Every year, millions of Buddhists across the world celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha. In Sri Lanka, where Theravada Buddhists make up around 70% of the population, the celebration of Vesak is particularly exuberant, with lanterns, Buddhist flags, and pandals adorning every street corner.
In fact, it was Sri Lanka who played a key role in bringing Vesak to the world stage. In 1999, former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, made a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, proposing to make Vesak an international holiday observed by the UN.
In Colombo, where Vesak is celebrated with much pomp and pageantry, the streets seemingly change overnight, in the days leading to Vesak. However, behind every lantern, flag, and pandal, is hours of hard labour and meticulous craftsmanship.
Here’s a snapshot of the kind of work that goes into bringing you Vesak every year, here in Colombo.
For some, making and selling Vesak lanterns is a family affair.
Piles of bamboo collected for the purpose of making Vesak lanterns.
A boy watches in excitement as a Vesak lantern is made.
A craftsman assembles a lantern with cardboard and staple pins – a swifter and more cost-effective take on the traditionally bamboo structure.
But some still prefer tradition. A woman who has been making Vesak lanterns since the age of ten begins her work.
A man in the midst of constructing an intricate Vesak lantern out of bamboo.
A vendor displays his Vesak lanterns on Havelock Road.
Vesak lanterns ready for purchase.
Passers-by stop to browse the Vesak lanterns for sale in Kirulapone Market
Vesak lanterns come in all sizes.
For younger children, masks and toys are a big part of modern Vesak festivities.
In Colombo, modernity and pop culture intermingle with Vesak traditions.
Workers carry a light board to set up a pandal on Grandpass junction.
Lifting lightboards up in the heat with little safety equipment is no easy task.
An Army officer stands on a truck to set up lanterns on Perehera Mawatha.
Army officers prepare for festivities on Perehera Mawatha.
Workers put the final touches on a large lantern on Perehera Mawatha.
Women Army officers were part of the Vesak preparations too.
Women get to work stitching large quantities of Buddhist flags for Vesak festivities.
A street vendor prepares his stock of Buddhist flags.
Welikada Prison inmates set up a pandal inside the Prison premises.
Vesak preparations underway at the Seema Malakaya temple
Workers decorate the Seema Malakaya Temple in preparation for Vesak.
Vesak lantern making continues into the late hours of the night.
The Seema Malakaya Temple tests its lights on the night before Vesak.
Text by Shiran Illanperuma