A display featuring a seated Buddha during the Poson Poya festival in Colombo on June 7, 2020. Poson Poya is an annual Buddhist festival marking the introduction of the religion to Sri Lanka. (Photo: AFP)
Every year, Chathurika Dasanayake usually takes a bus with her three children and neighbors to travel to Sri Lanka’s “cradle of Buddhism” on Poson Poya Day.
Thousands of Buddhists in white robes flock to village temples all over the country, although the main event takes place at Mihintale in Anuradhapura.
Dasanayake and her neighbors engage in observing Ata Sil (eight precepts), meditation and preparing lanterns, pandols (displays of Buddha’s life) and dansals (offerings of foods, drinks and sweets for pilgrims).
A chief monk of the village temple chants the eight precepts early in the morning. By observing the precepts, pilgrims determine to foster good conduct and develop self-discipline.
It is the tradition for followers of the Lord Buddha and other religious devotees to go on pilgrimages as families and friends to watch Poson pandols, lanterns and dansals.
The day is second only in importance to Vesak and commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by the Buddhist missionary monk Mahinda in the third century BC.
Although we are all helpless because of the coronavirus, we are still helping each other as a society
Mahinda met King Devanampiyatissa on a mountain peak in Anuradhapura and preached the first sermon. This is why Anuradhapura is often called “the cradle of Buddhism” in the country.
Of Sri Lanka's 21 million people, 70 percent are Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and 7 percent Christian.
The Covid-19 pandemic has restricted Poson Poya celebrations this year. Buddhists have missed all their community activities and temple rituals. They participated in live online and recorded programs during the festival on June 24.
The government has imposed strict travel restrictions throughout the country to control the spread of the third wave of the pandemic. Sri Lanka has seen a massive jump in the number of Covid-19 infections.
When Dasanayake listened to sermons of Buddhist monks on Poson Poya Day, she saw empty main roads, so different from the crowded roads of previous years.
Nuwangi Udayangani, a teacher from Kuliyapitiya northeast of capital Colombo, was very sad that all the opportunities to work together as a community have been lost because of the pandemic.
"Although we are all helpless because of the coronavirus, we are still helping each other as a society," said Udayangani.
Buddhist monks requested devotees to carry out religious observances from their homes on Poson Poya Day.
Ven. Walawahengunawewe Dhammarathana Nayake Thera organized the Rathana Suthraya chant for a week to invoke blessings for the country and the world.
Buddhist monks chant Rathana Suthraya for the well-being of coronavirus-infected people in the world and to prevent the virus spreading in Sri Lanka.
All liquor and butcher’s shops are closed during the week of the Poson festival every year.
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Ven. Dimbulkumbure Sri Wimaladhamma Thera said all people have to face the pandemic very carefully. "This time we will not be able to offer dansals and alms giving at gatherings," he said.
These steps have been taken to prevent people from gathering due to the Poson festival.
Sri Lanka released 93 prisoners, including 16 LTTE terror suspects held without charges, on June 24 after they were pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — a common practice during the festival.
The Poson festival was celebrated in a low-key manner following the Easter Sunday terror attacks in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Dasanayake's brother-in-law is a Catholic who also joins the pilgrimage to Anuradhapura every year in normal times. She said all religious followers come together to celebrate the festival.
"Many Christian churches decorate their places of worship and join with Buddhists to organize dansals and pandols," she said.
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