Sri Lanka celebrates largest religious festival among challenges

By Uditha Jayasinghe, Xinhua, May 6, 2012

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Light sparkles on lanterns and lamps strung on the roadside and in homes as Sri Lanka celebrates its most popular religious festival Vesak here on Sunday.

Vesak is a holy day observed traditionally by Buddhists in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the South East Asian countries of Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, and Indonesia.

At times informally called "Buddha's Birthday", it actually encompasses the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Gautama Buddha. Since it celebrates the "enlightenment" of the Buddha the predominant emphasis is on the symbol of light in the celebrations.

Lantern skeletons made of bamboo sticks tied together sit stacked into piles on the edge of the road while vendors do brisk business. People are scrambling to buy colored paper to make the lanterns and for most children this is the most enjoyable time of the year.

"I am buying two lanterns for my children," says housewife Krishanthi Perera, "they love to decorate the house for Vesak and afterwards we are going to temple."

With some lanterns being as much as 640 rupees (5 U.S. dollars) most families are finding it expensive but tradition prevails and each home will have several lanterns of varying sizes and Buddhist flags with their distinct coloring fluttering their faith.

Since over 75 percent of Sri Lanka's population is Buddhist, Vesak is arguably the most celebrated religious festival with thousands of Buddhists garbed in white worshipping at temples and giving alms. The exact date of Vesak varies according to the various lunar calendars used in different traditions.

In Theravada countries such as Sri Lanka following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on a full moon day, typically in the 5th or 6th lunar month. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar, but usually falls in April or May.

In Sri Lanka long before the government has given extra holidays for the event, people in villages will visit homes and collect donations for "dansal"that will be offering food and drink to people during Vesak.

"We are having a coffee dansala," says an enthusiastic Supun de Silva from the shelter of a makeshift shed where his friends have gathered to make the beverage and distribute to all passersby.

Hundreds of dansal distributing everything from ice cream to fully fledged rice meals are open during the two days of Vesak with people all too pleased to wait in line or stop their vehicles to help themselves. This form of social service is done with much enjoyment and organizers as well as beneficiaries have much fun.

Hygiene is not much worried about and while government health inspectors are deployed to test some dansal the great majority is not policed but this does not bother most citizens. Dansal are also held by the armed forces and interestingly can be seen in profusion in the once war torn north and east of the country.

With dansal is another uniquely Sri Lankan tradition pandols. These are large paintings depicting the past 550 lives of the Buddha, believed to have been lived before he became enlightened, displayed on a large structure and festooned with mesmeric patterns of light bulbs.

Every year dozens of these pandols spring up around the country, each vying to be larger and more colorful than the next, reminding the people of the sacrifices that need to be made on the path to nirvana and passing on the legends to the next generation.

After worshipping at the temple and lighting the lanterns at home most people of all religions take to the streets to see elaborate lanterns, pandols, eat street food and enjoy themselves.

However, high electricity costs have motivated the Power and Energy Ministry to ask people to reduce consumption. This together with overall cost of living has resulted in fewer pandols than the 2011 celebrations.

On the eve of Vesak the government increased gas, milk powder and cement prices causing a shock to consumers. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quick to deflect dissent in his Vesak message that called on people to, "joy in the Buddha and his teachings that abide in the minds of all Sri Lankans.. We must be aware that all who are of wrongful mind and thinking cause many divisions and clashes that close the doors to our progress."

Principal celebrations will be carried out at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, which is the most revered symbol of faith among Buddhists.

Over 200 Buddhist monks will converge for a special ceremony which will be addressed by Rajapaksa on Sunday. Over 10 000 monks and people will also be given a massive alms giving by the temple.

Vesak has also encompassed the north and east with 20 pandols being constructed in the former war torn areas and Buddhists giving alms to their Tamil neighbors. Elsewhere it is a common sight to see people of other faiths lighting lanterns and participating in the celebrations.

As the third Vesak after the end of the three decade war is celebrated the optimistic light has dimmed but people are still hopeful of a better tomorrow.