Sinhala Buddhists have, for centuries, associated certain towns with specific Buddhist festivals. Chief among them is the ancient holy city of Anuradhapura where white clad millions  throng  on Poson Poya in June to celebrate the introduction of the Buddha Dhamma to Sri Lanka over two thousand three hundred years ago . The month of Esala (August) draws many thousands of devotees Kandy, our last Royal Capital, to pay homage to the Sacred Dalada – the palladium of Sinhala royalty – and witness the magnificent parade of the Perahera procession in its honor.

Case of Colombo
Strangely enough, cosmopolitan Colombo, long devoid of Buddhist celebrations has, over the last century, become a magnet for multitudes of Buddhists during the week of Vesak – although the city has neither any hallowed, nor ancient, Buddhist precinct. Though no urban sociologist, I will attempt to explore the origins of this peculiar phenomenon – based on oral tradition and personal observation.

Although it is recorded that the Dalada was honored with a Perahera in the last kingdom of Kotte, Sinhala independence and the Dalada, fled to the mountain fastnesses of Udarata when the Portuguese invaders of 1505, overran Kotte and established their  capital in Colombo with the puppet Catholic king Don Juan Dharmapala. Thus, during the almost five centuries  of rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Colombo remained ‘terra incognita’  as far as the millions of Sinhala Buddhists in the country were concerned, apart from a few  viharas  ministering to the local dayakas in their neighborhood.
This state of affairs began to change in the early decades of the 20th century thanks to the vigorous campaign of Anagarika Dharmapala to restore national pride among Sinhala Buddhists. There now took place a quiet revolution with Buddhist s beginning to take pride in their traditions. Buddhist homes and businesses now began to boldly fly the colourful new “Bauddha Kodiya” and light oil lamps in their homes and shops to celebrate Vesak.

Glory of Vesak  (2)Bastian the pioneer
Some  decades ago, In the course of conversation between Buddhist scholar Professor Malalasekera and my archaeologist father DT Devendra, the Professor stated his firm conviction that   today’s colorful Vesak in Colombo can be dated  to the enterprise , and imagination, of the pioneer Sinhala Buddhist entrepreneur from Pettah, WE Bastian. From humble beginnings, Bastian had risen to become Ceylon’s premier trader in paper, stationery and books. Much of his trading was with Japan. When he observed the wondrous paper lanterns decorating Buddhist temples in Japan, it dawned on him that these decorations would add color to our rather simple decorations of ‘gok-kola’ and ‘pol-thel pahan’.

With his uncanny business sense, Bastian detected a potential consumer market and began the wholesale import of Japanese lanterns. Lit by flickering candles, these lanterns soon transformed Vesak in Colombo.  Local craftsmen quietly began to emulate the Japanese models. Meanwhile, an unknown genius seems to have crafted the oh-so-simple, and once ubiquitous, ‘bucket lantern’ which colorfully decorated humble gardens for many years, but are rarely seen today. I am not sure as to how and when there evolved  ‘ata-pattam koodu’ of bamboo strips and tissue paper. This too may have been an adaptation of a Japanese or Chinese model [though no longer seen in those countries] for I saw a few such in Manila as Christmas decorations. These koodu now proliferate in many guises – with satellites (Paetiyas), revolving, or of mammoth size, sheltered in their own cadjan marquees. Their early panels of plain tissue paper later came to be elaborately decorated with lacy patterns and/or religious pictures.

A grand nexus of Buddhist revivalism, Bastian’s colorful lanterns and the electrification of Colombo were the key elements in the development of Vesak thoranas – that unique manifestation of urban Buddhist   piety. A committed student may be able to trawl Sinhala newspapers of yore to pinpoint the first references to Vesak thoranas. My hunch, however, is that their genesis dates back to just after the end of World War I in 1918 – when wartime black-outs ended and electricity rapidly phased out Colombo’s  flickering gas lamps.

Building thoranas
Here gain one is faced with a ‘black hole’ of no information as to the untutored geniuses who developed these fantastic structures. The elite would have, probably, considered these as crude manifestations of rustic art not worthy of record in the English newspapers of yet Colonial Ceylon (I may, of course, be wrong as I write without archival research). These amazing structures came into existence with the coming together of four, basically traditional, elements. Thoranas of areca palms, decorated with bunches of coconuts and gok-kola, had been a feature of temple, and other festivals. There was also a corps of traditional temple artists available to embellish the thoranas with paintings of the Buddha’s life and Jataka tales on a heroic scale – never before seen within viharas. Most important was the bedrock of the Buddha Charita and Jataka tales embedded in the psyche of all Buddhists – thus a ready source for artistic interpretation. Last, but not least was the enthusiastic and generous patronage of the newly-emergent class of Sinhala traders and small businessmen whose establishments were centered round the Pettah and such, largely Sinhala, bazaars as Borella, Dematagoda and Maradana. They gladly met the costs of these structures as a gesture of Buddhist piety.

The Vesak thorana was no longer restricted in design to a two-dimensional framework. The new model thorana’s structure and theme (which Jataka or episode of the Buddha Charita) was decided by a group of carpenters, ‘light  baases’ (electricians), painters, donor businessman and advised by the Nayaka Thera of the neighboring Vihara. The Police were also taken on board as they had a role to play in anticipated crowd and traffic control. These new thoranas were singularly individualistic in design – so as to provide the most appropriate backdrop for the stories depicted. Preparations began many weeks before Vesak with a customary Buddhist ritual preceding the raising of the framework.
The painters were responsible for the onlookers’ first impression of the thorana. Their artistry was on display, day and night, for the whole Vesak week. A giant image of the Buddha, in Samadhi or Parinibbana, crowned the edifice. While there was an overall theme in the main painting, various panels gave artists the liberty for depicting interesting variations on well-known stories. These paintings were in vivid colors and figures depicted almost life-size –unlike those on temple walls. They made no attempt at realism but were, almost always in a stylized mix of the Sigiriya-fresco style and that of the legendary temple painter Sarlis Master. These artists gave full play to their imagination. Grand kings, queens and nobles were in resplendent robes and swathed in jewelry, their furniture was ornate, carriages splendid and palaces gloriously baroque. Queens and their buxom handmaidens were  a feast for the eyes of the spectator.

Electrical wizardry
However, what made these thoranas stand out was their display of intricate and moving electric lights in a bewildering palette of colors. Wondrous revolving many splendored haloes crowned the Buddha’s head, and intricate waves of color swept across the painted scenes. This artistic phenomenon has been the Vesak thorana’s unique contribution to Sinhala Buddhist art of modern times. I hope an art historian will record it.

Many years ago, I had the privilege of being invited ‘backstage’ of an enormous thorana to observe the complicated machinery that powered the lighting system. All I can remember were huge wooden drums bristling with strange knobs whirling wildly, powered by a generator. The ‘light baases’ behind this enterprise were clearly men of great mechanical knowledge as well as the fine artistic sense to understand the timing and enhancement of the various episodes of the visual narrative. I remain wonderstruck at the inventiveness, mechanical skill and imagination of these unlettered geniuses who invented a totally new form of artistic expression. I hope that Moratuwa University will study this machinery before they lose the battle to computer displays.

The surrounding crowd of spectators was regaled by loud speakers playing Sinhala songs with Buddhist themes. ‘Canned’ music alternated with ‘bhakti gee’ sung by young girls in ‘lama saris’. At suitable intervals a dramatic speaker related the stories depicted in the thorana.

Social divides
The first impressive thoranas were located in locales noted for ‘muscular Buddhists’ – Thota-langa, below Victoria Bridge, Arunadisi Hotel in Darley Road, Borella Bazaar and the Pettah Fish Market. As time went on, major players entered the scene with a not-so-subtle whiff of advertising – prominent among them were the South Western Bus Co.Terminus thorana at Mount Lavinia and the Navaloka thorana at Kiribathgoda – both on the city’s outskirts and not too far for sightseers. It did not take very long for other towns, beginning along the road to Galle, to follow Colombo’s example, but they are not the subject of this story.

What make Colombo’s Vesak week unique and memorable is the multitude of spectators, and their vehicles, that crowd its streets to overflowing. It may all have started with people from the suburbs and neighboring towns, coming to see the wonderful thoranas. Gradually, more thoranas and elaborately decorated shop-fronts proliferated – thus giving even more colorful decorations for them to admire. Cars, vans, open lorries and, in an earlier era, open bullock carts chock-a-block with cheery, noisy passengers, crawled along crowded streets driving policemen crazy. City-dwellers from humble neighborhoods roamed about all night in cheerful bands. An imaginative CTB ran a ‘Thoran Sevaya’ of double-decker buses for those too lazy, old or burdened with kids to have a leisurely tour of thoranas. Driving across the city, some years ago provided us with a practical lesson in urban sociology. The great thoranas and colorfully  lit  shop fronts of Thotalanga, Pettah, Maradana and Borella and the colorful garden lanterns of these neighborhoods were firmly Sinhala Buddhist areas, the posh shopping locality  of  Fort was never decorated, the non-Buddhist Tamils, Muslims and Catholics of Kotahena never celebrated Vesak, and the mansions of Cinnamon Gardens rarely displayed a lantern.

Change is inevitable, and the earlier pattern of Vesak decorations has undergone a sea change. It all began with a Head-of-State who had a great fondness for exhibitions, ‘discipline’ and commercialism. He came up with the bright idea of sprinkling Colombo with ‘Vesak Kalapas’ whose streets were lined with boxy little stalls where mini-thorana makers could display their mechanical/artistic ingenuity and earn financial rewards. Thus, a host of clever young men, instead of decorating their homes and neighborhoods, have now left them to stew in the dark, to vie for cash prizes in cramped little urban stalls.

The wonderful Sinhala Buddhist institution of the ‘dansala’ to feed pilgrims,  now got a new lease of life to serve Colombo’s Vesak crowds. Local neighborhoods put up long open sheds furnished with trestle tables and benches to seat the tired walkers and feed them steaming portions of rice and curry freshly prepared in huge cauldrons by housewives  just  by the ‘dining hall’. Volunteer youths cheerfully waited on the unending multitude.
It is hard to believe that, in less than a century, long cosmopolitan Colombo has come to host one of the greatest gatherings of Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. For one glorious week, the thoranas of the city transform it into a wondrous spectacle of light and sound – (to adapt the ‘Mahavansa’) for the joy and admiration of the multitude.