the car, and spent the next 3 hours happily wandering through the temple and the village barefoot. I was welcomed into the temple, and encouraged to take photos. It soon became obvious that there was a group of men preparing for some event in the temple – maybe something was going to happen!

udappu -3The men were all dressed in white sarongs that had rich coloured borders. They took their shirts off as they entered. The women wore gem coloured saris with gold borders, lots of jewellery, and scented flowers in their hair. Everyone entering the temple applied kumkaman to their forehead, with parents and grandparents helping out children.

Suddenly the bell started ringing, and the atmosphere changed – there was an air of expectation. I went outside, and from nowhere people started streaming to gather in the temple grounds, or along the street. Many settled on the sand as the men I had just seen in the temple began reciting the Mahabharata epic. Everyone smiled, and made room for me, and we exchanged a few words or actions. I only made one baby cry with my camera!

udappu-8But many more were gathering on either side of the street. I joined them, wondering what was going to happen. The crowd built and built. People asked where I was from, many have families and friends who have migrated to Australia over the years. Suddenly music started, and some balloons appeared at the far end of the street – the crowd surged forward, and I found myself at the back with no polite way of getting through or being able to take photos. I’m not very good at asserting myself in these situations! A man nearby noticed my plight and asked if I wanted to take photos – and helped me work my way to the front of the crowd – and kneeling in front I was in a prime spot for some shots.udappu-1

I still don’t understand all of what I saw and with most people I asked there wasn’t enough common language to go into the details. But it was very special, and as the only foreigner there that night, I wasn’t in the way, I was welcomed – but I also knew this was not for show, and a very important event for those involved. There were men in horse costumes, and dancing purple men; a huge parade around the temple with a man in a trance and more drumming, with crowds chanting and following; more story telling.

udappu-10And then at some appointed signal, everyone entered the temple. I was swept in with the crowd. Everyone was reaching to apply kumkaman. Some people were following their own personal paths of devotion – kneeling, praying; others were with family and friends chatting as they went into the inner sanctum. The drums were playing, the oil lamps glowing. The temple was abuzz.

udappu-9I left with many goodbyes from the crowd, and invitations to return for the next day, the final day of the festival (which unfortunately I was not able to get to). But I was so grateful to have been involved, to have seen what I did. And to have been welcomed into the community. It is just another event in a string of serendipitous events that I have been caught up in recently – in the most part because of the generous and welcoming spirit of locals here in Sri Lanka. Thank you once again – and don’t worry, I’m not taking these opportunities for granted!udappu -7

 

 

Advertisements