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No fuss, no announcements, just soul-cleansing events:

Finest hours of May

Recollections of the days when the Dehiwala canal turned into the Neranjana ganga over which galloped Prince Siddhartha....

Memories of paan piti paappa, bamboo sticks and tissue paper

My very best memory of Vesak, apart from the visit to the Temple, the sight of so many oil lamps, the soothing smell of flowers, the heady fragrance of hundreds of burning joss sticks, is the smell of freshly made 'paan piti paappa' [flour paste], multi coloured 'sav karadasi', freshly cut bamboo sticks, new 'nool bola' and the pungent smell of a burning'boomi thel laampuwa'.

Yes, we had no electricity those days - certainly not in the villages - and it was under a 'boomi thel laampuwa' or a petromax lamp [if one was lucky to have one] that all this 'sarasili' activity was done.

This is, in a way, a 'pre-Vesak' memory. Actual Vesak day, or rather Vesak week memories are many. The first among them that still lights a million lights in my mind, are the Vesak pandals the Vesak Thoran. In fact we still call the Armour Street junction down Maradana, the 'Thorana Handiya' because of the memory of the resplendent pandal that was erected there every Vesak. Not many outstations boasted of a magnificent pandal, but Colombo was famous for them.

Top secret

There was the Armour Street Thorana, the Borella [C.O.C.] Thorana, The Pettah [Fish Mudalalais'] Thorana and one more at Dehiwala. Money was put aside on a daily basis for the erecting of these pandals and set aside carefully. There may have been public contributions too, as Vesak drew near. But most pandal-makers were so particular about their own pandals, that they guarded it jealously as a top secret.

From the age of about seven or eight, up to the age of about fifteen or sixteen, I used to come to Colombo with my elder brothers, by train to see the pandals and other Vesak attractions in the city of Colombo. Often, a simple display in some home front or a lit garden attracted my attention even more than the pandals.

It could have been a 'Sal Uyana' [The birth of Prince Siddhartha], an 'Abhinishkramana' [The Renunciation] the Sathara Pera Nimithi [the four signals] or the 'Kiri Pidu Daanaya'by the Princess Sujatha. Such displays though not as flashy and resplendent as the pandals, gave me a deep and abiding sense of Vesak - a soul cleansing sense.

Sometimes, the maker or makers of such displays, sat in a corner of the house front or the garden to enjoy the enjoyment of his creation by others. While the pandals blared out all kinds of details about the contents of the pandal, its creators, contributors etc., these quiet contributions of genuine artistry made no such fuss, except perhaps the subdued playing of some appropriate songs or music in the background.

When we marvelled at some of these creations, the householders would often invite us in, ask us to sit down and offer some sweet drink and very shyly introduce the young man or young girl responsible for its creation.

Unquestioned mystery

One of the most breath-taking displays I have ever witnessed in Colombo was the 'Neranjana Ganga Tharanaya' [The leap over the river Neranjana] by Prince Siddhartha. This spectacle came on display for a number of years at Dehiwala, over the then Dehiwala canal - a little away from the bridge. There was an element of surprise in this act.

We who stood on the bridge to watch this marvellous spectacle, never knew what time the show would come on. But it certainly did, at least four or five times a night - sometimes even more.

The display was signalled by a low beat of drums and the sound of a horse trotting and then galloping. The Prince - a neatly painted and attired cut-out - on the horse Kanthaka, with friend and companion Channa seated gingerly behind him, would appear from the left side of the canal, make a huge and breathtakingly slow leap over the river [by now it is not a mere canal, but truly a Neranjana river to the spectator] to the other side and gallop away. No fuss. No announcements. Just the event.

It was so secretive and dignified, to my knowledge, no one dared to go down the slope of the bridge to either find out or congratulate the creator of this magnificent spectacle. I still dont know who the creator or creators were. Perhaps no one knows - except the men who ran the 'dara maduwa' nearby ! Another very famous attraction during my teen-age days, was once again at Dehiwala - at Wally's Studio, to be exact.

The owner of Wally's studio - perhaps together with his friends, staged a play on a built up stage in front of the Studio. What was enacted almost every year, was a Jataka story, written by someone very competent to do so.

What was very special about this show was its 'voicing' cast. The voices belonged to very famous radio artistes of the day, such as Nethelie and Wallie Nanayakkara, Agnes Sirisena, Chitra Wakista, Wijeratne Warakagoda, Samuel Rodrigo, Ratnvalie Kekunawala, Gemunu Wijesuriya and a host of other famous men and women.

The actors and actresses only 'mimed' the dialogue and songs and the voices from behind somewhere, simply let go over the loud speakers. The curious part is that thousands of people from far and near flocked to Wally's Studio, Dehiwala not so much to 'see' the play but to 'hear' it in the voices of their beloved artistes.

Dialogue sans voices

Of course there were odd little moments when the mikes failed and the actors and actresses simply mimed their dialogue - sans voice ! But things would be put to right pretty soon and the show would continue.

I believe this system still prevails where pandals are displayed, not only in Colombo, but even in the outstations. I believe some of those radio [and now, TV too] artistes still lend their voices to these Vesak plays that go with the bigger pandals.

Vesak, like All other things is hugely 'commercialised' today. It has lost a lot of its piety and sanctity. It's a changing world. I wonder who can change (these changes). Perhaps we need a BUDDHA Himself. n




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