Large crowds throng Colombo for peace-time Vesak

By Himal Kotelawala

Despite the torrential rains that proceeded the Vesak Poya holidays and the threat of more rain to come, Sri Lanka celebrated its first post-LTTE Vesak festival in grand style over the four-day long weekend that saw huge crowds taking to the streets to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and Parinibbana of Lord Buddha.

Massive pandals (thoran) and Vesak lanterns were seen all over Colombo and its suburbs in what appeared to be a celebration of light and illumination. People were queuing up in their hundreds at dansalas’(stalls where food is provided free to devotees) which had sprung up in different parts of the city.

A cross section of pandals in Colombo.

Members of the Nidahas Sewaka Private Co. affiliated to the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority took it upon themselves to turn the entire Galle Face Green into a Vesak themed carnival of sorts, while maintaining the essence and simplicity of Buddhism intact.

Prasanna Kalthurage, a Director of the Ports Authority, who spearheaded the programme told the Sunday Times their goal was to provide the thousands of visitors to Galle Face an opportunity to reflect upon the virtues of the Buddha during this Vesak season.

“This is the first Vesak festival where a large number of people will be coming to Galle Face after President Mahinda Rajapaksa won freedom for the people of this country. The President proposed instead of leaving Galle Face empty during the festivities, pandals, dansalas and puppet shows be set up for the people who visited the area.

“So, we got together and came up with this programme,” he said. A 36 ft tall, 46 ft wide pandal depicting the Buddha’s three celebrated visits to the island of Lanka lit up the Galle Face Hotel side of the Green, while at the other end, choirs from the Ports Authority and Sri Lanka Air Force sang bhakthi gee (songs of devotion) on a raised platform.

In addition to the usual dansalas and items usually associated with Vesak celebrations, puppet shows were organised and street drama troupes performed for public benefit.

Employees of the Ports Authority were adding the final touches to the pandal when the Sunday Times spoke to them on Wednesday. They said the heavy rains had a delaying effect on its construction.

“We could have finished it three days ago if it wasn’t for the rain. Some days we’d come in the morning and wait till 2 o’clock to start work, because of either rain, or the drills that were being rehearsed for the Ranaviru day. Work would go on till 11 in the night,” they said.

Kalutharage said in addition to the festivities, the Sambuddha Jayanthi temple near the Sri Lanka Harbour was re-opend to devotees after a period of 15 years. Meanwhile in Borella, the Eskath Velandunge Sangamaya (United Traders’ Association) constructed its usual Vesak pandal. This pandal has always been one of the biggest, brightest and most colourful pandals in the city.

This year the pandal depicted the Ummagga Jathakaya (the numerous stories of the Buddha’s previous life as a wise man who served in the King’s court, solving day to day problems of the kingdom).
W. Dayaratne the live wire behind the project, told the Sunday Times, the 45,000 bulb pandal cost over Rs. 1.6 million to complete.

“Electricity is provided by the Electricity Board; we spent over Rs. 100,000 on that,” he said.
The project started six months ago, with different aspects of the pandal assigned to different people such as artists, carpenters, electricians et al.

“The rains delayed the implementation project, particularly the construction of the ‘katu thorana’ (the frame of the pandal made of areconut trunks). Work on this stage began around three weeks ago. Sometimes we would work even while it was raining,” Dayaratne said.

The Borella Pandal is one of the most popular in the city and draws thousands of visitors. “This year it was no different” he said. “With a peaceful situation in the country, people from all corners of the country will be coming to see the Vesak decorations despite the rains,” he said with optimism.

The Dematagoda Velanda Sangamaya also put up its usual Vesak pandal. P.K. Sudath, the electrician behind this beautiful pandal told the Sunday Times work on the pandal commenced about one-and-a-half months ago. As was the case with several other pandals, construction work was delayed due to the rain.

“If it wasn’t for the rain, we would have completed work much sooner. It was pretty bad,” said Sudath.
The 35,000-bulb pandal depicted the Dahamsanda Jathakaya. We learned construction of the frame and wiring took over a week to complete.

Like many other pandals in the city, the Dematagoda pandal used the traditional mechanical ‘drum’ to light up the pandal instead of the more convenient use of an electronic circuit. “Using a drum is a better way of wiring a pandal” he said, “because if it rains the circuits could short-circuit and that would create problems,” Sudath explained.

(Pix by J. Weerasekera, Berty Mendis, Kishan Jeewaka Rayaruk and M.A. Pushpakumara)

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