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Celebrating Vesak in Sri Lanka

A boat gently rolls by the wharf, brightly lit against the dark night.  The faint sound of music is heard, offering sweet relief to the ears.  A group of singers  are seen, floating in the barges. Their soothing voices leave onlookers in a state of trance: “May all beings love each other; may there be peace, may kindness touch your heart.”

The setting was divine; a sacred moment that touched every Sri Lankan and non-Sri Lankan alike. It was an honor to be in Sri Lanka at that precise moment of history: the finale of the official Vesak celebrations for 2008.  Vesak marks the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha.

The events started with an exciting boat ride to a serene island in the quaint town of Beruwela. Removed from the world of people and the hustle and bustle of day to day life, this was a slice of paradise nestled in the ocean. The Pacchapaduwa Island, also called the Island Temple is Beruwela’s hidden jewel. Visitors were greeted with a cup of herbal tea accompanied by jaggery, the local version of maple nut.

The sense of attunement with nature was unmistakable. The crowd gathered under a thick canopy of trees. Birds made sweet music offering relief to the ears.  Then, there was pin drop silence.  A Buddhist monk, clad in an Orange robe, started a melody of Buddhist chants.  Almost instantly, everyone fell into a state of trance. The sound was much like the soothing sounds of Tibetan bowls, against the background of the sound of the waves.

“Good afternoon, brother and sisters. We are here to reflect on the meaning of Vesak.” Tourists and locals alike listened intently, wanting to learn about the life of the Lord Buddha and the story behind Vesak.

“The birth of Prince Siddartha took place in Lumbini Sal Grove about 2610 years ago on a Vesak full moon day. It was on the same Vesak day that an advisor to the king foresaw that the child would definitely attain Buddhahood.

The prince spent a luxurious life surrounded by aides and advisors to look into his every need. The king took every possible measure to stop the young prince coming across any incident  that would disrupt his mental stability. Three palaces were constructed for three seasons – summer, winter, and rainy seasons. At the age of sixteen he entered into matrimony with Princess Yasodara.

After some time Prince Siddhartha was not happy living in the palace. He wanted to go out and see how other people lived. He left the palace four times. The sights that he saw changed his life. On his first excursion the Prince saw an old man; on the second, a sick man; on the third,  a dead body; and on the fourth a monk who was happy and calm. The Prince gave up all his material possessions and left the palace to find peace and happiness…”

After listening  to the monk’s words about the Buddha’s wisdom of loving kindness, the participants got up one by one, feeling calmed by the whole experience.

Upon reaching ashore, everyone was ready for a beach party. Enjoying some local appetizers, the crowd made its way to the common grounds, which was the hub of the 2008 celebrations.

Perhaps the single most distinguishing feature of Vesak is the tradition of creating lanterns. These are artistic creations, combining paintings, sculpture, and in some cases even music, into one. Their sizes vary, from a few inches to a few  yards. Each lantern is an artistic celebration of the Buddhist way of life. Traditionally, lanterns have been created from fine, thin paper, almost like cheese cloth. Modern artists however, have become more creative and make them with dried banana leaves, coconut husks, and cloth. Perhaps one of the most creative was the one made of garlic and onion skins. Not only did it have spiritual meaning, but ecological overtones as well. 

Children, mothers, fathers, and senior citizens alike were awed by the beauty of the lanterns, which were stunningly lit at night. A special booth hosted the Vesak picture postcard competition. Locals submitted an entry per person, making creative designs with leaves, sea shells, paper , cloth, and more.

The attention soon shifted to the sound of drums echoing the streets.  A group of fire dancers emerged, performing daring acrobatics. Doing everything imaginable, from somersaults, to rolling on the ground, they aptly set the tone for all the performers to follow. Then came a group of dancers dressed in red and White costumes. Belonging to a troupe known as “Kandyan” dancers, their jewelry-hugged bodies gracefully swayed to the sounds of the rhythm. Their feet had anklets had a string of bells.

Next came a group of dancers dressed as farmers. Anther group of young women proudly walked by, performing as goddesses. Standing in the midst of it all was the grand elephant, majestically parading the streets. Of course, the mahout was by its side. It was a mini procession that transformed the 2008 Vesak celebrations into a carnival.

Vesak is also a time for families to unite, to leave the past behind, to not plan for the future, but to focus on the present. Although the official days for Vesak are two days, the celebrations carry on for about four days thereafter. Typically, it falls during the third week of May.

Vesak is a great time to visit the island and do some sightseeing.  Visitors can also get a true taste of the local culture. Vesak is a great time to become an experiential traveller. Not only does it give an opportunity to sightsee, but also to become a participant in rejoicing one of the most sacred Buddhist events in Asia. Vesak is an event unique to Sri Lanka, that ought not to be missed.

Visit Preethi Burkholder’s website at 

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