Vesak is the most sacred of all the full moon poya days. It is considered the thrice-blessed day, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and passing away or parinibbãna of the Lord Buddha.
Accorded the highest recognition among all other poya days in the island with two public holidays, this year (May 21 and 22) the manner of celebrating this festival calls for a host of religious and cultural activities. Vesak is predominantly devoted to observances such as ‘sil’ (taking a personal vow to follow certain precepts in order to develop self-discipline),
meditation, listening to sermons and giving alms. They are usually conducted at Buddhist temples, with absolute reverence. People pay homage to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha), affirming their faith in the teachings the Buddha.
The act of offering flowers, incense, and light to the Buddha are important acts of devotion at Vesak. The offering of flowers is reminiscent of life’s inevitable end that will lead to decay and nothingness. Thus, the act of offering flowers is accompanied with reflection on the condition of mutability (quality of change), an inescapable characteristic of all existence, which is a central truth in the Buddhist teaching. The sweet scent of incense signifies the incomparable virtues of the Buddha, and light represents enlightenment that dispels the darkness of ignorance.
Enlightenment is symptomatic of light, wisdom engulfing the being over ignorance. Lamps are lit in temples throughout the country, illuminating the entire Island as it were, to dispel the darkness with beautiful arrangements of clay lamps along walkways, lanterns made from simple ‘kite paper’ or even recyclable items. No Buddhist house is without some form of illumination.
As the night darkens the sky, the Island lights up; cities, streets, buildings are strung with twinkling bulbs of various colours and Buddhist flags. These colours usually correspond to the colours of ‘Buddha’s rays’ or halo. There are six in number: blue, yellow, red, white, crimson, and a mixture of all these colours. They form the circle of wisdom shown round the paintings and images of the Buddha in places of worship. Vesak attracts people in hordes to the towns to watch the carnival like atmosphere that pervades every home and street in celebration of a great feast.
Dansal or temporary alms stalls that serve free food and drink as a charitable act are a popular feature across the island. These range from, rice and curry to ice cream dansalas that generally experience an unprecedented demand over supply. For the youth, patronising dansalas is part of youthful camaraderie and light-heartedness. Meanwhile, Vesak greeting cards and carols are traditions borrowed from Christians.
Buddha Rashmi Pooja
In the heart of Colombo, the National Vesak Festival, Buddha Rashmi Pooja sets the tone for the grandest of celebrations with a weeklong programme carefully curated by the Gangaramaya Temple. At night on May 21 a simple ceremony at the brightly decorated Seema Malaka will see the lights come on and continue to dazzle till May 25, 2016.
This time sacred relics including the relics found during excavations of the ancient Neelagiri Stupa in the Eastern Province will be displayed for public viewing at Temple Trees. The Prime Minister himself is in discussions to have the Buddha’s sacred relics flown in to the country for the exposition.
“Buddha Rashmi Pooja is a national festival that brings everyone together. A hallmark of the event is the participation of people from different ethnicities and religious beliefs,” says Ven Kirinde Assaji Thero of the Gangaramaya Temple, which started organising the event at a time when Colombo saw a rapid decline in Buddhist tradition due to terrorism. Buddha Rashmi Pooja was in fact a brain child of the Chief Incumbent the temple, Ven Galaboda Gnanissara thero.
Renowned for a culture of great workmanship and creativity passed down from ancient times, Sri Lanka has a unique selection of decoration associated with Vesak, all focusing on illumination. The commonest form of Vesak lantern is the ‘bucket’, which is a bucket-shaped paper lamp with a candle stuck at its bottom.
Lantern competitions adorn the sidewalks of Colombo and the suburbs, illuminated electrically, the painstaking labour of a single man or teams of youngsters to create the most convincing lantern depicting a milestone in Buddha’s life. Alluring prizes will honour the best creations. As Buddhists across the world celebrate Vesak in their own unique way, the Embassies and High Commissions of countries such as India, Cambodia and Thailand that
celebrate Vesak are having a special display with their own customary Vesak decorations.
Along the Beira Lake, three large platforms will showcase cultural performances. Decorative hoardings known as ‘Thorana’ are structures erected at important sites. Reffered to in English as a Pandol, they are facades
of paintings depicting the life of Buddha, illustrating accounts from his many lives. Often professional commentators describe in verse the scenes or stories depicted from dusk to dawn.
Another exciting part of Buddha Rashmi Pooja are the dansal. The practice of giving is a cardinal virtue in Buddhism. It is connected with the idea of ‘renunciation’, of giving up worldly possessions in order to gradually eliminate ‘craving’, the root cause of suffering according to Buddhist teaching.
School children,various government and private establishments have their own Bakthi Geetha chorales dressed in white, singing songs of veneration on stage, at special recitals or travelling from one place to another, much to the delight of the audience. The Navy choral will sing off an elaborate barge afloat on the Beira Lake.
Thus, the festival of Vesak provides the opportunity for Buddhists in Sri Lanka to give creative expression to their religious and cultural ideals though a gamut of traditional activities. It is an important national event that strengthens faith and reaffirms commitment to the principles of kindness, peace and tolerance.