One of the best things about living in a country for as long as we teachers do in Sri Lanka, is that you get to immerse yourself in its culture.You get to become more than a bystander. And we got to do just that, with Vesak.
Vesak – a Buddhist festival commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha – falls close to the poya (full moon) day in May and is celebrated with much pomp in Sri Lanka. The celebration of enlightenment is taken quite literally as the streets are lined with rows of endless lanterns. Alms giving is common and people often donate food, even setting up kiosks for the same. With this background knowledge (thanks to the monks at school who answered my umpteen questions during a lesson on traditions), I was very eager to be part of the festivities.
The lead up to Vesak itself was quite fun.The entire week before the festival felt like a stop motion in which we slowly saw the streets transforming as we took our daily tuk rides to school and back. Banners were popping up. Vendors were setting up stalls for lanterns. Shops were now dressing their mannequins in the traditional white attire that Buddhists wore to temples. Each morning, we’d look out from the tuk to spot what had sprung up overnight. On the Saturday morning before Vesak, all of us assembled in the living room to make lanterns; the floor was a riot of colour and glue! Pretty soon, we had a quasi assembly line going on. Everyone had assumed a task each – from cutting lantern panels to drawing motifs to making streamers.When we started, the idea had been to spend half the day on this and then scoot off to our respective post lunch plans. However, we hadn’t fully realised how time consuming an activity this was going to be. We ended up staying in roughly the same spots till 6pm with sticky fingers and sore backs albeit big grins at our handiwork – definitely one of the fond memories that each of us will look back upon when we reminisce about our time here.
The two days before Vesak flew by with students and teachers both happy at the prospect of a midweek holiday! On Tuesday night, the lanterns went up at school and home. The festive mood was infectious. We strung more lights at home and ended up feeling like Christmas (or in my case Diwali, the Indian festival of lights) had come early! With two days in tow, we tried to make our experience as traditional as we could. For the actual Vesak day we had the traditional breakfast of kiribath (rice and coconut milk) and lunu miris (onion and chilli accompaniment) with potato hodi (yellow coconut milk gravy). Some of us headed to the nearby temple post that for the morning prayers.
<Glammed up for Vesak!>
The major highlight of course was the tour around the city as we went lantern spotting and pandal hopping. The city is organised into numerous Vesak zones – each with its own set of events from laser shows to fireworks. We decided to head to the Gangaramaya Temple by Beira Lake which was.quite a spectacle (even Modi, the Indian PM was going to make a visit in honor of UN Vesak Day 2017). We took our time to walk around. Stopping at the intricate pandals to guess which Jataka Tales (Buddhist Fables) they denoted. Buying cotton candy which was far too sweet but made us feel like we were kids again. Staring at the perehara (procession) line-up and the flamboyant costumes the dancers had on. All the while, trying not to lose each other in the crowd (frequent headcounts helped with that!). It ended up reminding me of the temple festivals I’d witnessed as a child during holidays in India. It was basically just a big fair with an overriding sense of bonhomie in the air – the perfect ending to what had been a great first Vesak.
<Lights at Gangaramaya Temple, by Beira Lake>
<One of the many Pandals lining the streets>