Vesak Poya – The festival of Lights

Colorful Vesak Lanterns

Vesak or Wesak, Vesākha (Pali; Sanskrit), වෙසක් පෝය (Sinhala) commemorates the three most important milestones in the life of Gautama Buddha – His birth, enlightenment and Parinirvana (Nirvana after death).

Visiting the Temple is an important part of the Vesak Poya day activities of every Buddhist family. Young and old alike offer flowers and light oil lamps, with many observing sil all day. Buddhists in Sri Lanka spend the Vesak Poya day engaged in meditation and meritorious deeds, as it is considered appropriate to make a special effort to assist those in need and bring happiness to others during one’s lifetime. It is not a time for fulfilling one’s own desires. Instead Buddhists endeavour to pay homage to Lord Buddha by decorating Temples, creating beautiful decorations depicting scenes from His life and offering prayers of worship.

Vesak celebrations in Sri Lanka

Vesak Lantern in Colombo

Vesak is known as the festival of light, a very appropriate name since almost all the decorations are in the form of illuminations.

Families prepare decorations in the days preceding Vesak in their homes, consisting of paper lanterns, little clay oil lamps and intricate ‘kudu’ which are large lanterns surrounded by tiny lanterns decorated in many colours. All these are lit up on Vesak evening. The true creative talents of the people in this island emerge during this time as every lantern or ‘kudu’ is unique, and produced with dedicated devotion and piety. In recent years competitions have been organized by private and state institutions to judge the best ‘kudu’, and a very significant feature of these contests has been the innovative use of natural materials such as twigs, jute and leaves, veering away from the common practice of using paper when making these decorations.

Pandols are another beautiful expression of homage to Lord Buddha. These are huge board-like structures with illustrations of Jataka Katha or folk tales associated with the Blessed One. The entire structure and the individual sections within it are illuminated by hundreds of coloured blinking lights. The story, which always has a moral attached to it, is also narrated over a PA system for the benefit of the crowd gathered to witness this beautiful creation. A new innovation in the form of digital pandols has further promoted the theme of environmentally friendly decorations and reduced energy consumption.

Dansal: Free food and drinks for all

Dansal or alms-giving stalls are another popular sight all over Sri Lanka during Vesak, rendering an immense service to the people. These roadside stalls offer anything from soft drinks, ice cream, coffee, rice and curry to noodles and fruit salad, all free of charge. The food is bought and prepared using donations of money and dry rations from devotees, and everyone is welcome at these stalls. Operating a dansala and providing free food and drink is considered one of the most meritorious acts one can engage in during the Vesak festivities.

Historic significance of Vesak

Vesak  commemorates three significant events in the Buddha’s life. The first one is His birth. It is said that His mother Queen Maha Maya was travelling from Kapilavasthu (her husband’s kingdom) to her father’s kingdom to give birth to her first child, as was the tradition. On the way however, her son Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born under a Sal tree in the garden of Lumbini. Several brahmin and ascetics are said to have predicted that He would become either a great King or a holy man who would change the universe.

The second event which is commemorated is the Buddha’s Enlightenment. At the age of 29, he left his father’s palace in search of the truth, renouncing all worldly possessions and begging for alms in the street. His search continued through the next few years, until at the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment seated under a Bodhi Tree, in a place called Bodh Gaya in India. It has been recorded that He reached attained Enlightenment after 49 days of meditation.

The Buddha’s Parinirvana is also remembered on Vesak Poya day. The Buddha was 80 years old, travelling with his cousin Ananda preaching the Dhamma, but his health was steadily deteriorating. His Parinirvana (death) occurred in a peaceful grove of Sal trees in Kushinagar, surrounded by his disciple monks. He lay on a couch on His right, with his feet one on top of the other and His right hand supporting His head. This position has been replicated in many a statue of the Enlightened One, called the Statue of the Reclining Buddha. It is said that the Sal trees, in spite of not being in season bloomed and shed their pale yellow petals on Him as He passed into Nirvana. Previously He had preached that all compounded things, including one’s own body, must disintegrate. He instructed his followers to pay homage to Him by leading noble lives, practice love and kindness, develop their minds and bring peace and harmony to the all living beings.

Be a part of the celebrations

Vesak in Sri Lanka is an experience not to be missed. Tourslanka will customise a holiday package that will enable you to see the beautiful decorations and visit some of the historic Temples. A tour of Colombo too will be included and this will no doubt leave you dazzled and amazed. We invite you to contact us today, you can look forward to an experience that will stay in your memory for a lifetime.

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