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A greeting to alms: Sri Lanka unites on Buddhist festival

Christians help foster inter-religious tolerance by giving free food and drinks to Buddhist pilgrims on Poson Poya Day

ucanews.com reporter, Anuradhapura

ucanews.com reporter, Anuradhapura

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A greeting to alms: Sri Lanka unites on Buddhist festival

Christians serve food as alms to thousands of Buddhist pilgrims in Anuradhapura on Poson Poya Day on June 27. The Poson Festival commemorates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. (ucanews.com photo)

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Sister Subhashini Samarathunga, a Holy Family Convent nun, was busy serving herbal drinks to pilgrims passing by St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province on June 28 to celebrate Poson Poya Day.

She arranged an alms-giving stall, known in Sinhalese as a dansala, to hand out coriander tea aided by the parents of some of the toddlers who attend a nursery run by the order.

"Christians live here in a Buddhist-majority city but efforts like this help to bring us all together," said Sister Samarathunga, who runs the local nursery in this ancient capital some 165 kilometers northeast of Colombo.

"The parents should serve as an example to their children by promoting inter-religious harmony," she said.

Buddhists make up 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21-million population, dwarfing the number of Hindus (13 percent), Muslims (9 percent) and Christians (7 percent).

Ucanews.com spoke with the nun one day after Poson Poya Day, the second biggest Buddhist festival in the country that fell on June 27 this year. It marks the arrival of the religion in the country in the 3rd century BC and now serves as a public holiday.

Young children from a nursery run by Sister Subhashini Samarathunga get stuck in as she serves herbal drinks to Buddhists pilgrims in Anuradhapura on June 28. (Photo by Sumudhu Sagarika/ucanews.com)

 

In Anuradhapura Diocese, where Catholics make up less than 1 percent (12,000) of its 1.3-million population, around nine in 10 locals identify as Buddhists.

Meanwhile, 12 of the 40 families who send their toddlers to the nursery are Catholic and the rest Buddhist, meaning the children learn how to get along with their peers from another religion from a very early age.

As the nun and parents pulled together on June 28 to boil the herbal drinks in a makeshift kitchen and serve them with pieces of coconut palm jaggery to the passing pilgrims, Sister Samarathunga said such collective efforts bind the community together.

This is especially useful in a country like Sri Lanka, which is still recovering from a 26-year civil war and which has seen outbreaks of religious-based violence directed at Muslims and also Christians that continue to divide society.

According to Buddhist lore, the Poson Festival commemorates the day when the Ven. Arahat Mahinda Thera, a missionary monk and the son of Emperor Asoka of India, converted King Devanampiya-Tissa to Buddhism.

Mihintale, a mountain peak near the city of Anuradhapura, is considered a revered spot as this is where Mahinda preached a sermon to Tissa — the first Buddhist king of Sri Lanka — after his father sent him to the island state to pass on the teachings of Lord Buddha to his good friend.

A young boy who attends the Holy Family nursery waves a flag to stop vehicles and invite pilgrims to to enjoy free drinks. (Photo by Sumudhu Sagarika/ucanews.com)

 

Now devotees like to make annual treks to the site dressed in white clothing while others across the nation sing Buddhist devotional songs, make lanterns and attend a range of religious activities to fete the occasion.

Like Sister Samarathunga, 53-year-old Catholic Rosantha Fernando also organized a food stall in Anuradhapura. He claimed to have provided over 10,000 people with a free lunch over the three days on which the pilgrimages are made.

"Christians and Buddhists contributed food and money based on their goodwill and enthusiasm," he said.

Shiron Niroshan offered a similar service on the outskirts of Negombo town in Western Province, near Colombo.

"This country has seen ugly outbursts of anti-Muslim violence in recent times and we lost thousands of lives during the civil war," he said.

"In this post-war period, reconciliation remains our biggest challenge. Everyone should engage in these inter-religious activities. They are a great way to forget our differences and foster a greater sense of fraternity."

Father Gerrard Anthony De Silva, a parish priest at St. Jude’s Church in Talawa near Anuradhapura, arranged a lotus flower stall on church grounds on June 27 so that devotees could offer them as blessings to the Buddha at nearby temples.

"If all religious devotees work together there will be scant opportunity for anti-religious sentiment to take root," he said.

"We should all consider ourselves brothers and sisters," added Father Silva, a former youth chaplain at the diocese.

"Religious leaders must work hand-in-hand to avoid religious wars and communal conflict," he said.

"Our church hosts a lot of mixed marriages because, while Catholics only represent a small minority here, the community is very integrated."

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