Spring in Paradise
The normal hot humid weather gives way in May to chilly but pleasant Colombo mornings. I wake up as usual to the toll of the Church bells at 5.30am. The cold makes me burrow into my pillows and pull the sheet up to my chin. My cat Choco stirs annoyingly as I have woken him up too. I lie awake listening to the morning sounds of the birds chirping in the Murunga tree outside my window, whispers of the domestic and my mother and the clatter of cups being washed for coffee in the kitchen. My internal clock is timed to wait for the prayers from the Muslim mosque at 5.45am followed by the chimes of the Temple at 6am. I live in urban Colombo and I am within short walking distance to these places of worship. Multicultural diversity at its best I guess. Today is a holiday and excitement slowly wells within me in anticipation of the day to come.
My niece’s day nanny has arrived early and she brings me my coffee to bed. As soon as I see her I spring out of bed. The nanny and I don’t have the best of friendships and I remember the three Vesak Pandols I have hanging in the living room fan blades. How last Vesak the nanny switched the fan on to get my goat, successfully. Despite sleeping late the night before I am full of energy as I turn the shower on high in the bath. Morning showers in Colombo are incredibly cold as only the rich and famous have hot water showers. Refreshing nonetheless and the best way to fully awake in the tropics.
The night before I completed the three pandols and they hang waiting the last touch of the fluffy kite paper balls for the corners. They are really intricate to make and the speciality of my third sister. Patience is required, none of which a 15 year old will ever have. I have also finished all the bulb holder streamers with intricate joints to couple with one of the bulb holders hanging in the living room. The joints and extensions are many as everything is connected to light up the colourful streamer with blue, yellow, orange and red bulbs and three extensions for white bulbs that light up the white pandols. So far in my memory although I have managed to set the trip off many times over I was never electrocuted. Not seriously anyhow. I quickly dress in my school clothes although it’s a holiday. Smart white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and white trousers. Waking my sister up and taking the fuse off for the living room fan I set off at a run to the temple down our road. The Mettaramaya down Lauries Road in Bamabalapitiya. A brief stop at my friends house and we arrive excitedly to the temple.
As we enter the tranquillity of the temple even calms the teen tempest within us. The Bo tree surrounded by the white wall sways softly to the wind. The yellow sand all over the temple grounds crunch beneath our now bare feet. It’s surprisingly cool to walk on. The innumerable jasmine trees that dot the temple glisten with morning dew and scent the cool May morning as if we were in heaven itself. As always we enter the Buddhu Mandiraya to pray for the blessings of the triple gem, the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. I wipe my feet off the sand on the big coir carpets outside before entering the big prayer room. A reclining Buddha and a sitting Buddha, larger than life size welcomes you. The tiled floor is cooling, flowers of every form and colour are on offer from Frangipani, Jasmine to Lotus. Mingled with the incense and the burning of coconut oil lamps the scent almost hypnotises you into a trance like silent meditative state.
After offering our prayer we run off to see our friend, teacher, advisor and overall psychologist the Reverend Mahinda. Never forgetting to carefully circumvent the living quarters of the Head Reverend of the temple who we are mortally afraid of. Reverend Mahinda as usual is sitting in his hansi puttwa (reclining chair) drinking a cup of plain tea. He carefully unravels the huge bunch of keys tucked into his robes and presents us with the key to his famous cupboard. The cupboard is famous only for the goodies it secrets. Every foreign chocolate, fresh fruit and all forms of biscuits reside in this cupboard. All offering from the rich Colombo ladies who travel abroad frequently. The good reverend uses this key to good effect to keep all of us well disciplined during Sunday school. Good behaviour is well rewarded by delicious chocolates from far away foreign lands such as England and USA.
After our snack and chat we are now finally ready for the day and what we have anticipated from last Vesak. About ten of us have collected now to be marshalled by Reverend Mahinda. As we are in the temple we are quiet and industrious. We break up into two groups, one to fetch the long bulb streamers and white bulbs that we’ll hang all around the temple, Bo tree and Chaitya. The others fetch the long bamboo stems, white kite paper and wheat flour to mix with water for paste. A basic vesak pandol is built by cutting 24 thin bamboo sticks to one length. Then you proceed to tie them into square of four. Finally these are tied to each other to create a hexagon shape. This is then hung on a tree at reachable height. The white kite paper is cut into squares and carefully pasted on to the hexagon frame. White streamers are added to the bottom and the four corners. White kite paper is preferable but people to build more colourful ones with different colours of kite paper. We hustle around attending to our tasks and are careful not to disturb the gathering of sil mathas (usually old ladies who celebrate Vesak, the birth of Lord Buddha by observing prayers to the triple gem all day and fasting).
Late lunch time and our stomachs begun to rumble. Hunger is secondary when you are a teenager on a mission, but as all teenagers are, food is a must. So we quickly break up to head home. At home I quickly eat my lunch. My sister has finished the pandol décor and I proceed to quickly hang the colour light bulb streamers and the pandols. Superstition and habit prevent me from testing the lights, a ritual left for late evening when darkness descends. All of us gather again at the temple late afternoon. Now we hurry, hurry to finish all our tasks before the thousands of devotees flock to the temple to celebrate the birth of Buddha and offer their prayers. As usual we finish at the very last moment. Tired and weary our white clothes are now drenched with sweat and all the dirt accumulated during the day with the entire cutting, hammering, tying and pasting. Finally the Reverend Mahinda arrives to cast his final glance over everything and switch everything on. The pandols sway in the evening wind, the temple is now brightly lit with all the bulbs and we all now run home to get ready for the night.
I arrive home, have a quick dinner and complete my own ritual of switching on the lights of my three pandols and the streamers at home. My family is all there to see and everyone commends me on a good job. I shower quickly and this time around dress in traditional Sri Lankan dress of a white lunghi and a long sleeved white shirt with a low collar. White flowers have been picked by my sisters to take to the temple along with oil for lamps and incense.
The temple is a short walk away. As we all leave I look back at my decorations at home in pride. Back at the temple all of us teenagers assemble again to organise the lighting and hanging of the coloured Vesak lanterns all over the temple trees. We are encouraged by the Reverends to involve all the children who are at the temple. Everyone excitedly runs around lighting the lanterns with the candles inside them. Finally it’s all finished. The core of us who laboured during the day finally takes time out to admire the fruits of our toil.
Even as a teenager I still remember how my heart would swell with pride at the beautiful sight of our temple and a small tear of joy would gather at the corner of my eye. The temple would blaze with glory in light, a pandols rustling and swaying gently in the wind. Our parents, the sil mathas, worshippers and the reverends would all smile and acknowledge us as the architect of the most satisfying aspect of Vesak – Decorating and lighting up our temple for Vesak in home to the Lord Buddha and blessing of the triple gem.