Most days, living and working in the country that celebrates the most holidays of any nation in the world is a wonderful thing. Who wouldn’t be more than happy to celebrate the birth of Buddha, the birth of Christ, two New Years and Pongal (not to mention countless other special occasions) all in a span of nine months? And sometimes you just never know when you’re going to have the day off. When I asked my friend Chamindha last month if we could together on a Wednesday (it was the Monday prior), he said, “No, that’s going to be a holiday.” “Since when?” I asked him, not having heard that there was an official holiday that week. “Since yesterday,” he replied.
In Sri Lanka, there are official holidays, and there are unofficial holidays. Almsgiving, or giving alms, is a religious rite that feels very much like a holiday, at least to me. I attended my first almsgiving in April, having been invited by a colleague who was holding an almsgiving at her house in honor of her mother’s 70th birthday. In Buddhism, monks and nuns go on almsrounds to collect food. People invite monks or nuns to their homes, often in observance of a birthday or funeral, and serve them a well-prepared meal which the monks bless before eating. Once the monks have eaten and left, the gatherers all share in a feast as well.
I showed up at my colleague’s house at 10:30am the day of the almsgiving (monks cannot eat after noon). As the other guests (mostly family members and neighbors) began to show up, I counted two sets of twins, thirty adults, eleven monks, and one ‘sudu,’ aka foreigner/white person – me :) The atmosphere was one of a bridal shower or wedding, with many women running around making preparations and a general buzz of festivity in the air. Instead of a single person being the center of attention, though (even though this was technically a birthday party), all eyes were on the monks, with their shaved heads, bright orange robes and quiet, commanding presence.
When the monks were all seated, my host and her family members began serving them while everyone else sat on the ground and watched. The monks were served rice, ‘sweet meats’ (which are just sweets), an array of curries, and fresh fruit. After eating, guests offered the monks neatly-wrapped packages of books, pens, and robes. (The host, Shumara, handed me a wrapped bundle and showed me how to properly offer it to one of the monks; as I bowed down to do so, he blessed it and gave me a hint of a smile, probably because I smiled at him, which I probably wasn’t supposed to do. I’m still figuring out the rules of interacting with monks!) The monks chanted blessings throughout the whole ceremony, and when they were done, they filed out of the house, and all the gathered guests enjoyed a delicious catered buffet. I sat in a chair in a corner of the room eating my plate of yummy rice and curry with my hand (I worry I will forget to use utensils when I return to the States) and watching people around me chat, eat, and laugh. Finishing my lunch, I thought about how to carefully word a burning question I’ve had since I moved to Sri Lanka: do monks wear underwear? Under those heavy robes, there’s gotta be something, right?? Another colleague of mine from the university was sitting nearby, so I made some small talk about monks and then asked her my question. Turns out they do wear underwear – sort of. Not sure I should go into detail about that here, but I was glad to have that burning question answered!
Here’s a quickly-put-together video of some low-quality iPhone pictures put to an audio clip of the monks chanting:
In the middle of April, Sri Lanka observed the Sinhalese New Year (සිංහල අලුත් අවුරුද්ද). It’s a major anniversary celebrated by not only Sinhalese people but most Sri Lankans, and the timing of it coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. The holiday marks the end of the harvest season and spring, and it’s the most celebrated day of the year.
It’s not always rainbows and butterflies in Sri Lanka, but there are always, always fireworks. And during the New Year holiday weekend, fireworks were fired off constantly. I’m talking middle-of-the-night, there-are-gunshots-going-off-next-to-my-head fireworks. A few friends and I spent the holiday weekend at my friend Chamindha’s house in Nuwara Eliya, and it was a blast spending the holiday doing traditional, festive things with a lovely Sri Lankan family.
It was also very tiring. This year, the specific, auspicious time of the New Year – like our New Year’s midnight – was 4:30 am. The day before, we spent the morning in the kitchen with Chamindha’s mother and sisters making and eating traditional New Year sweets, like kokis and mung kavum. For the first time in my life, I ate so much sugar (read: ran out of ways to politely decline the copious amounts of sugary tea and sweets) that I could not sleep that night. Lying awake in the dark, listening to all the celebratory fireworks, I could actually feel the sugar rushing through my veins. There are certain things I like to feel rushing through my body, but sugar, I’ve decided, is not one of them.
At 4 a.m., the household woke up, and we gathered in the kitchen for the lighting of the hearth. At 4:30, Amma (Mother) lit the fire under the pot of milk on the stove. As we watched the milk froth and bubble over on the hearth, Chamindha explained to us that having the pot of milk overflow ensures good fortune and prosperity in the coming year. Amma poured us each a cup of warm milk, we Americans “cheersed” (that’s what we’re supposed to do on New Year’s, right?) and with that, the New Year had officially begun. The warm milk settling in my stomach, I promptly went back to bed.
Later that morning, celebrations resumed, and neighbors came over to eat and play games. The town of Nuwara Eliya was full of crowds that weekend – turns out this little town in the hill country is the Times Square of New Year’s celebrations. Walking around town with my friends, I breathed in the cool, festive air. I’m one of those people who really enjoys watching other people enjoy themselves, and it was really nice to see families out and about, celebrating and having a good time. Holidays are special for so many reasons, and even though I don’t always know what to expect with Sri Lankan holidays or understand all of the traditions, it’s always fun to get wrapped up in the joyful holiday atmosphere.
And now it’s near the end of May, and Colombo is covered in white paper lanterns. Bright strings of lights drape the streets; big, lit-up lotus flowers are everywhere. It’s Vesak, or ‘Buddha’s Birthday,’ here in Sri Lanka, and the capital city’s humid streets are filled with people commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of Gautama Buddha.
Sri Lanka has been a stronghold of Buddhism since the fourth century BC, and if any occasion on the island illustrates this, it’s Vesak. The joy that accompanies Vesak is palpable; walking around Beira Lake – located in the heart of Colombo and near my house – I see more smiles than I ever have on these city streets. Buddhists make special efforts around Vesak to give to charities, serve the less fortunate, and share goodwill and happiness, so these smiles are a natural result of celebrating a very holy day.
The lights are what really get me, though. Christmas in the States (our Vesak- equivalent in many respects) doesn’t come close in comparison. During Vesak (like Christmas, it’s officially a two-day celebration/holiday, but the decorations and spirit last for weeks), Colombo shrugs off its rough-around-the-edges feel and blossoms with paper lanterns and strings of colorful, tasteful lights that adorn almost all the city’s offices and homes. Ignoring the fact that the lanterns swaying in the hot breeze look a bit like jellyfish wiggling their way through thick air, riding tuk-tuk’s and driving through the city just became a whole lot prettier.
And, this weekend, the city itself – home to a melting pot of religions and nationalities – really feels like one big community. I see no individual showcases of lights, and the only commercialism comes with all the lovely lanterns for sale on the side of the road in the days leading up to the holiday. For the first time that I can remember, I’m observing a holiday that – at least from where I’m standing – seems to be being celebrated truly in accordance to its holy roots. The message is not buried under heaps of presents or food; it’s being lived out along these lights and lanterns, under the moonlight, on people’s faces all over the city. And it’s really something.
Here’s to you, Buddha.