How to Celebrate the World’s Best-Known Ascetic? Stop Partying, Some Say
Posted on May 2nd, 2018

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — It was time to reclaim the holiday. To put the Buddha back into Vesak, so to speak.

But as Sri Lankans prepared to celebrate Vesak, the holiday this week commemorating Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, the government shook a stern finger. The celebrations had become too indulgent, a directive warned.

The commemoration should be a time for prayer and meditation, not fun and games, the minister of Buddha Sasana, a government department dedicated to Buddhism, had declared in March. The minister banned the pandols, large illustrations depicting Buddha’s life in bright paint and neon lights, which cost hundreds of dollars and take hours to build for the holiday, only to be thrown out after the celebrations.


Worshipers in Colombo, Sri Lanka, getting ready on Sunday to celebrate the holiday of Vesak at Kelaniya Temple. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

The outcry against the ban, from citizens and within government itself, surprised the minister. A compromise was struck: The first day of Vesak would be reserved for prayer while the rest of the week would be more lighthearted. And yes, pandols would be allowed. But only on the second day.

Secular fun, excess and garish display would keep their place.

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Burning incense at Kelaniya Temple on Sunday. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times
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Worshipers at Kelaniya Temple. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

The struggle over the soul of Vesak reflects tensions in the place of religion in Sri Lanka, whose population is 70 percent Buddhist. The pandols have become a symbol of a growing class of Sri Lankans drifting away from their religion as they embrace a more consumer-driven lifestyle. The festivals have become corporate marketing opportunities.

Meanwhile, Buddhist priests decry the excess surrounding a festival commemorating a man who shunned his family fortune for an ascetic life, saying the waste around Vesak have become too much. They argue the festival as it is celebrated now often fails to promote the Buddhist traditions of simplicity and the pursuit of a life that sought spiritual satisfaction instead of acquiring material goods that they say weigh the soul down.

Vesak is celebrated in Sri Lanka when the first full moon of May rises. Buddhists across Asia observe the holiday, which may fall at different times depending on the calendar each country uses. Also known as Buddha’s birthday,” Vesak is one of the most important holidays in the religion.

We want people to focus on Lord Buddha’s birth, the spirituality,” said Piyal Kasthurirathne, a religious Buddhist preparing to celebrate the holiday. This shouldn’t become a Mickey Mouse religion.”

Like others in this nation island, he looked at Christmas’s evolution with concern: Jesus Christ giving way to Santa Claus, church foregone for boozy holiday parties. Conservative groups in the United States are also reacting, demanding the country put the Christ back in Christmas,” as the common refrain goes.

On Sunday, the devout, clad in all white, gathered at temples across Sri Lanka at the break of dawn to mark the start of Vesak, praying, burning incense or offering flowers to Buddha statues.

At Kelaniya, a temple that attracts some of the more dedicated practitioners in and around the capital Colombo, the crowds heaved in the morning’s already sweltering temperatures. Throngs of worshipers sat on the earth around the bleach-white stupa, a large dome that represents the earth’s elements and is used as a place of meditation.

About five miles away, at the Gangaramaya temple in the heart of Colombo, the urban elite gathered, those who are described as more socially Buddhist,” the type of people the minister’s decree took aim at.

Vesak commemorations at Gangaramaya tend to be more festive, with prizes given for lantern building, another tradition that has become too commercial, critics say. Families historically came together at home to build lanterns on Vesak, but now the tradition includes a popular cash prize competition, with businesses and even separate police divisions competing at temples like Gangaramaya.

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A ceremonial elephant leading a parade at Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times
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A pandol, a large illuminated display, near Gangaramaya Temple. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

A cluster of people gathered outside the temple in the late afternoon on Sunday to watch the prime minister enter for prayers. Traditional dancers wilted in the heat, under heavy necklaces made of metal flowers woven together like chain mail, extending to their bellybuttons.

They nervously eyed an elephant that was to lead their procession, as it rattled its head continuously. A thick chain around the elephant’s neck clanked loudly underneath a red and gold cape-like sheath that extended into a mask with holes cut out for the animal’s eyes.

As dusk set in and the prime minister left the temple, the procession began and fireworks announced the start of the evening’s celebrations. Bands played religious music and food stands offered free drink and snacks, a form of alms giving, although big food and beverage companies have entered the festival in recent years to sell their products.

Chinese laborers working on nearby projects arrived in yellow hard hats and bright orange safety vests, joining Sri Lankans as they bought ice cream. Two brightly lit boats filled with monks singing Buddhist songs crisscrossed a nearby pond.

Only one pandol was in the vicinity of Gangaramaya temple, out of the way, its lights turned off. It would have to wait for its debut the next day.

But dozens of tents with decorative lanterns, some 10 feet tall, dotted the roads leading to the temple, extending in a four-mile radius. When the minister announced the pandol ban in March, it was unclear whether lanterns would also be prohibited. They were spared in the end.

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Vesak commemorations at Gangaramaya tend to be more festive, with prizes given for lantern building, another tradition that has become too commercial, critics say.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times
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An illuminated display depicting a popular Buddhist tale of a woman whose family members die in various ways. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Tent number 158 drew the biggest crowd. It had a tableau depicting a shrieking eagle with flashing red eyes, its talons clutching a baby doll as it circled above an ominous landscape — a dead man, a second baby drowning in a lake, a house on fire and a bare-chested, feral-looking woman screaming at the sky. A small statue of Buddha with flickering neon lights looked down on her from its perch on a mountain.

The scene depicted a popular Buddhist tale of a woman whose family members die in various ways. After she goes mad with despair, she realizes nothing in life is permanent and she attains enlightenment by shedding her material belongings.

A female Buddhist monk looked at the scene with her peers. I asked whether she approved.

This isn’t maintaining the spirituality around our ancient traditions,” she said. But the people like it.”

The engineer of the stand, M.D. Dahanayaka, agreed but said he’d spent many Vesaks giving people what they wanted: beautiful lanterns to look at.

I asked him if he thought his stand would be disqualified, as it looked more like a display of horrors than a lantern.

Fine, it may not be a lantern,” Mr. Dahanayaka relented. But I have the support of the public and the blessing of the people.”

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Performers singing on boats near Gangaramaya Temple. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

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