The ghost dancer of Kataragama

Entrance to a temple in Kataragama

Known as the "City of the Gods", the Sri Lankan holy city of Kataragama is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike, and it has been a sacred place for thousands of years. Archaeological excavations have determined that Kataragama has been the site of human habitation for at least 125,000 years. With such an incredible history, it's easy to understand how this sacred site in Sri Lanka became a popular tourist destination.

In 1939, two Englishmen were shooting a travel film in the jungles of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) when they were attracted to an abandoned but majestic ancient temple near Kataragama that was in a state of ruin. The film crew consisted of Charles Brooke Farrar, an artist, and G.A. Smith, a photographer. Farrar and Smith both agreed that the ancient temple would be perfect for their project. They set up their camera and began filming.

Just as the men began shooting, they saw a stunningly beautiful girl they hadn't noticed before. She was dancing an enchanting dance, her slender body swaying slowly and hypnotically.

"Where on earth did she come from?" Farrar asked Smith. Smith had no idea, but insisted on leaving her in the film. The filming continued as the young woman continued her mystical dance. According to Smith and Farrar, the dancer was in the camera's viewfinder for a full five minutes, until she broke off her dance and darted through the doorway into the crumbling temple.

Farrar, fearing for her safety, ran into the temple after her, but was shocked to discover that there was nobody inside the temple. It was as if she had vanished into thin air. "She must have ran out of another door that we didn't know about," the men concluded and then went back to their filming.

Smith and Farrar left Kataragama and reviewed their film footage the following day. The film showed the ancient temple in Kataragama, along with the sprawling trees and the wide courtyard in front of the ruins. But not a single frame bore the image of the mysterious dancing girl, whom both men had seen for at least five full minutes.

Who the phantom dancer was, where she came from, and where she went was a mystery that haunted Brook Farrar and G.A. Smith for the rest of their lives, but both men returned from Kataragama with a fuller understanding of why this place is called the "City of the Gods".

Marlin Bressi is a freelance writer, creator of the Pennsylvania Oddities blog, and author of the book Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America's Most Colorful Hermits.