Vesak in Jaffna: Manifestation of cultural unity | Sunday Observer

Vesak in Jaffna: Manifestation of cultural unity

The festival of lights and lanterns is synonymous with the month of May. It is a time for reflection. For almost 25 years I had witnessed Vesak celebrations in Colombo. It was time for a change of location, and we selected Jaffna. We set off on Friday night by A/C bus as the trains were fully booked. Reaching Jaffna town which was quiet at about 5.20am we met up with the officers of Army Media, attached to SFJ- Security Force Head Quarters Jaffna. They had kindly updated me on their Vesak plans a few weeks ago. This was the first grand Vesak in Jaffna after 30 long years. We ventured into town on Saturday evening to see what was in store for this vibrant celebration. As we took the turn passing the Jaffna Fort the ‘Vesak Zone’ was almost complete and was a hive of activity, with soldiers and civilians moving back and forth. Ropes and wires were being sorted out. Yet another group of soldiers were doing sound checks as men of the military police were planning traffic routes along with local policemen. The sacred relics on display were to be kept at Weerasingham Hall.

During this time I met a young lady officer attached to Army Women’s Corps. 23 -year -old Ganguli Dharmasena is a Second Lieutenant on her first military posting, attached to KKS Army Women’s Detachment. She was all smiles as we walked up to her. She is a resident of Matale. She said “I am happy to be stationed here. I have learnt to speak basic Tamil language. We are able to interact with other women who come to our camp for help”. Like her, there are many young women serving in the Northern Province.

The lanterns on display were put together by soldiers from various regiments, attached to the army 51Division, 52 Division and 55 Division. We spoke to some soldiers who were from various parts of the South and Hill country areas of Sri Lanka. These young men all aged between 19 and 25 were very jubilant as they were able to share the experience of Vesak with their Tamil speaking brothers and sisters in the North.

Some ice cream vans were already moving into position. We stopped and had a Yarl Special- a big glass of vanilla and strawberry ice cream loaded with mangoes. Wow! What a relish. The young man selling ice cream was happy. He said “This is the first time in my life I am going to witness vesak. We are keen to see and understand Buddhist customs and rituals”. This is the positive and wise attitude one must have living in a multi cultural nation as ours. As we drove back to Palaly we were able to see many private buses, brining Buddhist pilgrims, curious young boys and girls- some making their first visit to Jaffna.

On Sunday evening we made our way into town, amidst heavy traffic. The roads were filling with people- Muslim, Tamil, Sinhalese and hundreds of interested foreigners. I spoke to a foreign couple who were stunned to see such a large religious celebration. They also commented that such events must be given more publicity in foreign media and social media platforms so that other likeminded tourists can witness same. As we walked upto Weerasingham Hall, I met a known officer Maj. General. Roshan Seneviratne, who was equally surprised to see me. He too commented on the importance of blending in all people as one Sri Lankan family. Shortly a delegation of dignitaries arrived along with SJF Commander Major General Dharshana Hettiarachchi. After completing Buddhist rituals they assembled at the main stage. The chief guest was the Hon. Justice Illancheliyan. The significant moment of the event was the unveiling of the massive pandal. Thereafter we were serenaded with Vesak Bakthi Ghee (songs of devotion) sung by the Army choir and school children dressed in white.

We made our way among the crowds which were now somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people. This peaceful multitude was an endorsement that the people are not divided by religion, language or race. I spoke to some girls who had come all the way from Polonnaruwa. This was their first visit to Jaffna.

They were uploading photos onto facebook. Some of these youth were university students, and had taken time to attend the Vesak zone. They were happy to experience Jaffna and be among Tamil youth. Likewise there were Muslim youth from Eastern Province visiting relatives in Jaffna. This is definitely the future pulse of a united Sri Lanka.

I am familiar with Northern cuisine having eaten much at Wellawatte. One of the famous snacks here is karam sundal “which translates into spicy chopped up ingredients. Before I could select a vendor, Timothy had already eased his way into the line and got a box. The portion contains deep fried manioc, chopped coconut, deep fried red curd chili, yellow gram tossed in pepper and onions all laced with a spicy sauce. This was followed by another ice cream. The other vendors sold ulundu vadai and maasi vadai (maldive fish). Some stalls had peanuts in various forms encrusted in chili, coated with sugar syrup and plain peanuts.

The lake was another lovely sight with red and orange lanterns made in the shape of lotus flowers, floating in the gentle wind. Jaffna city is safe and secure. Vesak in Jaffna organized by the Army was a resounding success. It was a platform for Sri Lankans to meet each other. It was a great night that celebrated humanity.