Kataragama is a pilgrimage town sacred to Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous Vedda people of Sri Lanka. People from South India also come here to worship. The town has the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama devalaya, a shrine dedicated to Skanda-Murukan also known as Kataragama devio. Although Kataragama was a small village in medieval times, today it is a fast-developing township surrounded by jungle in the southeastern region of Sri Lanka. It houses the ancient Kiri Vehera Buddhist stupa. The town has a venerable history dating back to the last centuries BCE. It was the seat of government of many Sinhalese kings during the days of Rohana kingdom. Since the 1950s the city has undergone many improvements with successive governments investing in public transportation, medical facilities, and business development and hotel services. It adjoins the popular Yala National Park.
Many Sinhala Buddhists of Sri Lanka believe that Kataragama deviyo is a guardian deity of Buddhism and he is the presiding deity of Kataragama temple. Kataragama is one of the 16 principal places of Buddhist pilgrimage to be visited in Sri Lanka. According to the chronicle of Sri Lankan history, the Mahawamsa, when the Bo sapling of Bodhi Tree, under which Gotama Buddha attained enlightenment in North India was brought to the city of Anuradhapura 2,300 years ago, the warriors or Kshatriyas from Kataragama were present on the occasion to pay homage and respect.
The Bo tree behind the Kataragama temple is one of the eight saplings (Ashta Phala Ruhu Bodhi) of Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradapura, Sri Lanka. This tree was planted in the 3rd century BC.
The Buddhist Kiri Vehera Dagoba which stands in close to the Kataragama devalaya was built by the King Mahasena. According to the legend, Lord Buddha, on his third and the last visit to Sri Lanka, was believed to have met King Mahasena, who ruled over the Kataragama area in 580 BC. It is said that King Mahasena met Lord Buddha and listened to his discourse. As a token of gratitude, the Dagoba was built on that exact spot where it now stands. Thus the local Sinhalese Buddhists believe that Kataragama was sanctified by Lord Buddha.