Why do Sri Lankans celebrate Vesak?
Some people see the festival of Wesak / Vesak / Vesakha as some sort of birthday celebration for Lord Buddha, but that is only partly true. The full moon day in the month of May stands for Lord Buddha’s birth, his enlightenment and his great passing away into Nirvana (more bluntly and wrongly: his death). The name stems from the fact that the commemoration always falls on the month of Vaisakha in the lunar calendar of the Buddhists. While Vesak is sometimes internationally called Buddha Day, Sri Lankans use the term “Vesak Full Moon Poya Day”. Each full-moon day of the year is also a poya day, a Buddhist holiday reserved for religious observances.
How is Vesak celebrated in Sri Lanka?
Vesak is not only about celebrating Lord Buddha, his life and his teachings, but also about spreading kindness and happiness and bringing some light into the dark. Hence, giving alms is closely linked to the Vesak celebrations in Sri Lanka. In most villages and in all cities, people will get together to cook huge meals and erect tents where everyone can sit down and eat their fill. This is called a dansala, and it takes place on the actual holiday as well as afterwards. More often than not, Sri Lankans will refrain from cooking at home on those days and don’t mind coming a long way and waiting in endless queues to receive their share. Some people offer free meals with rice and curries, others offer roasted or boiled snacks, yet others hand over tea cups, soup, Maggie noodles or ice-cream to every passer-by on foot or in a vehicle. It is also possible to offer other things for free, like a service (car wash e. g.) or non-food items like petrol. All meals have to be vegetarian. In tune with that, the week reserved for Vesak usually sees a ban on selling alcohol and fresh meat.
Religious observances play an important role too. Many Sri Lankans go to the temple, offer alms or donate money. Television and radio focus on religious themes, especially on the story of Lord Buddha’s life and also on historical dramas and Indian as well as Sri Lankan royalty. Around town, children or adults in special trucks or on daises and stages will sing devotional songs in the evening.
Feast your eyes on light, colours and splendor
So why is Vesak also deemed the Festival of Lights for Buddhists? Because it is customary to light the house with small colourful bulbs on a string, much like Christians do it during Christmas. People also make and buy intricately designed Vesak lanterns and ‘buckets’ to decorate their home and garden. On the streets you will find huge pandols – the Sinhalese term for this is thorana – that depict a scene / story from the 550 Jataka Katha that pay homage to Lord Buddha’s past life. On the evening of Vesak as well as on the evening of the following day (also a public holiday), people throng the streets to look at everyone’s decorations, enjoy free treats at the numerous food stalls, and gape at the beautiful pandols / pandals.
I’m sharing some of my own photos to illustrate what I just described (read the captions to know what is what).