I will not be ‘polythening’ this Vesak
I remember, way back in 1978, watching a
program on ITN. This was just after we got ‘TV’ in Sri Lanka. We didn’t
have enough programs back then to fill the day or even half a day. There
was a lot of Sesame Street and other such shows. I remember watching
what would not be called a ‘teledrama’. It was a Vesak-related story.
This is how it went
A little boy makes a vesak kooduwa with great effort. He makes the
frame, pastes the saukola (tissue paper), makes the frills and pastes
these too, fixes a candle, lights it and hangs it on the branch of a
tree. It is a pretty picture. It rains. There is wind. The vesak kooduwa
catches fire. The little boy is distraught. Time passes. He moves from
child to adult to middle-aged and old. He acquires things, loses things
and in the evening of his life remembers the vesak kooduwa. The images
of its making and its burning, the joy and the sorrow flash across his
mind. The lesson is impermanence.
Vesak koodu brings in the idea of impermanancy. File photo
I remembered this ‘teledrama’ a couple of days ago when I saw vesak
koodu (frames as well as fully decorated ones) for sale on roadside
This is the month of Vesak. It is therefore a month of festivities
and religious activities associated with the birth, enlightenment and
parinibbana of Siddhartha Gauthama, the Buddha. It is also a month of
rain. This is perhaps why the Vesak koodu that line either side of
Bauddhaloka Mawatha are cased in polythene. When cased that way the
vesak koodu lose their charm. I know there are costs involved but I have
never understood the fascination or let’s say intent to preserve a vesak
kooduwa in this manner since one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism
is the condition of impermanence. Among the vesak koodu that I saw for
sale were ones that were decorated with polythene. That’s what took me
back 32 years and to the living room of Lucky Nanda and Neelan Mama.
We are living in the 21st Century. The world knows about polythene,
about plastic, about the impact on environment. There is no lack of
communications about the importance of reusing, reducing and recycling.
These are known. And yet we defer to convenience over the health of the
planet. We want it easy right now and forget that what we do will reduce
the quality of life of our children and indeed possibly turn this
beautiful planet into an uninhabitable place for their children.
I do understand that people don’t have as much time as their parents
did and suspect this has less to do with the times than one’s lack of
understanding of the times. And time. You can buy the frames and also
the tissue paper, make some paappa with flour and warm water and do your
thing. You can hang it wherever you want. You can and must understand
and reconcile yourself to the inevitability of decay and death, the
result of subjecting vesak kooduwa to elemental play, the possibility of
wind pushing flame to lick paper, the dissolve that monsoonal shower
produces and the de-colouring power of sun.
You don’t have to teach children all this. They will have their joy,
they will break with break and they will move on. Stronger.
We make a choice when we use polythene and plastic. We don’t have to.
I remember interviewing an amazing artist, a graduate from the
University of Kelaniya, and an award-winning maker of vesak koodu. This
was seven years ago. The relevant article can be found at the following
link: http://www.island.lk/2003/06/22/leisur01.html. There was something
in Vidyartha K. Indradeepa Yagachandra’s koodu that was different and
this is not the colour, shape, elaborate structure, attention to detail,
decoration and creative lighting. It’s the fact that his award-winning
creations are made of 100 percent traditional raw materials.
The following paragraph from that interview says it all: ‘Since the
year 2000, Indradeepa has dealt solely with traditional material. It had
been a conscious decision on his part to celebrate what is intrinsically
“ours”. He often lists by his pahan kooduwa the raw materials used,
along with specimen. And so, by the side of the Bauddhaloka 2003 kooduwa,
a list read, “nava patti, puskola, matalu, pol kola, habarala kola,
kaduru, lanu, naga darana eta, ging pol, dorana thel, and kithul rehen”.
The use of natural materials has philosophical meaning to the artist.
“Buddhism, to me, is an environment-friendly doctrine. This fact I try
to exemplify in my creations.”’
For Indradeepa, the Aloka Pooja or the “light offering” is not merely
a religious ritual, it is a meditation. And the meditation does not
begin with the ceremonious opening of the kooduwa, but at the first
stage, that of collecting the ingredients. “Today one finds many
rotating koodu, but most of mine are stationary. I have seen people
stand before my creations for half an hour, transfixed in meditation.
This is the kind of response I want to provoke.
While being a celebration of our traditional raw materials, art forms
and aesthetic sensibility, a Buddhist story must also be told, a message
must exude from the whole and its parts.”
Not everyone is an Indradeepa. However, that kind of thinking is not
beyond anyone. He speaks a simple philosophy, easy to embrace and one
which rewards immensely.
The Buddha Vachanaya or doctrine can be articulated in many ways. It
can be celebrated in many ways. In whatever form of expression one
chooses it makes sense to embed the tenets of the dhamma and not its
disavowal or contradiction. I will light a pol thel pahana (coconut oil
lamp) and will watch the flame waver with wind and die on account of
gust or exhaustion of fuel. I will not be ‘polythening’ this Vesak.