Tamil Hindu and Sinhalese Buddhist pilgrims gather each year at Sri Lanka's most important polyethnic shrine, Kataragama, where they worship the deity Skanda (or Murukanṉ). The remarkable tone of ecumenism and tolerance there stands in clear contrast to the mutual mistrust which has recently characterized Tamil-Sinhalese interaction in other social institutions. Does Kataragama help to quell mistrust and to create a bond of common identity between Hindus and Buddhists? The role of Kataragama in Sri Lanka's poly-ethnic social system is examined by comparing the role of the Kataragama pilgrimage in the religious lives of Hindu and Buddhist villagers. These roles are radically different; indeed, most Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims find themselves in disagreement about the qualities of the deity and about the way he ought to be worshipped. Despite the appearance of ethnic harmony at the site, pilgrims are today likely to leave with a sharp impression of the gulf that separates Tamil and Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka—yet there is evidence that the site may come to play a different role in the future.

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