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LatestPhoto
A crowd gathers in front of a 'pandal' - a huge, ornate electrified wall painting built for Vesak. 'Pandals' can reach a height of 40 to 50 feet.
Photo: Chris Johnson

May 20, 2003
Vesak - A Buddhist Festival
  Real Audio Report
  28k


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Sri Lanka.

The month of May heralds the transition period from the northeast to the southwest monsoon season. It is also a month frequented by tropical storms and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. The other day, exceptionally high winds and rough sea conditions generated by a cyclone on the east coast, forced the Odyssey back into the port of Colombo.

Despite the weather conditions, the crew returned to port to find the festivities of 'Vesak' well underway. Vesak is a two-day, island-wide holiday falling on the full moon in May commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha. It is one of the most colourful and elaborate holidays in a country that is famous for its festivals. Sri Lankans enjoy 26 public holidays a year, more than any other country.

LatestPhoto
Each detailed painting in the 'pandal' depict a scene from one of Buddha's many lives.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Buddhism is practised by roughly 70 percent of the population and plays an important role in the country both spiritually and culturally. Sri Lankan Buddhists are devoted to the Buddha not as a god, but as a supremely enlightened being. The Vesak festival pays tribute to this belief.

Buddhism is a way of life that is based around a system of philosophy and morality. During his 550th and last life on earth in human form, Prince Siddhartha a member of a north Indian family, born around 624BC, was named Buddha. He renounced his life of ease and luxury out of compassion for human suffering. He took up a life of self-denial and, at the age of 33, on the full-moon day of Vesak, seated under a Bodhi-tree in India, realized the ultimate truth. He became known thereafter as the Buddha, the Enlightened or Awakened One, and began to teach the Dhamma (truth) to the world. Buddhists believe that only by reaching a state of desiring nothing, can true happiness be attained, and each rebirth is a direct result of the actions one has committed in the previous life. This is an evolutionary process involving many lives - each representing a new phase of spiritual development until the ultimate goal is achieved - 'enlightenment'. Buddhists believe that death with no rebirth signifies entry into Nirvana.

During the 3rd century B.C., King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka embraced Buddhism following a meeting with the son of the Emperor of India. Buddhism ultimately transformed the lives and culture of the Sinhalese, and remains a primary influence today.

LatestPhoto
Locals come to worship Buddha at Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The real spectacle of Vesak is best enjoyed in the evenings. Last night some of the crew took a trishaw (three-wheeler taxi) ride around Colombo, which pulsed with activity. The temples were crowded with monks, the occasional elephant and people paying their respects, offering flowers and worshipping Buddha. Streets, houses, gardens and buildings were adorned with Buddhist flags and decorated with thousands of colored paper lanterns called kudus. The delicate kudus are carefully crafted and beautifully illuminated. Strung together in dazzling displays, they lit up the entire city. Some are sold to locals on the street, others are elaborate masterpieces on display for all to enjoy.

Later in the evening we drove to Pettah bus station to view the highlight of the street art - huge, ornate electrified display panels called 'pandals'. Pandals are 40 to 50 foot boards that take 10 days to assemble and are adorned with colored flashing lights and paintings, depicting scenes from the many lives of Buddha. Families gather at the base of the pandals in their thousands to hear stories of Lord Buddha's lives being told over a loud speaker.

Perhaps the most charming aspect of this festival is the overwhelming feeling of unity and peace. The young and old share food and drinks, many extended families have travelled one or two days from around the country to be together. The crew was warmly received and invited to eat and celebrate with total strangers. Generosity and good will is a strong feature of many Sri Lankans we have met during our stay here.

It was certainly a privilege to share in the celebrations of Vesak. However, now that the festival is over, the crew is looking forward to returning to sea and the whales.

LatestPhoto
Thousands of colored paper lanterns light up the city along the streets.
Photo: Chris Johnson

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