On a Wesak night one rarely stops to search the skies for falling stars. Un- less you feel an urge to be left alone, to gaze at the sky, or contemplate on the meaning of life in a flash of religious inspiration, it is not habitual for people to stay at home and look in to the deep skies.
The brightness of stars and tranquillity of the moon appear quite trivial on Wesak days. In other words, serenity and quietness occupy no place among the jostle, colour, festivity and collectiveness of spirit during Wesak.
Thousands of tiny bulbs find their way on to pandols during this season. They create striking patterns. And it is this colour and vibrance that create the very aura of feisty joy on a Wesak day.
A pandal, or a thorana is a work of art. And there is a broad-scale display of artistic talent here. It takes a crew of about fifty, from artists to painters and electricians to minor workers - to create the final piece f art that we see on a Wesak day.
The success of a thorana lies in its structure, story, colour, lighting techniques and paintings. It is a result of a grand blend of all these aspects. And to do this to perfection it requires skill, dedication and a love for art.
"Artists do not make a profit. And I do not paint thoran for money," says Pushpananda Denipitiya who has been painting pandals for the past 22 years.
A tall, humble, artistic man, Pushpananda derives a lot of self-satisfaction from his work. He was about the first to experiment in this sphere.
In a sense, he was a revolutionist. He refrained from using geometrical shapes in his pandals and gave Sri Lankan pandals a new look with the introduction of shapes of birds, trees and anything that he could dream of - except geometry.
"I do the Nawaloka, Borella and Thotalanga pandals. It takes about four months for me to finish all three of them," started Pushpananda when I met him at Peliyagoda on Wednesday, May 26. He constantly stopped to direct his men, and to see if the electricians needed him.
The entire crew was busy adding the final touches to the pandal. The electrician continued to instruct his employees and a chunk of white bulbs were positioned on either side of the Buddha rupa at the centre.
"The thorana resembles the Sri Pada and I have shown the four rivers - Mahaweli, Kelani, Kalu and Walawe - that start from there. The original story spoke of four rivers and instinctively I chose Sri Pada," explained Pushpananda.
The story has been adapted for the Sri Lankan audience. Yet it does not seem far fetched or unappealing. The artist had chosen 14 different stories. And the theme for this year's Nawaloka (Peliyagoda) thorana dwells on the stories of the Sambuddha Deshanava.
Pushpananda plays with a number of colours - especially shades of yellow and orange. On either side of the main Buddha rupa one finds the sun and the moon. The sun has been used because of the belief that it rises from Sri Pada. The moon according to Pushpananda, was used for balancing the picture. He has designed the Nawaloka thorana for the past 10 years and knows what people need to see.
His intentions are aptly recognised by the electrician, A.B. Ariyadasa, who uses hundreds of white bulbs to illustrate the rivers. It seems that he subconsciously knows what the artist is aiming at, for it is the electrician who decides where to use the bulbs and which colours to use.
A shy, modest man, Ariyadasa does not like publicity. But his assistant is eager to relate the story behind the thorana.
"This is single-handedly funded by Nawaloka Chairman, H. A. Dharmadasa. He has done this for 40 years and this is the 41st year," started an enthusiastic Wijesena.
"During floods and other troubles the thorana was not made. In such cases, although the pictures were drawn the money allocated for the thorana was donated for those who needed assistance."
The story, structure and lighting techniques of this thorana change every year, according to Wijesena. "Never have the artists repeated the story. I've worked with this group for the past 10 years and know what effort goes into making it."
A thorana is a symbol of unity and hard work. From the time the sponsor decides on the sketch until its trial run is held, a number of people contribute in many ways. Once the sketch is chosen, according to Wijesena, the artist prepares it on hard board and sends the pieces that should contain lights to the electrician. Next the rough body of the thorana is constructed. It is only after that all the pieces are assembled together and fixed on the thorana.
The entire crew is forced to work under any circumstances. They constantly fear that something would go wrong. "It's at the trial run that we learn whether it's ready for display. If the lights do not work then we won't have a thorana for Wesak," he says.
A pandal costs about 10 lakhs and according to Wijesena the crew have to pay attention to this factor too. "This year we are using 26,000 bulbs and a bulb costs Rs.27. We can make the pandal more attractive with more lights but we have to be economical."
"Meka hadhanda patan gaththahama nindha yanneth nae, " says D. D. Algama who has been in charge of this project for the past 11 years. For most of them the thorana is a headache during its construction period. But once it is completed they feel contented that they contributed to it.
"I bring my wife and children to show what I did and it feels great," says Wijesena who feels content once the work is completed. But he said people do not know how much they suffer for over two months. "Dhavas hatha atakata es pinavanda api masa ganak thisse parripu kava," he said.
Wesak is not all about thoran, pahan kudu and dansal. It is about the birth, attainment of Buddhahood and passing away of Lord Buddha. However, pandals and other decorations are seen as tributes to Lord Buddha.
A thorana depicts Lord Buddha's life, or his past lives as it appears in the Pansiya Panas Jathakaya, through pictures. And the bulbs symbolise the light that Lord Buddha brings to our lives. This was used as an eye-opener in the past and indeed it played a vital role in enlightening the illiterate. Even today pandals are associated with Wesak, but the fact whether the original concept bears fruit in today's context remains somewhat dubious. (@ Sunday Leader; Naomi Gunasekara)