The only special thing about August for most of us is the vacation, but in Kandy, this is the month of topsy-turvy. The Esala Perahera which was concluded successfully just last Nikini Poya (Tuesday) turns the hill city into a tense hive of activity.
Police continually patrol the streets but cannot prevent lights, colour and the scent of camphor and coconut oil burning in clay lamps from invading your senses.
Visitors from distant parts of our land and others, as well as honoured dignitaries on four feet throng the pavements of the ancient capital.
Stepping onto the streets of the town themselves is not an option during this time though; only police officers are allowed to walk on the road, and members of the Hanthana Conservation Society (HCS).
The HCS, consisting of undergraduate students from the University of Peradeniya, help keep the city clean. Every day, for the ten days of the Perahera, these students (privileged with a special pass) walk each and every street the pilgrims gather along, creating awareness of pollution and encouraging environment-friendly attitudes among them.
“Most people are appreciative of what we’re doing, and some even ask questions because they want to know more” says Niluka, a third-year student from the Faculty of Arts, “but not all respond that well.”
She recalls incidents where the pilgrims ignore them pointedly in disdain and sometimes even retort defensively to their message.
The students take a creative approach to such problems by rewarding those who show keen awareness and interest in protecting the environment. Among such rewards given to those who answer simple questions correctly, are environment-friendly cloth bags.
These bag are provided by the Central Environmental Authority, which along with the temple authorities and the police forces, make the waste management awareness programme possible as well as effective.
The amount of non-bio-degradable refuse collected during the Perahera season has reached 400 tonnes in some years, the HCS informs us, and cites the CEA as having reported a 45 percent reduction in these waste levels since the initiation of the public awareness programme in 2008.
The volunteers from the HCS as well as from schools situated close to town are awarded a certificated of appreciation at the end of the programme.
“True the certificate is useful to us,” smiles Niluka, “but the real reward is the satisfaction you get from knowing you’ve done at least that little bit to help keep the earth healthy.”