June 02, 2013


The Buddhists celebrate Poya days every full moon day. They are usually public holidays and the Buddhists go and worship in the temples. But once in a while, there is a special Poya and a lot more is done in celebration.

Vesak is one of those special Poya days. It celebrates Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. The city started it's decorations a few days before Vesak. Lanterns were strung up on many roads, buildings and houses. Blue, yellow, orange and red stripped Buddhist flags lined the streets too. Unlike many of the countries that celebrate Vesak, Sri Lankans enjoy a two day celebration. We were away in Nuwara Eliya on the first day and struggled to get back because the people from the little towns we passed through were all in the streets.

Some of the highlights of the festival is Dansals. Originally, the practice of Dansal was for families to cook food and distribute to the poor. Over time it has evolved to people putting up stalls are offering free snacks, drinks and sometimes full meals to passers by. During the days leading up to Vesak, money is collected from the homes and then used to prepare the eatables and set up the stall. Now days, everyone walks down the streets and there are queues long enough to hold up traffic.

Another feature is the pandols. They are large lit up displays of the life of Buddha usually in a timeline sequencing his birth, enlightenment and death. We passed by many, but unfortunately didn't get a picture of any. 

On the second day of Vesak, we somehow weaved our way through the heaving masses of traffic and people to Beira Lake- a big centre point of the celebrations. For Vesak, the whole lake and the island in the centre are decorated in stings of multi-coloured lights and lanterns. Lit up boats cruise the water giving people a great view of the surroundings. Along the walkway around the lake periphery were a number of exhibit lanterns all competing for the prize of 'Best Lantern'. I'm not sure what the categories were or even who the winners were, but we got to see a large variety of styles- different in material, colour, shape from pretty to interesting to grotesque. 

The lake is special because of a very significant Buddhist shrine built on the water; The Sima Malaka, designed by Geoffrey Bawa- Sri Lanka's famous architect.  For Vesak, Buddhists visit the temple to offer flowers to Buddha. We joined the large number of people and walked into the temple. The sides of the site are lined with many stone statues of buddhas in various mudra postures. I really should go visit in the daytime one of these days.

The festival in overview is one of excitement. People from all over the country flock into the capital to see the lights. Although I didn't get to eat in the Dansals this time, we munched on tasty chips and muruku while we walked around the lake. It is definitely worth braving the crowds and traffic to see the celebrations in the city centre at least once. 

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