Full Moon Blessings

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

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Lessons in rice and curry

Loving to cook as I do, I am thrilled to be invited into the rustic kitchen at Gem River Edge by the two cooks. These elders are nicknamed “uncle” and “auntie”. Uncle is a skin and bones guy, his wide smile punctuated by missing teeth, his movements quick and efficient. Cooking is only one job. His real profession is electrician. He wears sarong and peers at me through thick glasses clouded with smoke and spatter.

His assistant, auntie, boasts a graying braid and a stocky figure. She walks with a slight arthritic hesitation. She smiles broadly, hugs me and declares that we are sisters. I feel welcomed, am offered a stool and tea, but choose to stand and watch.

Figure 1 Auntie at the chopping board

The main meal today is rice and curry. A vat sized pot holds plump red rice, already prepared. Along the counters are piles of vegetables, each the basis of a curry. Red onions have already been sliced and sit aside with some pods of garlic. A green vegetable that is new to me is sliced in 1/8 inch pieces. They look like a rectangular figure eights. Will I find these at Portland’s Asian markets? About eight cups of these slices are placed in a soot-blackened kettle along with approximately 1.5 cups of onion slices. Now a teaspoon of turmeric, a heaping teaspoon of curry powder, an inch of cinnamon stick, a generous sprinkling of salt and a half handful of fresh curry leaves are stirred in. Then about 3 cups of coconut milk, squeezed from freshly grated coconut mixed with water. I am surprised that no oil was used in this recipe.

Figure 2 spice cupboard

Uncle squats at the small fire heated stove, adding sticks and blowing through a tube to bring up the flames. He covers the kettle and turns to the next vegetable.

 

“Fifteen minutes”, he says. He explains that in this kitchen, very little chili is used. Guests can’t handle it and the owners of this restaurant believe that too much chili hides the taste of the food. Staff, who love chili, must supplement with pickles, sweet and spicy.

Auntie washes a huge bunch of small delicate leaves attached to tender stems. I will try to identify it, but experienced the same dish made with coriander leaves. She sets them to drain and begins to clean a stack of green onion stems. The small bulbs are removed and skinned, then the toughest outer leaves. Then the greens are chopped into 1 inch slices. These are treated as the figure eight vegetable above. Same seasonings, except that several green chilis are added, same process. These are set aside to wait their turn on the fire.

Uncle adds more coconut milk to the simmering pot, stirring vigorously. “Five minutes” he declares. Now he tackles a stack of small eggplants, halving them and slicing them into quarters. He slices some tomatoes and cuts more onion.

After the onion tops are cooked, a large kettle with about ¾ cup oil is placed on the fire. As it heats curry, turmeric, cinnamon are added to the eggplant slices along with salt and a teaspoon of crushed red chili. A teaspoon of black mustard seed is thrown into the hot oil popping loudly. The eggplant, tomatoes and onions are stirred in. Then a little water. Lid in place, the fire brings the kettle to a boil……Uncle stirs occasionally and drips sauce from the kettle into his palm for frequent taste tests.

Auntie has put a hand crank coconut grater in place. She holds half of a brown coconut to the blades and cranks vigorously. The resulting white heap will soon be added to the finely chopped leaves that she’d washed earlier along with onions, a hint of chili powder, a tad of turmeric and salt. She mixes these together with her hand, pops everything into a pot with a small amount of water to steam.

Another pot boils with slices of green mango. Uncle is toasting the spices he will add which included a heaping half cup of red curry powder, cardamom seed and cloves in addition to the spices mentioned before. He added sugar and juice from the boiling to the spices and poured all over the parboiled fruit for continued cooking.

For another dish, he threw a handful of turmeric into slices of eggplant and mixed well before deep fat frying until they were practically crisp. These were ingredients for a salad with additions of raw onions, tomato and lime/olive oil dressing.

What amazed me were his rustic tools. A coconut hull, drilled will a zillion holes and attached to a handle was the deep fry scoop. Newspaper served for draining, and newspaper rolls were his hot mitts. This kitchen is preparing three meals a day for up to 15 staff and guests with rudimentary equipment.

Carla, Portuguese wife of Muna, the founder of Gem River Edge, joins us in the kitchen to prepare dal and green beans for her one year old. I wondered if some better utensils might help. “He won’t use them. We’ve tried.” she shrugs.

She suggests that we eat together later. She explains that in the home Sri Lankans do not usually sit together for meals. They eat when and where they want. Some will fill their plates and squat in the kitchen, others may sit in a chair outside. No one expects the food to be hot.

However, when I join Carla for lunch we sit at a beautifully set table, our food presented in simple aqua tinted porcelain. We spread our hand woven napkins, serve our rice and curries and dive in. We could choose to eat with our fingers, going native. But this time, we fall back upon our own traditions. Forks, conversation and sweetened curd for dessert!NOTE OF INTEREST: Rice and curry buffets often offer an amazing number of different “curries” and several types of rice. Preparing each distinct curry takes a huge amount of time. Common additions include banana blossoms, jackfruit, long beans, pumpkin, potatoes, caramelized onions with chili, cauliflower, cabbage, fish, beef, chicken as well as several coconut based condiments. The amount of spice and coconut milk added to each curry is determined by custom and taste. There is a certain freedom in that!

Last days in Sri Lanka

What could be more glorious than a curving coast, picture perfect with massive boulders, stretches of golden sand and palm trees leaning seductively toward clear aqua water? Throw in a few graceful surfers skimming along, a comfortable chair, and a great seafood meal served beachside.

Figure 1 Weary feet: The end of the Sri Lanka trail

No wonder tourists from the colder climes are coming here in droves and a proliferation of cabanas, resorts, hotels, restaurants and bars are crowding onto this beautiful scene so tightly that only a few stretches of open coast are visible from the coast road. Having spent a sweaty, humid day touring inside the walls of Galle Fort, I was ready to enjoy that mojito, the breeze and the feel of just right water. So I hung out on this lovely beach with tourists from all over for a few hours.’

Galle Fort, which retains its formidable stone walls and bastions and most of its Dutch period colonial buildings has it charms. I watched a non-event sunset from the fort walls, ate a scrumptous and expensive meal at charmingly renovated Galle Fort Hotel, a snack at another luxury hotel, visited the two museums, and the old Dutch Reform Church and cemetery. I shopped for trinkets and visited a few better shops too. But heat and fatigue drove me to my THANK GOODNESS air conditioned room for the early afternoon.

Figure 2 Walking along the fort walls

The Portuguese, Dutch and English used this port along their trading routes…..spices and wood from Ceylon and a way point between China and India. They made money, but those who came here paid a price. The cemetery is filled with remains of those who died early of infections, malaria, drowning, and battles. The great homes of the colonial period now house luxury hotels and a historical museum.

Figure 3 Dutch Reform Church cemetery

The old warehouses are now a modern, well-organized maritime museum with a strong focus on marine archeology. Imagine how discouraged an archeologist would be if all that had been hauled from the deep, sorted, classified was washed away in a storm. That is what happened here during the 2004 tsunami. But the exhibits are great and the research and dives on the multiple offshore wrecks continue.

Figure 4: Dutch Reform Church

I found a real person’s market outside the fort walls to buy a load of curry powders and teas. As always my best souvenirs appear in cooking when I am at home.

The last leg of this journey now begins: Colombo, Italy and home.

This has been a satisfying renewal of my connections with Asia. Sri Lankans always ask. “Your first time Sri Lanka? You like?” I think the expected response is “yes and yes”. I have enjoyed the gentle people here and hope that as they achieve their goals for increased tourism their distinctive hospitality and friendliness will not be lost. Thailand had that once, now reports indicate that the early spirit so attractive to us tourists has faded.

So I leave imagining that this will be my only visit here. One to remember and cherish. Others will come repeatedly, for Sri Lanka offers diverse experiences, beautiful scenery, and a gentle and varied culture, but my “bucket list” is long and my life grows shorter!