Words by: Wijith DeChickera
Three moons in a row make a mini-tourist season. With Vesak behind us, and Poson and Esala ahead, you will find the night skies suddenly ablaze with the brightest of moons!
With all its noonday brightness and nocturnal beauty, Vesak is arguably the island’s most brilliantly lit Buddhist festival. Signifying a triad of the most important events in the Buddha’s last incarnation – birth, enlightenment and death – it embraces Sri Lankans of all faiths with its serenity.
Despite a plethora of philosophies to divide us, the fifth full moon of the Western calendar brings a canopy of peace and unity that falls like a gentle canvas over the island in mid-May. Even militant monks are strangely tranquil during this period.
Could it be that there is balm for the troubled spirit in basic spiritual truths?
Be that as it may, in a sense, Vesak overshadows to some extent two equally significant poya days in the Buddhist calendar. The full moons in June and July bring in quick succession twin festivals that have great potential to seal Sri Lanka’s destiny as a religious tourism hub.
The second has more to do with beginnings, origins and geneses than the first. Esala commemorates the conception of Gautama Siddhārtha in his mother Queen Maya’s womb, the Bodhisattva’s ‘Great Renunciation’ and the Buddha’s first sermon to the five ascetics who followed him.
Among other events of import, it marks the ordination of the first Sri Lankan monk Prince Arittha, a nephew of King Devanampiya Tissa, by the venerated Arahant Mahinda in Mihintale as well as the laying of the foundation of the Ruwanweliseya – arguably the most important of the great stupas – in Anuradhapura by King Dutugemunu later.
But it is in the omphalos or navel of contemporary Sinhalese-Buddhist topology Kandy that Esala comes to an annual climax with the eponymous perahera (ceremonial procession). That pièce de résistance of Sri Lankan peraheras is preceded by a plethora of minor processions – those of the four devales, which are the abodes of this many-splendoured isle’s supposed guardian deities Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini.
Apart from the majestic spectre of gaudily caparisoned elephants, and the solemn grandeur of the Temple of the Tooth that’s illuminated to highlight its most significant facets and hypnotic thrumming of Kandyan drummers, the pageants proffer an audio-visual fiesta that cannot but enthral devotees and casual observers, including excited children and tourists alike.
Of course, the centrepiece is the Great Tooth Relic, the putative legacy of Gautama Buddha to the land of Sri Lanka… but you don’t have to subscribe to Buddhist philosophy to be gobsmacked by the mesmerising spectacles on offer for day trippers, more seasoned travellers and the obligatory seasonal hordes of ‘Esala tourists.’
A month before the panoply of peraheras in our ancient civilisation’s relatively recent hill capital, Anuradhapura to some extent and Mihintale in the main are the cynosures. For Poson is a time when peasant and philosopher join heart and mind to recall the advent of their faith to the land of Lanka.
Mihintale’s monastic complex – mysteriously beckon—ing from afar on a full-moon night in June – is the site where the converted Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s son Mahinda introduced the island’s ruler to the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path.
Fervent devotees – reckoning Poson second only to Vesak in primacy – beat their paths off the beaten tracks of Mihintale’s mystic escarpment, seeking out even abandoned dagobas on abutting hillocks where they remember the planting of their historic philosophy in local soil.
Not only here in the cradle of Ceylonese-Buddhism but islandwide too, the religious observe sil, offer bodhi poojas, host dansal (those doyens of often delicious culinary charity), chant devotional anthems and enjoy the folk narratives depicted on pandols (the Portuguese contribution to ‘protestant’ Buddhist culture). As at Vesak, lanterns adorn homes, shops and the streets.
At Poson and Esala, arguably the best features of our ancient civilisation shine forth as serenely as the moon. And with it come abstinence from traditional fleshly indulgences, goodwill to all beings and contemplation of the meaning of life…
And the crème de la crème of the cultural repast, as modern Ceylon became postmodern Sri Lanka in the 21st century, could be if this trinity of full moons (Vesak, Poson and Esala) were to be positioned at home, marketed abroad and enshrined in our global village as the epitome of religious tourism in Asia…