TikaWeeks #35/2023: Sri Lanka update

Posted by John on 31st August 2023

A rare super blue moon lighting up last night's sky (courtesy of Steve Brown/DC Thomson)

“Blue moon, you saw me standing alone…” is the classic refrain sung by Old Blues Eyes himself but overnight we had the confluence of a blue moon and a super moon for our second full moon of the month. In Sri Lanka, full moon or Poya day is particularly significant to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority as the Buddha was born, found enlightenment and reached nirvana on the same full moon day. Every Poya day is celebrated throughout the year and each one has a different significance to the Buddhist adherents on the island.  

The Sinhalese Buddhist year begins on 14 April (New Year) regardless of the full moon cycle – in previous times New Year was dictated by the coming of the full moon in March/April, or Bak as it is known in Sri Lanka. The traditional New Year (Avurudu), common to Buddhists and Hindus, is a family festival, an occasion to exchange presents and eat traditional dishes.

The full moon of Wesak (April/May) is the most important Buddhist festival of the year. It celebrates the Birth, Enlightenment and Parinirvana of the Buddha, which took place on this day according to legend. Devotees go to the temple, offer gifts to the monks and listen to their sermons. Lamps made of clay or paper are lit in front of the house, and towns and villages have platforms decorated with scenes of the life of the Buddha.

Just as important to Sinhalese Buddhists is the full moon of Poson (May/June), which commemorates the arrival of the arahant Mahinda from India and the introduction of Buddhism to the island, a time of important pilgrimages to Mihintale and Anuradhapura.

The full moon of Esala (June/July) observes the day when the Buddha preached his first sermon.

The Nikini full moon in July/August marks the start of the Buddhist period of fasting, a time of retreat for the monastic communities. The Esala Perahera, an extravagant elephant parade honouring the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha and lasting 10 days, takes place in Kandy leading up to the Nikini full moon, contrary to its name! It is also the time of the Vel festival in Colombo and Jaffna, which honours the Hindu God of War, Skanda, who rides his gilded chariot complete with his vel (trident). Another important Hindu festival is held at Kataragama, where devotees undergo purification rituals including fire walking and bodily mortification.

The full moon of Binara (August/September) celebrates the time when the Buddha pronounced a sermon to the heaven of the Thirty Three gods, while the full moon of Vap (September/October) marks the end of the Buddhist fasting period.

Deepavali, during the Ill full moon (October/November), is the Hindu ‘festival of lights’ commemorating the return from exile of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. Oil lamps are lit in each Tamil household and fireworks light the sky. Many Buddhists also celebrate the Ill full moon and follow the Deepavali rituals and rights.

The full moon of Unduvap (November/December) commemorates the coming of Sanghamitta, Emperor Asoka’s daughter and brother of Mahinda, with a cutting of the sacred Bodhi (Bo) tree from India, a time of lustration ceremonies in all the courtyards (“bodhighara”) in the country, particularly in Anuradhapura where the sacred Bo tree resides. All Buddhist temples are constructed with a Bo tree in the precincts to signify the Buddha’s retreat to the forest to contemplate enlightenment, which took place under a Bo tree.

During Duruthu (December/January) the Buddha is believed to have visited the island and the full moon is preceded by a perahera lasting several days at Kelaniya near Colombo. Hindus celebrate Thai Pongal for the four days leading up to the Duruthu full moon, which honours the Sun God. This is the traditional period of the changing of the season in the farming calendar. Duruthu also marks the beginning of three months of pilgrimage to sacred Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada).

The Navam full moon in January/February is the occasion of a two-day perahera at the Buddhist temple of Gangaramaya in Colombo.

The last full moon of the year in Madin (February/March) seems to be without particular significance to the Buddhist community, possibly because everyone is looking forward to (and saving for) next month’s New Year celebrations! However, the Madin full moon is of some import to the Hindu diaspora. Maha Shiva Ratri marks the night when the god Shiva danced his celestial dance of destruction (Tandava), which his devotees celebrate with feasting and fairs. It takes place in all large Hindu temples on the island dedicated to Shiva, preceded by a night of devotional readings and hymn singing.

The Pekoe Trail – Stage 19: Ettampitiya to Lunuwatta

Starting at Ettampitiya, a small and busy town with plenty of shops to stock up for the walk, this challenging 18.9-km stage, with 819 metres of descent and 677 metres of ascent, is one of The Pekoe Trail’s longest and most arduous, taking up to 6 hours to complete over two distinct phases.

The initial 8 km or so is a gradual descent towards the Uma Oya, the region’s most significant river originating on the slopes of Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest mountain at 2524 metres above mean sea level, and a major tributary of the Mahaweli Ganga, the island’s longest and mightiest river.

Crossing the Uma Oya, the trail gradually begins the ascent to Nuwara Eliya and the second 10-km section, through some of the most remote parts of the tea country, is well off the beaten track where very few foreign travellers venture.

From Ettampitiya, follow the main Hali-Ela–Welimada road for 150 metres before turning right onto a gravel road surrounded by tea plantations peppered by local homes. After 1.1 km, the tea trail joins a tarmac road then peels off to the right onto a tea estate road leading down to Ettampitiya Estate Bungalow. Keep descending on the estate road until the 2.2-km point where it dog-legs back up onto another tarmac road for 700 metres before forking right onto another tea trail.

This straight path drops down past a few village homes and a local school to the serene Buddhist temple of Pallawela after 4.4 km. Keep descending on a gradually steeper and stepped path for 2.5 km, losing 250 metres of elevation in the process, to a delightful old suspension bridge at the bottom.  Crossing the river and past a local hydroelectric plant, the trail re-joins the main Hali-Ela– Welimada Road for 700 metres. After 8.7 km, cross over the river again via a concrete bridge then zig-zag uphill past village homes to the 9-km point, where the views of the Uma Oya valley are magnificent.

After 11.2 km, turn left onto the tarmac road for a few hundred metres and then onto a tea trail, looping back onto the road until the 13-km point, when you peel off to the left and then slowly begin to descend past a temple on your right. You are now back on tea trails to the 16.5-km point, where the trail traverses picturesque paddy cultivations reminiscent of Bali. At 17.8 km, it is a kilometre or so along the road to Lunuwatta, the end of this stage.

Categories: Culture, Sightseeing, Sri Lanka, Travel tips

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