Memories of early Vesak
The Buddhists all over the world await with no less patience the arrival of Vesak Full Moon Day which falls in May every year to commemorate the Birth, Enlightenment and Passing Away of the Buddha. The fountain of compassion, the world teacher who blessed the humanity with the eternal truth of life. This is of great significance to Buddhists all over. Sri Lanka in particular.
According to ancient chronicles Vesak festival in Sri Lanka has a long record of history of over 2,000 years. Vesak binds you together by a shared cultural heritage and the wonderful Buddhist spirit. Immediately after the New Year, Vesak will be round the corner.
From the end of April to the latter part of May is the season of Vesak. This is the most precious religious time of the year, generally known as the time of spreading loving kindness and Metta, forgiving and forgetting the evil. Not only the people, even the atmosphere and the environment is afresh with Vesak fragrance with flowers in full bloom some of which are known as May flowers.
The most looked forward event after the Sinhala New Year is Vesak. Prior to Vesak in quiet serene surroundings, a series of activities take place in Buddhist abodes. Houses and gardens are well cleaned. First the houses will be in their best look with the entire floor washed in contrast to the polishing of the present era. Varnishing and furnishing too are done in preparation for Vesak.
Finally on the Vesak day, the houses are decorated to the best of their ability. Buddhist flags are flown in every house. There is the lighting of oil lamps where there is no electricity to revere and honour the Great Master. My mind goes back to the time that there was no electricity everywhere in the island, yet the devotion to the great event was exhibited in numerous ways.
The village temple was a proud landmark in olden times. Buddhist temples were there in every village serving as the centres of learning, culture and moral values. Temples had the recognition as the best for Dhamma. The interests of the people were centred round the temple with deep involvement in religious affairs, especially during Vesak.
The life in the village was very simple and peaceful. Needs were very few. They had a problem free life with good health and longevity. Their overflowing Shradda could be seen long before the dawn of Vesak.
In contrast to the expensive clothing of the New Year in April the emphasis is on pure white clothing spotlessly cleaned to suit the occasion. They flock to the temple with simple attire. Coming down from olden days every Buddhist (elderly) was in the habit of observing Atasil on Vesak Full Moon Day.
They stay the night over in the temple till the following morning, but in today’s society they terminate Sil just by six pm. Buddhists strongly believed that Atasil should be observed the proper way. At a time that the present day media was not available the temple formed the centre for all Dhamma activities.
A striking feature in the past was that, at a time that literacy was not that widespread, a knowledgeable person in the crowd reads the Banapotha (Dharma Grantha) in a slow soothing tone and others listen carefully grasping the facts in the message of Dhamma keeping up till dawn. During the day, when alms are offered to the laity they display their gratitude in numerous ways.
They offer merit invoking blessings of the Noble Triple Gem, “May all blessings be on you, for good health and finally Nibbana,” a very meaningful thanksgiving speech which is not heard and seen today in the same spirit.
I still have a pleasant recollection of a very important event of the Buddhists, where they exhibit their genuine generosity giving food in Dansalas where the average are reluctant to partake.
But today it has become a fun filled event for mischievous young crowds, especially in the urban areas. Still another memorable occasion of Vesak is the customary procession they had in the village. To me the mere mention of the word perahera takes my memories back to my childhood days at Matara.
Colourfully dressed native dancers, traditional drummers and acrobats formed the procession of a very simple nature with white clad devotees carrying white flags or lotuses with serenity. With the passage of time in contrast the processions of the day conducted are the most glamorous cultural events looked forward to annually with all kinds of events and items, which should be admired.
You can well and truly say a special feature in those good old days was what was called carol carts which used to go from house to house enjoyed by the Buddhist laity giving delight to the children. Carols probably of western origin (a feature of Christianity) was very much similar to the present day Bhakthi Gee sung in important places of the city in groups. Carol cart those days was the highlight of the Vesak celebrations.
Carts and vehicles illuminated with coloured lights tour the city singing devotional songs visiting homes of mostly affluent and the rich. Today it has become a part of our national heritage which captivates the hearts of not only Buddhists but also others. Crowds gather along the road and public places to see and listen.
I vividly remember how people from rural areas throng the city to see Vesak decorations and illuminations including commonly erected pandols. The present generation will really be astonished to see the Hell (Narakadiya) a popular Vesak decoration demonstrating the evils of sin driving the spectators to be sin-free people. Katu Imbula, the vessel of Lodiya were impressive creations aimed at leading good lives emphasising moral values.
Another popular item shown to celebrate the joy of the event was the puppet shows (Rookada netum) depicting various Jathaka stories.
The villagers also breathe life into stage drama like Vessanthara, Kaalagola, Kusa Guththila and more performing the most simple way they could draw large crowds in various places of the city.
They were well aware of traditional stories that rooted Buddhist history. Vesak seemed incomplete without Vesak lanterns, the joy of the children.
They wait till the day their dreams are fulfilled. Nothing in the world amused them, more than spending their time making Vesak lanterns of multitude of shapes.
Today this is done on a large scale, the participants being encouraged having competitions. The entire Vesak festival looked like an exhibition of religious significance, devotion and national pride.