Vesak poya day 2007 was the First of May. It is highly unusual for Vesak to be this early and Poson poya also falls in May on the 31st. For those who don't know, Vesak is the most significant day in the Buddhist calender.
A dansala is a form of giving free some food or drink to passers by, to commemorate this occasion but more so in history, where pilgrims on their way to and from places of worship were fed without charge, so they could concentrate solely on their spiritual renewal, and not have to be concerned about their physical well being. One can do this personally or collectively and do it over a period of days or just a few hours, depending on the ability of the hosts.
Since arriving in Sri Lanka on December 1st 2004 to live, a few weeks prior to the December 26th Tsunami, I gave two previous dansalas in Godagama for 2005 vesak and 2006 vesak. In keeping with this tradition I had established, I decided this year to have the dansala in Raja Ela at Kumbuk Thuduwa, as it was two days after my birthday and I was spending the whole week there, having notified my customers of the break in delivery during this period.
This area never had a dansala in its history and accordingly, the people did not know what to expect and were even quite skeptical that it would happen. I had asked them about what food they would like, as I wanted to give them something of their choice. I had suggested string hoppers as it is a traditional food, however to my utter amazement they wanted 'rata kama' (foreign food) and specifically noodles so I obliged with their request.
My first dansala in 2005 consisted of local delicasies, like Kavum, kokis, munkavum, kiri toffee, and others I can't remember, served on hand woven watti in a bed of Araliya flowers along with bananas and king coconuts from my land. My second dansala consisted of string hoppers and kiri bath with fresh pol sambol and kiri hodi as well as kattta sambol served on banana leaves from my trees. Fresh high grown tea and quality Hansa coffee was provided with fresh cows milk from my cows. As my spring water in Godagama is considered some of the country's purest, I gave a quality of tea and coffee no six star hotel could match, and all for free.
As in the previous occasions, I was equally insistent it not being just a dansala, but one that is complete with the solemnity of the occasion and day that was being remembered. Accordingly a lot of thought had to be given to all areas prior to this date. Sadly due to my not owning a digital camera or for that matter matter any camera, as my only camera had stopped working, I was unable to record the occasion to show here, so I will attempt to describe events in detail.
In this case the hosts were Amila, my man Friday without whom I would find it hard to function, Sudath who is responsible for taking care of the daily operation in Raja Ela and his nephew Gamini an essential and able assistant to him. I also had a silent host who most generously supported me financially in this event. Due to a family emergency where Sudath had been prevented by his wife's family from seeing his children, he took off to resolve this issue. His place was taken at the last minute by Tilak my neighbor who lives on the other side of the river from me. We all had matching sarongs and shirts for the occasion, I so wished I could have had a photo of us to post.
On the morning of Vesak, the bush telegraph went out noting that four guys were preparing to give the villages first dansala. Only Menika, my maid, who had come with her daughter from Godagama, was there to help. Within hours we had over 15 ladies from the neighborhood ready to help, without whom we could never have done this. The large cooking pots were lent to us by one household, and other people brought what they felt we were lacking. As we do not have a kitchen, we just cook our food with firewood out-doors, four sets of fires were lit outdside, with bricks to support the pots. Each one organized a specific task and amazing collective participation that took place. The automatic division of responsibilities and the level of fun they had in this task reminded me of the true spirit of the occasion.
It is a 'pina' for someone to do what they can within their power. A service performed for free is an act of receiving a level of good karma and it is with this sense of satisfaction that this voluntary work was performed.
I had decided in the interest of both being eco-friendly and also of beauty to serve the food on lotus leaves. (nelum kola) With this in mind I went in the morning to Ratmale and together with three boys from the village went to a nearby lake to cut the nelum kola and put them into the vegetable trays I have to transport them. We collected a thousand of these to take and the boys returned with me to help with washing the leaves and preparing them for serving as well as other activities for the event.
Wije my neighbor across the river had over the past week made the 22 vesak lanterns that were temporarily hung in the verandah on the Vesak morning. He had toiled to do the atapattam design (hexagon). I had provided all the paper and bamboo. The 20 that were to be hung in a straight line along the driveway to the verandah were all in white and the Chakravarti in orange. The other two, one over the entrance gate and one inside the serving verandah were much larger and in orange. Poles were planted along the drive and the lanterns hung.
Though I did not have electricity I was going to use a generator and so the wires with holders were laid out so all the lanterns were lit for the occasion. One set of men took over this task and did it beautifully alternating the lgihting between CFL bulbs and regular bulbs which gave different hues to the straight line row of lantern lights at night.
I had sown a field for transplanting on April 27th so the little rice plants had just popped up about an inch from the water. I had therefore decided to put 300 coconut oil lamps aound the paddy field because the reflection of the light in the water at night( looked like a square lake in the dark) would be a beautiful scene for the people coming in to the verandah for the food. So this had to be readied for lighting at dusk.
Then on the other side of the driveway, Amila had cut the bamboo and made a series of platforms to put a further 150 lamps along it to be lit and then more of this near the verandah as a totally lit path to the verandah. Nissanka decided to do a design of the bo-leaf with the lamps and in the ground near the river he arranged that design. This could be seen from the verandah vantage. All in total about 700 coconut oil lamps were lit for the occasion.
The piece de resistance was the 16 fires which were lit in the flowing water of the river. Stakes were set on the river. I had brought some large King Coconuts from Godagama.So those large shells were filled with coconut oil and a rag was rolled around a stick as a wick and this shell was placed on the water held by the stake. The sight of 16 fires on the water reflecting the flowing river right outside the verandah was breathtaking. These fires were still glowing at 5 in the morning when I woke up the next day.
The seting was as good or better than the fare offered. People streamaed in by foot, on push bicycles, on motor bikes, in hand tractor trailers as is common in these parts of the world, as well as cars and vans. An area had been set aside for vehicle parking. Anyone who wanted to take food home for a sick relative was also allowed to do so.
Right along my verandah mats were laid out so people could sit on the floor and then the lotus leaf put in front and the food served. There were the noodles mixed with carrots and leaks and onions, then dhal curry was served as well as pol sambol for those who could not do without it. The general comment from all was that the food served this way was even more delicious and they would never forget the event as something permanently etched in their memory.
We must have served nearly 1000 meals and this with very little publicity. It goes to show how quickly people come to a place where free food is offered even in a fairly remote part of the village.
That night as the verandah had been cleared of all furniture, I slept on a mat on the floor of the verandah satisfied with the events of the day. I could hardly have hoped for this sort of clock work without much organization on how it would be executed.
In a time when we could get a suddent rain shower the weather gods were kind and held off for a day. It had also rained for a short while the previous day.