Full moon is a monthly celebration in Sri Lanka, a holiday. This month families have a three day weekend to travel to places of spiritual importance to perform puja or worship. Here in Kataragama, a small village with a hybrid of spiritual traditions, I am witness. This sleepy town with shady tree-bordered streets comes to life at Full Moon and during the July/August arrival of thousands of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim pilgrims who walked and camped in the jungles for up to 45 days. They may have walked from as far away as Jaffna in the north.
This weekend vans full of Sri Lankans arrive—-group tours from temples in Colombo, extended families from far and near. They fill every bed in town and in the larger nearby city Tissamaharama. Under the roadside trees, families spread picnics or sit near makeshift kitchens set in palm roofed cabanas to enjoy their meals.
I am fortunate to stay at a small, family-oriented guest home where being in sync with nature is the key philosophy. Food is organic, much raised on family land, prepared on wood fires, in earthenware pots. Guests are served under a palm-roofed cabana at tables topped with natural stone slabs to enjoy Sri Lankan fare. I chat with hosts Carla and Muna……(Munasingha is the family name). Their style is relaxed and informal. I soon feel part of the family enjoying the play of Janit, the nearly two year old first son. I’m invited to observe puja with them, to borrow a bike for early bird watching experience or take a dip in the river that borders their land. It’s safe where the water bubbles over the rocks, but not in quiet waters where crocodiles wait.
But my first day’s focus is the Full Moon celebration. I arrive at the temple area at 5:30 to prepare for the 6:30 ritual. The moon will soon rise above the expansive leafy park where many Hindu and Buddhist shrines and an impressive mosque stand ready. Stands selling colorful fruit and flower arrangements line the lanes at the entrance. Other vendors sell cheap toys and souvenirs and offer cases of sweets. There is a carnival like vibe, without the raucousness.
Sri Lankans crowd around the fruit stands to select elaborate arrangements. Some are buying lotus and other flowers. Many are dressed in white. As I join the crowd surging across the bridge, I watch many washing themselves in the river below, an act of purification, while children frolic noisily in the water. I walk the smooth sandy paths, passing shrines lit with sparkly strings of lights or neon. Bright colored posters of gods and Buddhas can be seen inside, some boasting twinkly lights. Men and women surge past carrying upon their heads enormous platters of fruit.
Drums and trumpets draw me forward as a small band of girls and young men strut rhythmically along in shiny outfits worthy of Mardi Gras. Many costumes are decorated with peacock tails. They are followed by some adults carrying feathers and trying to keep up with the energetic gyrations ahead. The little parade disappears along the path.
Ahead is the gate to the Sivam Kovil. The shrine area’s walls are topped with peacock images; rows of elephant heads form the base. Here we leave our shoes behind to enter sacred space. Thousands of fruit laden worshipers are forming long lines to present their offerings, receive blessing and give a portion to the temple. Others are setting coconuts ablaze and then smashing them against a stone, an act of sacrifice. The major Hindu shrines in this compound are dedicated to Muragan, the protector of Sri Lanka and to the elephant headed god, Ganesha, who removes obstacles and encourages intellectual pursuits.
Figure 1the crowd enters the shrine
The lines grow to extend around the fence line. Amazingly quiet and orderly, people wait and wait to move into the shrines to offer their gifts. The line never shrinks as more and more people arrive throughout the evening. Inside the shrine, assistants take the fruit, divide it so that a portion is for the temple. The rest is returned to the donor. Exiting each donor receives a blessing symbolized by a touch of ash upon the forehead and water poured into the palm from a brass pitcher. Outside people begin to eat the blessed fruit and offer it to others. I am given bananas, coconut, and other goodies throughout the evening. I am told that both Buddhists and Hindu are participating in this ritual.
The huge Bodhi tree attracts me next, its ancient branches framing the full moon. A shiny brass fence protects the twisted trunk. The fence is nearly covered with strings of prayer flags. Buddhists place their flower offerings here and walk prayerfully around the tree led by monks. I think of the Buddha’s determination as he sat beneath such a tree. Enlightenment—reality—the way things are and a way we can each attain freedom was his accomplishment. Could I sit with such dedicated compassion?
People continue to approach sharing fruit, asking where I am from. On the following evening I visit the shining white dagoba located beyond this noisy compound. I join in the puja in placing flowers, oil and incense at the four cardinal points where Buddha images are placed.
Figure 2 lotus offerings
Tonight has been a hopeful experience that traditions can mix, that religious beliefs need not divide us.
I walk slowly away, essence of cut fruit, incense, smoke from burning coconuts sweetening the air. The huge brass bell that hangs inside the compound sounds again and again. The drummers reappear with young men jiving along with them.
The temple elephant, chains dragging and pitiful in its captivity, is led forth to enjoy the contributions of blessed fruit as streams of departing people share with him.
Elephant, may blessings come to you too.
Figure 4Full moon over dagoba