Splendour of devotion
Vesak is the most appropriate time to commemorate two pious kings who adorned the annals of the Sinhala royalty with their respect and devotion to Buddha Sasana. Two brothers namely King Bhatikabaya who ruled from 22 BCE to 7 ACE and his successor Mahadhatika Mahanaga 7CE to 19CE had organised magnificent ceremonies to pay homage to Buddha.
During the reign of these two kings the country enjoyed peace as there were no wars or internal conflicts. As the Commentary to the Mahawamsaya and the Roman sources record, King Bhatikabaya sent a delegation to Romanyaka country (Roman Empire). It indicates that there were trade relations with outer world.
Peace and prosperity paved way for the benevolent kings to engage in festivals of such magnitude to show their veneration to Buddha. During his reign king Bhatikabaya was fortunate enough to organise and preside over 28 Vesak festivals.
The great poojas he did to honour Maha Chetiya, are beyond one’s imagination. Even an ardent devotee who lives in the 21st century which is enriched with modern technology and facilities would be reluctant to perform poojas of such high calibre.
King Bhatikabaya had a well planned and well organised project to comply his worthy deeds. As a preliminary step a flower planting campaign was initiated. Sumana (Jasmine) and Ujjaka (Seenidda) flowers were planted all around the city of Anuradhapura to the extent of one Yogana. This flower cultivation was well maintained.
To show his veneration, all around the Maha Chetiya from the ground level to the top of chatra was covered with a fragrant paste applied to the thickness of 4 fingers. Next on this wet paste flowers were embedded very carefully by their stems. From ‘summit to the lowest level Ruwanveliseya appeared as a great stupa, made with blooming flowers.
Do not spoil your awe inspiring picture, thinking about fading flowers. This wise king used technology to keep flowers fresh as long as he wished.
Mahawamsa explains that water from river Abhaya was raised to a high level and sprayed with the use of machinery. On another occasion flowers were decked so Ruwanweliseya looked like a heap of flowers. This king who had a beautiful taste combined with utmost piety decided to glorify the Maha Chetiya with pearls.
These pearls were well kneaded in sesame oil to give a better and lasting glow. Hundred cartloads of kneaded pearls were used in this ceremony. Can you imagine the rejoice of the pious king and the devotees when this most venerated Maha Chetiya was glittering with studded pearls during the day time and especially on moonlit nights.
Next he covered Maha Chetiya with a net studded with corals that he obtained from Rome. At the places where the net was joined lotuses made out of gold were attached, these golden lotuses were each of the size of a cart wheel. From these lotuses clusters of pearls were hanging and again they too had lotuses fixed at the end.
The king had a habit of visiting Ruwanvalisaya three times a day to worship Buddha. On such an occasion he heard a pirith chanting from the interior of the relic chambers. The king was filled with awe wished to see it with his own eyes.
He thought that due to his piety and respect for Buddha Sasana, he will be blessed with the rare opportunity. He made a vow that he would not rise without seeing them and sat near Maha Chetiya. The Arahaths knew his boundless utmost piety, created an entrance and took him in to the relic chamber. The good king who was stunned by the splendour in front of him, made models of what he saw. So everybody could also admire and worship.
Mahavamsa records another glorified offering he did with flowers and lights. Lumps of various incense, punkalas pots filled with lotuses and water lilies, types of perfumers, multi coloured stones were arranged in a manner so that every inch of the compound of Maha Chetiya was covered. Then a shower of blooming flowers were scattered all over the compound from a certain height.
In another offering to pay homage this devoted king applied fragrant clay all over the compound of Maha Chetiya. Matting was laid over this fragrant spread and water lilies, lotuses were inserted to the holes of this matting. This wise king closed the outlets for water in compound. The fragrant clay was kept wet and provided water to keep flowers blooming, fresh as long he wished.
King Bhatikabaya with his boundless devotion did aloka pooja, offering of light, too. He worshipped Ruwanvalisaya with thousands of lamps.
Venerable Mahanama, the compiler of Mahavamsaya, stressed that King Bhatikabaya fulfilled all meritorious deeds which has been ordered by the kings who ruled previously. In addition to that he organised seven types of offerings and each type was performed seven times.
Thus the praiseworthy king had 49 such offerings with elegance and grandeur. Similar ceremonies were held in honour of the Sacred Bo Tree also. He conducted and presided over 28 Vesak festivals. 84,000 ceremonies were held including drama, dance and musical orchestras.
Three times a day he visited Maha Chetiya and worshipped offering flowers. There were four alms giving halls namely Chitta, Mani, Makula and Paduma. Daily food and other requirements of Maha Sangha were offered and the people too joined with their king in these meritorious acts. His brother who succeeded him is recorded in history as the king who performed the Girihande or Giribhanda offering. Mahavamsa gives an account of this ceremony too.
The area around Chetiya Pabbatha extending to a yojana was decorated. Flags were hoisted and decorative arches and pandals were erected to add a festive look and beauty. All around the place was illuminated with hanging lamps which looked likes garlands. There were dancers, drummers, veena players, flute players many more musicians to entertain the crowds.
Dramas were staged. The road from Kadamabha nadi to Chetiya Pabbatha was laid with carpets, so people could arrive at this ceremony with clean feet. At the four gates great alms giving was held for the Buddhist monks who arrived for the Giribhanda pooja. The king provided food at eight places separately eight golden drums were beaten and 24,000 monks participated in the alms giving.
This offering came to a culmination with offering of light at the fall of the darkness. Garlands of lamps were placed over the whole Island. All around the Island to the extent of one yojana was illuminated with lamps. He must have used boats or canoes which carried lamps. What ever, it was an offering of rare and marvellous splendour.
The writer holds an MA at the University of Kelaniya