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He discovered his interest in designing pandals at the tender age of seven years when he was schooling at Dharsashoka College Ambalangoda. Today, Jayasiri Semage is a veteran in the field having designed and created pandals not only in Sri Lanka but also in many countries in the region.
Semage said that initially working in the Art Department at the Davasa group and thereafter at several advertising agencies he became involved with Gam Udawa in 1982 when he designed the pandals for the movement.
"My Pandals are typically Sri Lankan in architecture with a modern touch. I first become familiar with the background and history of the area I am depicting, before I actually go into the designing. For instance if I am designing a pandal in Anuradhapura, I first visit the area and acquaint myself with the historical, economical and political background of the area," he said.
Semage feels that designing is an art, and to be able to depict the traditional scenes in Sri Lanka, one should have a knowledge of the countrys culture and traditions.
"For instance one is also able to choose the colour of the lights etc. accordingly and this does help to complete the image of the design," he added.
Most of the motifs he uses are based on the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy period and are therefore very significant historically. "For instance, the Pandal I erected in Japan in 1989 depicts the Jataka Story Kundalakesi whilst the pandal I once erected in front of Temple Trees during Vesak depicts the Spread of Buddhism in the World, he said.
When asked about his latest creation which will be on display this Vesak at the Peoples Bank he said that it is 200 ft. tall and built in the Samadhi Buddha Style
The Pandal depicts an important aspect of the Vesak story i.e. "Buddhahood in 250 designs". He added that it is 16 feet in diameter, with a halo around it and has over 6,000 electric bulbs.
Semage said that growing up in a typically Buddhist area such as Ambalangoda was useful in that the atmosphere was also typically Buddhist and therefore helped him to develop his creative instincts. He works with over 10-15 others and over the years has built up contacts from whom he obtains raw materials such as plywood, hard board, timber needed for the creation of these pandals.
Describing him a self-taught artist, Semage said that the cost of erecting a Pandal is steadily increasing .
"For instance initially a pandal that cost around Rs. 10,000 today costs about Rs.600,000," he said.
Semage commented that with the growing advancement in technology and the computerisation of virtually every field, youngsters interests and awe in seeing the colourful Pandals and preserving their culture is fading away. "If nothing concrete is done to preserve this culture, it will fade away .... overtaken by modern technology," he concluded.
Criticism has often been levelled by non-Buddhists and even some Buddhists that the worship of relics, dagobas, Bodhi-tree and images is a form of idolatry, a ritual and ceremony which is alien and diametrically opposed to the spirit of Buddhism. Is this criticism justified?
One may also ask whether all this respect, veneration, devotion, and adoration paid to the sacred relics of the Buddha and Bodhi tree is in keeping with the pristine and original teaching of the Buddha.
The Buddha Himself, as recorded in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, stated that four kinds of persons are worthy to be respected, and venerated by building a cetiya or stupa.
"There are four persons, Ananda, who are worthy of a stupa; who are those four? A Tathagata, Arahat, Sammasambuddha is worthy of a stupa, so also is a Pacceka-Buddha, Buddha, and a disciple of the Tathagata, and a universal monarch. And why Ananda, is a Tathagata, Arahat, Sammasambuddha worthy of a stupa? Because Ananda, at the thought:
This is the stupa of the Blessed One, Perfect One, Fully Enlightened One, the hearts of many people will be calmed, and made happy, and so calm and with their minds established in faith therein, they at the breaking up of the body, after death will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness.
In keeping with these inspiring words of the Buddha, Arahat Mahinda Thera suggested to king Devanampiyatissa, the idea of building a cetiya to enshrine the relics of the Buddha. Thus the Thuparama, the first dagaba or stupa enshrining the collarbone and other relics of the Buddha, came to be constructed by King Devanampiyatissa at Anuradhapura. The relics of Buddha were regarded as representing Him and their enshrinement was as good as the Buddhas residence in Lanka.
One can understand whether this criticism is justified only when one takes into consideration the object or purpose of a Buddhist paying respect and veneration to the Buddha-relics and the benefits it derived from it.
It is first, an expression of gratitude, love, devotion, and reverence to a great spiritual teacher who sacrificed and suffered so much to gain Supreme Enlightenment, and showed the path to freedom and happiness from the bonds and shackles of existence to suffering humanity.
We may now ask, is it not quite natural that feelings of love, gratitude, devotion and reverence, should arise through ones entire being, through acts of the body and speech as well as through ones thoughts, to one worthy of ones respect and veneration.
However, the highest form of worship of the Buddha is the diligent practice of His teachings. Seeing the sal trees blooming with flowers out of season and other demonstrations of piety the Buddha exhorted his disciples as follows:
Is the practice of offering flowers to the Buddha-relics, and the stupas which enshrine the relics a meaningless and ritualistic ceremony? To the casual observer and non-Buddhist this practice amounts to a mere mechanical act, or ritual, devoid of any significance whether religious or philosophical, but to one who is conversant with the teachings of the Buddha, this act, if done in the proper manner, is one of great importance because it conveys profound and sublime truths taught in Buddhism.
When a Buddhist offers flowers, or lights a lamp before a Buddha image or some sacred object and ponders over the supreme qualities of the Buddha he is not praying to anyone.
These are not rites, rituals or acts of worship. The flowers that soon fade, and the flames that die down speak to him, and tell him of the impermanence of all conditioned things. The image serves him as an object for concentration and meditation; he gains inspiration to emulate the qualities of the Master.
Those who do not understand the importance of this simple offering, hastily conclude that it is idol-worship. Nothing could be further from the Truth.
The path shown by the Buddha for the complete cessation of suffering is through dana (generosity), sila (morality) and bhavana (meditation) which eventually pave the way for the entire eradication of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and ignorance (moha). These evil propensities and tendencies of the mind impede the path to freedom and happiness.
On the other hand, the noble qualities of dana, sila and bhavana are present in the minds of devotees in the offering of flowers.
Let us see for ourselves how these qualities are present and to what extent they help in the elimination of greed, hate and ignorance. The flower is the acme of natures perfection. It is beauty by itself. Its beautiful colour pleases the sight. Its softness pleases the sense of touch. Its fragrance is appealing to the sense of smell. The thought of it is also gratifying.
One offers such sweet-smelling flowers to the Buddha-relic or image. It is indeed a gift or dana which eliminates for the time being greed from the mind of the devotee.
When one offers these flowers with faith (saddha) one is naturally disciplined in body and speech, and hence sila or virtue is present, and therefore he is free from any form of ill-will or hatred. When one contemplates that these fresh, beautiful and fragrant flowers will not last for long but would wither and fade away and ponders much in the same manner in regard to his physical body that it is subject to impermanence (anicca), sorrow (dukkha) and soullessness (anatta), then it becomes bhavana or meditation.
Therefore the flowers serve as the peg on which to hang ones aspiring thoughts, the mind does the rest; it makes the simple act sublime and noble.
What are the benefits accruing to one who practises such devotional meditation in the presence of the Buddha relics, dagaba or Bodhi tree? The first benefit is that it concentrates the mind and leads to its purification.
The mind is liberated for the time being from the fears and anxieties, worries and troubles, trials and tribulations that torment the minds of ordinary people.
If by practising this devotional meditation one endeavours to live as it were in the Masters presence (satta sammukhibhuto, one will feel ashamed to do or speak or think anything unworthy, one will shrink back from evil; and as a positive reaction one will feel inspired to high endeavour in emulation of the Masters great example (Visuddhimagga).
Referring to images, the great philosopher Count Key Serling writes: "I know nothing more grand in the world than the figure of the Buddha. It is a perfect embodiment of spirituality in the visible domain."
If great and eminent men who were non-Buddhists were inspired and elevated in mind by such external symbols and were able to gain some insight into the profound truths of Buddhism, need one say more with regard to Buddhists who value these objects with great adoration and reverence, and which serve them as stepping stones to spiritual heights and edification of the mind.
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