May 2017


The Light of Vesak
May 2017




The Beira Lake in the heart of Colombo is majestically decorated for Vesak
© Lakshan Hirumal

The thrice blessed day of Vesak marks the Birth, Enlightenment and Parinibbana of the Great Teacher, the Buddha. This year Sri Lanka commemorates Vesak with vibrancy while also playing host to the UN Day of Vesak.


Words: Manu Gunasena


Over 2500 years ago, in the far off plains of northern India, a prince of noble blood gives up the throne, the sceptre and the crown and sets forth from the palace gates on a fresh unknown journey, on an unknown path in an unknown quest for an unknown treasure. Six years later, on a full moon poya night in the month of May, the prince discovers the answer at the root of a sacred fig tree - Enlightenment.


Thus, on May 10 this year, when the moon waxes to its monthly climax (poya day), billions over the world will pay their reverential homage to the founder of one of the world's greatest philosophies: Gautama, the Supreme Buddha. The full moon poya day in the month of Vesak (May) is therefore thrice blessed and thrice significant, for it commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and Parinibbana.


In Colombo, while dotted at many sites are many pandals, lanterns and dansals, the capitol Vesak offering is found centered round the city's main temple, the Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo 2. The temple will hold the popular Buddha Rashmi 2017, the ‘Vesak Kalapaya' for the 11th consecutive year. This annual event covers a radius of 3km, and is held in association with the Prime Minister's office. It will begin at 7pm on May 10 and continue until May 14.


The unique theme for the vibrant Vesak Zone, which is the brainchild of the Chief Incumbent of the temple, the Venerable Galaboda Gnanissara Thero, is to portray the messageof the Great Teacher through performing arts. Many beautiful Vesak lanterns, poetry known as kavi recitals in praise of the noble virtues preached by the Buddha, and stage dramas based on his former births, grandly lit pandal depicting scenes from his life, quaint devotional songs by Buddhist choirs, are all designed to evoke the light of the Dhamma and bring home to the beholder's heart Vesak's significance.


To begin with on the first day of the 'Vesak Kalapaya', President Maithripala Sirisena along with the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will declare open the Buddha Rashmi 2017 by the Gangaramaya Temple.


The Vesak Zone will be centred between Sir James Peiris Mawatha and Slave Island Junction, around Navam Mawatha and Uttarananda Mawatha, Perehera Mawatha and Sri Jinarathana Mawatha. There will be a host of dramas staged in the evenings and there will also be an exhibition of sacred Buddhist relics and approximately 300 Vesak lanterns. A grand pandal, depicting the stories of how Sage Mahoshada solved the puzzles laid before the Buddha, will be located near Temple Trees. The Beira Lake will also play its picturesque part in the Vesak Zone. On a fleet of boats, the choir will sing the Bakthi Gee and devotional Buddhist songs. A large barge will cruise gently on the Beira Lake lit in dazzling colours with performances being rendered by the various artists. Three dansals will offer free meals and kola kanda. There will also be a display of unique Vesak decorations from the other Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.

The unique theme for the vibrant Vesak Zone, which the brainchild of the Chief Incumbent of the temple the Venerable Galaboda Gnanissara Thero, is to portray the message of the Great Teacher through performing arts.


This year, Vesak celebrations in Colombo has special meaning. The United Nations has selected Sri Lanka as the centre for commemorating the most important and celebrated day of the Buddhist calendar, thus also providing an opportunity to showcase our traditional culture. The UN Day of Vesak (May 12 - 14), which includes a Buddhist symposium and cultural show, will see an attendance from as much as 100 countries including Premier of India, Narendra Modi.


Observances on Vesak Day
It is perhaps us Sri Lankans who commemorate Vesak most, given that we as people take pride in being the guardians of the Buddha's Dhamma in its pristine Theravada form for over 2000 years. Sri Lanka is a land where Buddhism has taken deep root in its soil ever since the day when one of its founding Kings, Devanampiyatissa, was introduced to the great doctrine by Indian Emperor Asoka's missionary son Mahinda in the 3rd century BC who, proceeded to make it the state religion. The unshakeable faith of the Sri Lankan people in the Dhamma is clearly evident by the resilience that each generation has shown throughout the ages.


Therefore, it is no wonder that the waxing of the moon in the month of May is eagerly anticipated and is accompanied with a rise in religious fervor. Festive preparations are made to assemble the octagonal lanterns which symbolise the eight-fold path, the white clothes washed and made ready to be attired in to attend the temple on the full moon poya day. Dansals serve free food and free soft drinks to anyone who happens to drop by on Vesak night and the following day.

The United Nations has selected Sri Lanka as the centre for commemorating the most important day of the Buddhist calendar, thus also providing an opportunity to showcase our traditional culture.


Thousands dedicate their entire day to observe the eight precepts, called ‘ata sil' which - though many precepts pre-date the Great Teacher - the Buddha exhorted the people to observe on a daily basis as a pre requisite to moral development and vital as a base to follow the Buddha's path and gain higher planes of mind.


From six in the morning to six in the evening, they spend their time at the temple, listening to sermons given by the monks. There is also time set for periods of meditation that the Supreme Buddha declared essential for self control, purification as well as enlightenment. For many it serves as an introductory tutorial to the many techniques of meditation which they can practice later on their own.


And with the going down of the sun and as the devotees who had observed the precepts, wind their way home, the bright lights of Vesak begin to shine. Along with Buddhist homes flying the Buddhist flag high on garden masts, the octagonal lanterns are lit and hung on the garden tree branches in public view, along with candle lit buckets of varying hues. Out on the streets the dansals have opened its doors to welcome all comers. Major towns come alive at night, lit by the pandals of thousands of light bulbs. These pandals depict scenes from the life of the Buddha or scenes of his previous lives. If the dansals feed a man's stomach for a day, then the pandals provide food for thought, bestowing as they do, the ‘gift of the Dhamma which surpasses all other gifts'. It is the festival of light which serves to symbolise the dispelling of ignorance's dark.


Commemorating this thrice blessed day of Vesak reinforces the significance of the Buddha's message; and reminds us all how his doctrine of tolerance and the sublime truths he urged all to cultivate, namely, loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, have become more important to be practiced in a world of discord, driven to despair.

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    Gloriously lit Seema Malakaya of the Gangaramaya Temple
    © Dhammika Heenpella

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    An intricately designed lantern
    © Lakshan Hirumal

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    Most common lantern of all - the atapattama
    © Dhammika Heenpella

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    Buddhist flags are hoisted as a symbol of devotion
    © Dhammika Heenpella

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    Vesak decorations adorn the Beira Lake
    © Dhammika Heenpella

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    A beautiful rotating lantern
    © Lakshan Hirumal

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    Colourful bucket lanterns add much charm
    BT Images

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    The clay oil lamp symbolises spiritual enlightenment
    BT Images

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    Pandals are stories from the Buddha's past lives
    © Lakshan Hirumal

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