Sri Lanka reveals itself more interesting the longer one stays here. We are back here in Kandy to study snake bites and Brenda is teaching and working to improve the library at a poor school.
I decided to research some of the improvements in the country since Independence in 1948 and got involved with some historians. The idea is to link events around the first road ever built in Sri Lanka, their A1 from Colombo to Kandy. Near the start of the road is the temple of Kelaniya.
This temple at Kelaniya played an important part in the political life of the country during SWRD Bandaranayake’s Presidency, 1956-59. It is situated in the outkirts of Colombo and off the tourist track.
Kelaniya is a dormitory suburb of Colombo but has an interesting and important temple, Kelaniya Raja Maka Vihara. It is not a tourist temple but a meeting place for local people when they make offerings and take part in rituals you may not see elsewhere.
Kelaniya is important because early monarchs had their seat in Kelaniya. One King, Vibhishana, was believed to be a demon and he is depicted in ancient texts as having two enormous canine teeth deforming is mouth.
Buddha visited Kelaniya in 581 BC and his throne is said to be preserved in the dagoba. The dagoba is a hemispherical dome, painted white and with a finial on top. The dagoba is an essential part of any temple like our churches have a spire or tower. In the countryside one can see the stark white dagobas rising above the lush green jungle canopy, a haven in a harsh world.
Buddha’s chair or throne is unlikely to be still in the dagoba. The Portuguese, in their quest to convert the island to catholicism, set out to destroy all ‘pagan’ temples and artefacts. rather as the Taliban and Isis are doing today. Kelaniya temple was one they destroyed but it has been rebuilt, partly by the Dutch and by a Mrs Helena Wijewardena and her sons early in the 20th century.
When I arrived there mid-morning it was already busy with parties of school children, families, individuals and groups. Some sat in the area around the dagoba, some reading, others with hands in an attitude of prayer and others chatting together. Some organised themselves into a group for chanting and many were there to offer their lotus and jasmine flowers to the Buddha. Some were eating their sandsiches. There is none of the hushed formality and stiffness we see in Christian Churches.
The Gift Ritual
A party of mature ladies entered carrying gold wrapped gifts. Forming a long crocodile behind them were younger women and children while young men unfurled a role of red cloth above them. All helped to hold the cloth up above their heads and as more people joined the crocodile, more and more cloth was unfurled. People nearby helped to hold the cloth or went to touch the gifts in support of the giving.
The assembly paraded 3 times around the dagoba to the accompaniment of drumming. Finally the red cloth was wrapped around the dagoba at a height of 4 metres about the ground. The gifts were laid before a Buddha image.
If you are giving food to the monks you must remember that they are not allowed to eat between midday and dawn the next day.
Water for the Bo Tree
Partly hidden in a corner was a pile of brightly coloured plastic pitchers. People took one and filled it with water then lined up to pour the water over the roots of the Bo Tree. This has to be done seven times. Every temple has a Bo tree (Ficus religiosa) which came from a seed or cutting from the original Bo tree Buddha sat beneath about 2600 years ago.
Buddhists make a great play about the impermanence of life but the Bo tree is a constant vital thread running through the ages.
Elephant Kneels before Buddha
A tusker elephant made a dramatic entrance holding aloft in his trunk a bouquet of lotus flowers. He walked among us to the dagoba and knelt down offering the lotus flowers to the Buddha. Then he knelt before the Vihare (the temple building) and finally before the Bo Tree. This represents a story of when Buddha’s friends deserted him, elephants came to him bearing sustenance.
Children are often taken to the temple elephant standing in the grounds. They are made to pass three times under the belly of the beast and this is supposed to make them courageous.
Coconut Smashing Ritual
Another ritual I witnessed elsewhere in Katagaramma in the south of the country, involved coconuts. The follower brings a coconut, thinking and preparing herself concerning a certain problem or desire she has. She stands in thought by a low rail in front of a large stone. She raises the coconut above her head and dashes onto the stone. If the coconut shatters, it is a good omen. If not… Well, in practice, she gets anther coconut. The common hope is that the woman will become pregnant but they have other desires as well.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
About 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. Many of the Christians from colonial times were Christian because it secured a good government job. They have been converting back ever since. Buddhism is the establishment religion and that has caused a lot of problems in the past, particularly among the Hindu Tamil population. Islam is the fourth religion.
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