Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Poya at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara

Yesterday, July 6th, was Esala Full Moon Poya Day in Sri Lanka. The full moon period of the month is an auspicious time for Buddhists, and it's a holy day (holiday) every month. So, the entire city of Colombo emptied out over the weekend, as folks headed home to attend their local Buddhist shrines or just spend time with family. Also worth noting, no alcohol is sold on this day.

Luckily, earlier that weekend, my co-worker and I went to the Marines Annual 4th of July picnic at the State Department Recreation House (basically, a pool). We ended up meeting some fun Australian diplomats (I know, right? Party diplomacy!) and spending the rest of the weekend hanging out with them.

On Poya, two Australians, myself and another American on TDY here for a short time went to Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, a little outside of Colombo. It is supposedly the spot where Buddha taught on the last of his three visits to Sri lanka and home to some beautiful friezes in the image house. We wanted to watch people celebrate poya and generally see what it was all about.

Like all Buddhist shrines, you must remove your shoes before stepping on the hallowed ground. The compound itself was large and covered in gritty sand, which snuck in between every toe and creeped up my leg. There were scores of people there, all dressed in white. Some squatted on the ground, others had brought newspapers or sheets of plastic to sit and pray on. Still others had brought mats and were curled up to sleep in the many porticos along various outbuildings.

We viewed the reclining Buddha inside the great image hall. There was a push of people going inside, all with their hands clasped to their faces, cupping frangipangi petals. We had no idea to buy flowers (although after we left, we noticed tons and tons of vendors along the walkway to the shrine), but a kind woman silently slipped me some petals from her bag, which I shared with the others. I laid them at the feet of the reclining Buddha, along with piles and piles of others. We also gazed at a frieze that depicted a woman bringing over Buddha's tooth in her hair.

Later, when we were circling the large white dagoba where its said that Buddha preached, a woman went up to my friend Jill and offered her some incense to burn. She helped Jill light the punks and stick them in the sand pot before one of the many Buddha statues.

While we obviously stood out, what with our white legs and constant cameras, people were kind to us, offering smiles and nods as we mingled among the crowd. We left after an hour and headed for a Thai restaurant, remarking how much fun it was to be out of the city, out of the hotels and part of local customs.

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