Vesak and the Festival of Light

COVID-19 has put a stop to many things across the world. People are expected to stay home, follow safety guidelines to ensure they neither contract nor spread the virus to others. This has not only hampered daily lifestyles and livelihoods, but also religious worshipping and gatherings. 

People have been made to re-evaluate, innovate and re-think all that was considered normal before. It is the same with religions. We have perhaps been given an opportunity to re-connect with our beliefs. 

The month of May holds a very special place in the hearts of Buddhists across the world as it commemorates three important milestones in the Buddha’s life. It is said that the birth of Prince Siddhartha, the day in which he gained enlightenment as the Buddha and finally his passing away or ‘Parinibbana’ fell on Vesak – the day of the full moon in the month of May.

The Buddha and Buddhism is often associated with the symbol of light as it signifies the light of wisdom people follow through his teachings. It also signifies hope that one day we too will reach nibbana as an end to all suffering.

With over 2500 years since his passing, light is also used to pay homage to the Buddha. Buddhists light lanterns, oil lamps, construct large structures with electric lights depicting jataka stories (stories of Buddha’s previous lives), have competitions to judge the most beautifully crafted lanterns. Vesak is therefore celebrated in two fold. One as amisa Pooja – meaning paying homage by offering material things to people and prathipaththi pooja meaning homage through the practice. 

Simply speaking, people take time to study and practice the dhamma – the teachings of the Buddha, to reach the light of wisdom during the day and then pay homage by lighting lamps and lanterns in the evening. The entirety of the country is then lighted, drawing crowds across towns and villages to view the beautiful lights in the cities, a activity known popularly as ‘vesak blanna’ (to see Vesak). So much so, that there is even a popular song called, ‘yaman bando vesak blanna’ (Come on Banda, let’s go see Vesak). It is safe to say that Vesak is now called a festival of light, which has taken precedence over practicing the teachings of the Buddha. The carnival like atmosphere with vendors selling lanterns, toys, rabbit masks and what not, stalls with free food and drinks are offered, sometimes even forcefully, is a far cry from the dhamma. 

In fact, traditional Vesak lanterns were made at home and had symbolic meanings. The Ata-pattama (an octagon shaped lantern) symbolises the eightfold path. The Nelum kuduwa (lotus shaped lantern) is another symbol of the Buddha. Making these were a family affair with parents, children and grandparents getting involved. All materials were bio degradable. An oil lamp or candle was placed in the middle and hung on a tree. As the wind blows the lantern will then catch fire and the household will ponder and discuss on the impermanence of life and all material things. In recent years however, lantern making has become a commercialised affair with people buying readymade- lanterns or imported ones. Children no longer know how to make lanterns from scratch and everything is about the end result and not the journey. 

On the other side of this is that people are making a living. With so many unable to earn a wage, selling lanterns would be a way to get out of the financial crisis that they are in. This is true especially during COVID-19. 

Here are some interesting lantern making ideas we spotted this Vesak. 

WHO Sri Lanka.

This one is made using things from the garden.

This too is from WHO Sri Lanka featuring a House of Lohani design. This is an easy way to make these with things at home. 


The following lantern is also simple and easy to make at home with your younger children 

If you can find these things why not make your own atapattam lantern. Follow a step by step tutorial here. 

If you do have the PickMe app and would like to help out people trying to make a living during COVID19, why not order your Vesak lanterns through them. This is an initiative they have partnered with We Build Colombo Together. A project well worth supporting. 

If all fails nothing is more simple and beautiful than a small clay oil lamp. 

Unlike any other time, we have to reflect upon the choices we have and the decisions we need to take. Now more than ever we need wisdom over rash or easy decision-making. 

So irrespective of which religion or ethnicity you belong to, light a lamp or a lantern to give us inspiration, hope and direction during these difficult days. 

This Vesak, let us use our newfound wisdom to be kind, to be resourceful and to be innovative. Let the light show us the path to be better humans, to understand impermanence and what is right for all living beings and the planet that lives and breathes with us.

May all beings be happy and peaceful.