Monday, May 31, 2010

Vesak and a trip Up Country

With Vesak providing a nice 4 day holiday and Colombo likely to be busy as a result we decided on a trip "up country" to the high country tea estates for some R & R.

Vesak is a celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. A tidy human being, he did all important things on the same date so providing convenience to followers. The celebration is all about lights which are strung up everywhere with delightfully dodgy cables securing them and powering the globes.

This year Colombo was blessed with rain so the paper lanterns were covered in plastic bags to protect them and the surging electricity. This ensured fewer sparks and black-outs but resulted in "shrink - packing" of many of the lanterns as they heated up.

The idea of the laterns is said to have come from Emperor Ashoka's time when he introduced parades to celebrate the life of Buddha. Perhaps it is time for a little diversion about Ashoka. He was born around 304 BC the son of the Mauryan Emperor which at the time ruled much of India. Originally called Chandrashok, pretty much Ashok the Cruel, he had an exemplary life of a soldier, brutally leading his father's army to crush opposition. When he became Emperor himself in 269 BC he was no less savage in his prosecution of wars until his final war with the Kalingan kingdom. Here it is said he became sickend by the slaughter and declared;
What have I done? If this is a victory, what's a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant.... What's this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?
With this declaration came a conversion from his Vedic traditions to Buddhism. Like many converts he was zealous in his introduction of Buddhism across the entire Empire. In particular he had the interesting habit of ordering stone pillars to be erected inscribed with his edicts. They remain scattered across India.

He also built Stupas, 84,000 is estimated, and sent Monks throughout the world to spread the word, including to Sri Lanka. No doubt he felt his Kharma would be slightly skewed against him given his early enthusiasm for death. To overcome this according to Wikipedia;
Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of people was immediately abolished. Everyone became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding.

That does seem a tad extreme but he had a lot to atone for. So he now invented lovely parades to promote Buddhism: Vesak. The Ven. Dr. M. Dhammajothi says; In [Ashoka's] fourteenth Rock Edict, he mentioned about a processions conducted by him, which was very illuminated and fascinating to the masses, because images of gods, in their celestial cars with heavenly sights were exhibited in it. So for 2500 years they have been a feature of Buddhist celebrations.
So on the full moon in May/June the Buddhist world lights up. This year the celebrations in Sri Lanka were more enthusiastically embraced since it was the first following the end of the war.

Since this is a very special Buddhist festival for the week of Vesak the sale of meat and alcohol is theoretically limited. While the Government decrees business makes decisions on different objectives. Many shops do observe the ban but some don't . Of course prohibition generates business opportunities and amid the observances Toddy sellers, ganja touts and heroin peddlars are out and about. The Island reported;

Kalutara police arrested three young men on Vesak Day for drinking in public. They were having a ball in the garden of one of their friends (scarcely public). It was replete with all kinds of savouries and suddenly the police pounced on them (the savouries?), took them to the station and locked them up. The following day when they were sober (and no doubt needing their savouries) the OIC told them to visit the Sacred Bo-Tree and make religious observances.

There is no report of the where the savouries finally ended up, but certainly in custody somewhere. The same day the police also captured a man "loitering at a bus stop" carrying a kilo of ganja and had to deal with a "mother, 82, cast out on to the street by son and daugther-in-law". It was a busy day of peace and love.

So against this backdrop we headed off to Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is pretty close to the centre of Sri Lanka's widest point. The town is about 2000 metres above sea-level but where we stayed, Kandapola (14 kms away), it was 6685 feet above sea-level. This is the Tea Factory, a converted factory, now a hotel.