Commemorated by Buddhists all over the world, Vesak has special significance in Sri Lanka, which boasts the longest continuous history of Theravada Buddhism of any Buddhist nation. Celebrated on the day of the full moon in May, Vesak is a tribute to the important events of Lord Buddha’s lifetime – firstly his birth as Prince Siddhartha, secondly his supreme enlightenment as the Buddha and thirdly his passing into a state of Nirvana, which took place over 2,500 years ago.
If you step into a temple during Vesak and be ready to be overwhelmed by the large number of devotees that flock to each temple to observe various religious activities. Regardless of the crowd thronging the temples, a unique calmness prevails in the premises where the soft murmur of voices reciting pali stanzas only add to the spiritual bearing.
A significant part of Vesak involves visiting a temple to offer flowers, incense and light – in the form of a clay lamp. These are symbolic acts that are conducted by devotees to pay respect to Lord Buddha and his teachings. Reciting the relevant pali stanzas devotees observe the impermanence of life when offering flowers. The fragrant scent of the incense sticks signifies the singular virtues of Lord Buddha whilst the light of the clay lamp represents the insight that dispels the darkness of unawareness. This year, the festival is to be celebrated on May 26th.
Many Buddhists commence Vesak by observing sil – more precisely ata sil (eight precepts) – at a temple where a chief priest chants the eight precepts early in the morning to devotees. Dressed decorously in white, devotees observe sil and perform religious activities throughout the day. By observing the eight precepts one determines to foster good conduct and develop self-discipline; thus refraining from engaging in any misdemeanors as described in the precepts. Further, during this day many Buddhists avoid consuming meat and alcohol and selling these items are also prohibited.
Lighting lanterns is a practice adored by both young and old alike. At home, preparation of these
lanterns begins at least a week before Vesak, bringing families and sometimes even friends together. Made in different shapes – bucket, lotus, stupa and many other creative shapes, the lanterns made in the relief of an octagon is the most famous. Generally made with bamboo sticks and tissue paper of various shades, lantern-making has changed with time as some use plastic stripes and other materials as well. Roadside boutiques sell bare frames and completed structures too. Once the frame is fixed, coloured tissue paper is pasted and to light it up, a candle or a bulb can be fixed inside the frame. As a mark of paying homage to the Lord Buddha, people also light oil lamps which is the more conventional method of illumination during Vesak.
The lighting of lanterns as well as the myriad of tiny oil lamps that are lit at temples and homes, signify the ‘aloka pooja’ or offering of light that is a symbol of the dispelling of darkness or ignorance through the light of wisdom.
Another unique feature of Vesak in Sri Lanka is the pandals – massive structures that depict panels of pictures that tell a story from either the life of the Lord Buddha, his previous births (also known as the pansiya panas jathakaya), or from the history of Buddhism. In the centre of the pandal, there is always a statue of the Lord Buddha. Thousands of tiny coloured bulbs illuminate the pictures, often blending in with the pictures themselves. The story is related to the masses over a megaphone.
These large formations are works of art that take months to complete, and involve the skills of various experts such as artists, painters, electricians and construction workers.
It is the experience of a lifetime – to bask in the glow of a lantern, to listen to a tale of yore and admire the artwork of a pandal, to eat a warm meal from a dan sala and sip a cold drink under the stars, to mingle with other Sri Lankans as they throng the streets – to do all this, is to know the heart of Vesak in Sri Lanka.