In ever-increasing numbers Sinhalese of all religions (Muslims, Christians and Buddhists) are turning to Kataragama, an ancient Hindu God, at times of trouble and desperation. Once a year pilgrims make the journey to Kataragama's shrine in southeast Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to fulfil vows by performing acts of penance and worship in payment for a favour received. Kataragama is called on to help with a wide range of problems (unemployment, sickness, examinations, personal relationships) and is appealed to by people of all social backgrounds, notably the growing middle class and urban dwellers. A good third of the film is concerned with the annual festival, showing the often gruesome and sensational acts which the pilgrims perform including fire-walking, and the piercing of body and tongue with needles – all acts designed to obtain forgiveness and grace. One man is suspended from hooks in his back – a self-torture undertaken with apparent joy by a man who, like many others that perform such acts, feels himself (after a time) to be possessed by the God's spirit. These rather sensational acts are interwoven with the story of a peasant family whose son has disappeared, leading them eventually to seek help from Kataragama. The unfolding of this personal drama (with reconstruction of early episodes, and voice-over to detail their thoughts and feelings) forms the context for the events we see at the festival. The effect of the interweaving of these two 'stories' is to place the otherwise purely exotic spectacle of the pilgrims' acts of penance within a universally understandable social context – that of the despair of a family whose young son is lost. The unplanned return of the boy, apparently in response to the family's appeal to Kataragama, provides a dramatic and moving finale to a film which has been compared in some respects to the great Italian neo-realist films. Clearly this film is an important one both for anthropologists and those concerned with ethnographic film per se.
R. Gombrich, 1974. Review of the film. RAIN, 3, pp.8–9.
G. Obeyesekere, 1977. `Social Change and the Deities: Rise of the Kataragama Cult in Modern Sri Lanka'. Man, Vol. 12, Nos.3/4. pp.377–396.