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Thousands of terracotta oil lamps flicker with golden light, like broken fragments of the full moon gleaming overhead. The faint fragrance of burning coconut oil mingles with the elusive perfumes of a tropical night. And the soft chants of worshippers, dressed in white to denote purity, give the scene a surreal beauty as Sri Lanka’s Buddhists celebrate the holiest day of the year, Vesak.
Vesak Day falls during the full moon every May. It commemorates the “thrice blessed day” celebrating the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Lord Buddha. But Sri Lanka has its own unique interpretation of Vesak - mingling devotion and alms-giving with spectacular displays of light.
Vesak lantern-making is a tradition still followed in rural areas with the whole family getting together to create these delicate lamps from split bamboo frames and tissue paper. Uniquely Sri Lankan in style, these often comprise a huge central lantern from which many tiny lanterns are suspended. Huge bamboo-framed paintings, pandals, pulsating with coloured lights, are dramatic displays retelling the stories of Buddha’s life.
During Vesak, free food is offered to all-comers of all religious denominations. Communities countrywide gather contributions from local residents, regardless of religion, with Christians, Hindus and Muslims all happily contributing. Each community group — whether market-sellers, a temple or suburb — selects a leader to supervise the collection and distribution of alms during the Vesak period. Temporary stalls or dhanselas where food and drink are given out operate well into the early hours of the morning. With the spirit of generosity so typical of this festival, even foreign visitors who happen to pass by the dhanselas are urged to eat and drink.