Monday, May 27, 2013

Reflections on Vesak in Colombo

It has been an amazingly festive, busy and eventful Vesak long weekend in Colombo. Truckloads of people from out-of-town literally descended into Colombo! And, some Colomboites had snuck away to avoid the festivities, crowds and jams.

Vesak started on Friday, 24 May 2013 with the full moon poya to commemorate the birth, enlightenment and parinibbana of Gautama Buddha. It was a day of observance for devout Buddhists in Sri Lanka, which meant undertaking to observe the eight precepts, make offerings to the Sangha, listen to Dhamma talks, chant, read or study the teachings of the Buddha and, cultivate meditation with an intention towards liberation. Buddhist practitioners would undertake these spiritual practices according to their faith, devotion or spiritual aspiration.
This was officially my third Vesak in the last five years, where I've physically been present in Sri Lanka. As a foreigner brought up in a different culture and religion, now living in a Buddhist country, Vesak makes for both an educational and illuminating experience in a multitude of ways. Let me explain.

Firstly, I was ignorant about Buddhism. Since living in Sri Lanka, for me, it has been a continual learning experience (whether it's to understand the philosophy, religion, issues, politics, news, teachings) and a choice I've made to know the country and its origins more intimately.

For this reason, I spent Vesak poya day staying relatively quiet (i.e. refraining from phones, computers, radio, televisions etc.) and reading the Buddha's teachings (or more specifically, reading the Suttas and other references to the Four Noble Truths).

Surprisingly, I managed to do it. The day before Vesak I had encountered difficulty with a situation that resulted in a lot of anger and righteous indignation arising in me. I was really upset and couldn't shake those feelings. It was part of the reason I chose to do something different on this Vesak poya day. The outcome or end result of my choice and actions was something really positive for me and quite precious.

Secondly, I wished to know more about the meaning and/or symbolism behind the Vesak celebrations and festivities. When I first moved here, I didn't know about Thorang Pandal, Kudu and Dansal. It felt more folk festival or New Year celebratory than spiritual. And, I guess over the years there have been changes and some of the original intent and meaning has naturally become diluted or washed away with commercialism, desire from some parts of the population for a rowdier experience and other factors. From my perspective this is a real shame, but this is also the way of the world. The best we can do in some of these situations is to find our own way to live with change - whether it's good or bad - and seek out the goodness where it exists.

So, a quick summary of what is seen or experienced around Vesak in Colombo...


Vesak thorang pandals are usually set up during Vesak. They are large constructions built with illuminated panels illustrating Jataka stories or events from the life of Gautama Buddha.

People generally wander around the Vesak zones where the pandals have been set up. Nearby there will also be dansals and kudus so it creates an environment for people to mill around. What amazes every time are the faces, young and old, beaming up in awe at the pandals trying to decipher the Jataka story. What doesn't attract me is some of the other behavior around the pandals, which is rowdier and less attractive.

In the daytime I generally find it easier to seek out the Jataka story that is depicted. Plus, there are less crowds. But, in the evening the lights of the pandals are quite magical.  See images of Vesak Pandals in Colombo featured in the Daily Mirror.

Apparently, a massive Tele-thorana Pandal in Colombo 2 was erected. I didn't get to see this one in person, but I suspect it would have been well-worth visiting given it displays three Jataka stories -  Sariputta Mogallana, the Angulimala Damanaya and Devadatta.


During Vesak, Colombo (and much of Sri Lanka) is decorated with Vesak kudu. They usually adorn the houses of Buddhist devotees, shops and businesses, and line the streets of Colombo alongside Buddhist flags and other vibrant lighting. It is quite a colorful sight to behold.

Kudus or lanterns are lit in commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and parinibbana of the Buddha. It is believed that light symbolizes wisdom. With the offering of light it is akin to the light of wisdom driving out the darkness of ignorance. In Sri Lanka it is also offered as gratitude to the Buddha and to signify faith.

The traditional Vesak kudu is made from bamboo. It usually takes about two hours to construct by slicing the strips of bamboo into equal lengths and tying them to make square frames that form the atapattam Vesak kudu. The bamboo frame is then covered using tissue paper (sau kola) and a glue-like substitute made using flour and hot water (paappa). This is then left to dry and later final decorations are added.

This Vesak, it is less common to see a traditional kudu made from bamboo. Traditional kudu is fast becoming replaced by 'ready-made' kudu, multi-colored chinese lanterns, Christmas lights, lantern exhibitions, competitions and other influences. Essentially, what used to be a strong Buddhist symbol of gratitude and wisdom, has now been whittled down or eroded, opening the door for other things (usually commercial) to emerge.


The history of dansala dates back to the time of the Buddha when Kings and other wealthy leaders provided charity for the poor. Over time this practice has remained though it has since evolved.

This Vesak you will find numerous dansal stalls set up to offer free food or drink to the community from all walks of life. It ranges from the annual Maha Bath Dansala organized at Temple Trees to those offered by families, youth groups, and businesses around Colombo.

The variety of food and drink caters for all, ranging from rice, noodles, bread, biscuits, jack fruit, manioc, bread fruit, pickles; and beverages like cool drinks, tea, coffee, milk tea, ice coffee, herbal drinks and soup. There are even dessert dansala that offer icecreams! You can imagine how popular these are with everyone...

I was a little surprised this year to observe some pushing and shoving at some of the dansal. Not the kind of behavior I was expecting, but then again the atmosphere around the dansal area can sometimes have a carnival-feel or party atmosphere with loud music and raucous behavior around the stalls. This is probably not what was intended by some, but may have been by others. Hence the pushing and shoving kind of fits with the louder atmosphere. I've heard that people like to go and meet people of the opposite sex while enjoying the food and drink offered at dansala. Again, this promotes more of the party theme which may be at odds with those who have more of a traditional intention.

Aside from the atmosphere, there's also the question of food safety and cleanliness. In the West, this is probably one of the most crucial aspects to any large-scale food event. I wasn't that shocked to find that health inspection results for dansal across the country on Vesak day revealed that organizers of 810 of the 5,773 dansal inspected were warned and instructed to provide safe food to the public while protecting the environment. There were also reports of food poisoning in certain parts of the country after eating at dansala. The clean-up is also a concern with rubbish littered across most parts of the Vesak zone!

I spent some of Saturday and Sunday checking out the festivities and sights around the Vesak zones in Colombo. It was super busy on the roads on Saturday night, and more calm and quiet on Sunday morning - a real contrast!

At the end of it all, Vesak is what you make of it. There was plenty in the media to get wound up about, and plenty about Vesak to complain about as well! But, my genuine feeling is, aside from all the stuff externally, what is really important is what is going on with each of us internally. Maybe, Vesak, whether you're Buddhist or not, is about taking some time to reflect. By this, I mean taking some time to consider what's good in the world we inhabit, what we want to nurture (i.e. harmony, tolerance, kindness, generosity...) and, how each of us wants to contribute to it. Just a thought...


Ananda-USA said...

Dear Eva,

I have been reading your blog articles, and I am awed by your open-mindedness and ability to see and appreciate what is good in a completely different culture.

As a Sri Lankan living in the USA, and now living half my time in Sri Lanka, I have often said that what is good about Sri Lanka is not obvious; it is well hidden.

You seem to have discovered much of the hidden good. As a Sri Lankan patriot, my heartfelt thanks to you!

Eva Stone said...

Thanks Ananda. Appreciate the comments and I totally agree, what is truly good about SL is actually well hidden. Though, having said that, there is plenty that isn't hidden that is also good too ;-) Best wishes

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