With just a few days for Vesak, people all over the country are busy with preparations for the great day – even the inmates behind the forbidding high walls of the Welikada prison are busy colouring their lives with the spirit of the festival.  A 50-foot pandal depicting the Swarna Mayura Jathakaya is taking beautiful [...]


Even behind iron bars, the colours of Vesak are glowing vividly


With just a few days for Vesak, people all over the country are busy with preparations for the great day – even the inmates behind the forbidding high walls of the Welikada prison are busy colouring their lives with the spirit of the festival.  A 50-foot pandal depicting the Swarna Mayura Jathakaya is taking beautiful shape under the craftsmanship of talented inmates.

‘Art Suda’: Isolated from others engrossed in his painting. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte and Amila Praboda

One of them, isolated from the others and engrossed in painting a face of a king, caught our eye. It was clear that this was an experienced hand, drawing a human image with such perfection. “That is Art Suda,” said the Superintendent of the Welikada Prison, Gamini Jayasinghe, smiling. Prisoners with artistic and mechanical talents had volunteered to build the pandal, he said, adding gravely that sometimes the most talented people were locked away in prison, sometimes for minor mistakes, while worthless people idled their days away outside.

We stood behind Art Suda, unnoticed, as he drew a hand with one graceful line. “Suda,” said an official, startling the painter who just managed to control his brush in time. Suda, 51, explained that he was an artist and had helped to make pandals even as a young man, inheriting the skill from his father and grandfather who were artists and pandal makers before him.

“This was our sole income, and we painted the temple murals, school walls and even paintings of movie stars for the town cinema,” he said. Now Suda is teaching art to fellow inmates who are interested to learn.  While they are working on the pandal paintings other inmates are absorbed in the technical side of the work. Among them is B. Jatheesan, 34, an ex-LTTE cadre who is using his campus knowledge – he had studied engineering at university.

He was enjoying working with his fellow inmates, he said, and helped them in every aspect possible. “I am looking forward for the public exhibition. My family members are also coming from Mullaitivu to see the pandal,” said Jatheesan.  This year, the prison Vesak Kalapaya will take place in Matara from May 24-27.

“For 10 years we have been holding our Vesak Kalapaya within the Western Province but now, under the patronage of the Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms Minister Chandrasiri Gajadheera, we are going to exhibit our pandal in the Southern Province,” said the prison’s Chief Welfare Officer, Padmasiri Perera.

The 50-foot pandal takes shape under the craftsmanship of talented inmates

He also explained that this time they had decided to step outside the box and have a stage drama to explain the Jathaka story shown on the pandal. “We are being extra-creative this year and going away from the traditional ways where a recording is played to relate the story depicted in the pandal.

We have arranged this stage drama, which will be entertaining and give the inmates a different experience,” said Superintendent Gamini Jayasinghe, leading the way towards the hall where the drama was being rehearsed.

“What is this noise?” a loud voice stung our ears, startling us, and if not for the Superintendent’s reassuring words which explained that it was just the actors busy rehearsing, we would have fled.

Twenty-four-year-old Kumari from Monaragala, who is playing the Devi (Queen), said she was happy to use her dancing skills again after several years. “I learnt dancing at school – and was a good dancer too! I’m looking forward to go on stage where hundreds will come to see us,” she said adding that her mother and siblings had promised to be there.

The prison officials have organised a dansala of herbal drinks and chickpeas which will be offered to the public at the Kalapaya. A perahera will take place on Thursday (May 24) in which 1000 prisoners from around Sri Lanka will participate. Funding for these events comes from well-wishers, welfare societies, prison officials and friends of the prison superintendent.

Other celebrations are being organised around the country. Vesak fare organised by the Presidential Office will be held this year at Colombo’s Gangarama and Temple Trees compound, where lanterns and other Vesak creations will be exhibited, while carvings, books, local productions and food will also be sold, with all income going to the Buddha Rashmi Charity, officials said.

Pandals are being erected in the main areas of greater Colombo such as Borella, Kirulapone, Kiribathgoda, Maharagama, Homagama and Kottawa. City hotels have organised lantern exhibitions and competitions. A giant lantern by Gunasena Kurukulasuriya will also be on display in Angulana Junction, Katubedda, the 42nd year the artist has displayed his monumental work. This year’s lantern is 60 feet high and has 12,000 bulbs and 100 satellites.

Welikada Prison, Superintendent Gamini Jayasinghe

The State Vesak celebrations will be held at the Yudaganawa Rajamaha Viharaya, Moneragala, on May 24 and 25 under the patronage of the President, and the Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs Ministry is to launch a program to develop several temples in the district.

The Buddhist Affairs Commissioner Chandraprema Gamage, said dansal organisers should not use the Buddhist flag to invite people to the dansala but fly a yellow flag this Vesak season.

Guidelines for dansal organisers, produced by the Department of Buddhist Affairs, state that all dansals should be organised with the guidance of the chief incumbents of temples and with the acknowledgement of area Grama Niladharis. Funds for the dansals should be collected under the direction of chief incumbents and with the acknowledgement of the Grama Niladharis, and dansal organisers should avoid playing loud music and inappropriate songs.

The Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs Ministry has also told the public to avoid lantern contests, musical shows and any other entertainment spectacles on Vesak Poya Day.

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