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Sheltered in the foothills 15km northeast of Tissa is Kataragama. This most holy of towns is a compelling mix of pomp and procession, piety and religious extravagance. Along with Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada), this is the most important religious pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka and is a holy place for Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike. It is one of those wonderful places where the most outlandish of legends becomes solid fact and magic floats in clouds of incense. Many believe that King Dutugemunu built a shrine to Kataragama Deviyo (the resident god) here in the 2nd century BC, and that the Buddhist Kirivehera dagoba dates back to the 1st century BC, but the site is thought to have been significant for even longer.

In July and August, the predominantly Hindu Kataragama festival draws thousands of devotees who make the pilgrimage over a two-week period. Apart from festival time, the town is busiest at weekends and on poya days. At these times it may be difficult to find accommodation, and the place will be buzzing; at other times it possesses a tranquillity befitting its sacred status. It's easily visited from Tissa.