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UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
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Sri Lanka

Despite curfew, Sri Lankan Buddhists celebrate Poson Poya

Covid-19 restrictions keep many devotees at home for one of the biggest Buddhist festivals

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Updated: June 06, 2020 05:04 AM GMT
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Despite curfew, Sri Lankan Buddhists celebrate Poson Poya

A Buddhist devotee holds incense at the Kelaniya temple during the Poson Poya festival in Colombo on June 5. (Photo: Ishara Kodikara/AFP)

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Suneetha Ariyawathi is a devout mother who usually spends every Poson Poya Day at a temple in Mihintale in Anuradhapura.

She and other devotees observe a prayer ritual in which they vow again to follow Buddhist precepts. They wear white clothes and carry lotus flowers as offerings to Lord Buddha on Poson Poya Day, which is important to Buddhists around the world who have adopted the lunar calendar for their religious observances.

The festival in early June is one of the most important celebrations throughout Sri Lanka due to the arrival of Buddhism on the island in the third century BC.

The most important events are held at Mihintale in Anuradhapura, 205 kilometers north of capital Colombo. Anuradhapura has some of the most famous and revered Buddhist ruins.

Ariyawathi, 62, usually goes to Mihintale with about 25 relatives every year in early June to observe sil (Buddhist precepts) in a ceremony that ends with the rubbing of oil or water on the head.

But this year was very different. The festival on June 5 was mainly celebrated in homes after a 24-hour coronavirus curfew was enforced throughout the country on Poson Poya Day and the day before.

Ariyawathi recalls devotees going to temples on foot and in carts during her childhood.

"Later they came by lorries and buses to worship," she said. “When I was a child, Mihintale was in the middle of a forest. Devotees walked along the road in the forest. On some Poson Poya days, my parents climbed to the Mihintale rock with hollow torches.”

Of Sri Lanka's 21 million people, 70 percent are Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and 7 percent Christian.

Ariyawathi, from Kuliyapitiya around 82 kilometers northeast of Colombo, was very sad that the curfew stopped her pilgrimage to the Poson festival this year.

The government granted permission to hold the celebrations with limited numbers of devotees keeping social distancing to protect them from Covid-19.

Health authorities urged the elderly and people with ailments to refrain from participating in religious activities in public places.

Sri Lanka has been successful so far in its fight against the coronavirus with fewer deaths and infections than many other countries. According to the Health Ministry, the country had reported 1,797 cases and 11 deaths as of June 4, with 947 patients receiving treatment at hospitals and 839 recoveries.

Chief Buddhist monks requested devotees to carry out religious observances from their homes on Poson Poya Day.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said the pandemic was a reminder to the world to rethink its practices as the world has betrayed the environment.

Buddhist environmentalist Hasith Dahanayake said Poson Poya Day coincided with World Environment Day this year.

"Devotees spend the entire day in temples and bring flowers and clay lamps to light in front of Lord Buddha, but everybody missed this meditation opportunity this time," said Dahanayake, recalling the developing of a calm mind to be a nature lover moving from a human-centric world.

All liquor shops, slaughterhouses and meat stalls were closed during the day. Poson zones, dansal (almsgiving stalls) and pandals were avoided this year.

Despite the challenges, devotees were still motivated to create decorations, lanterns and Buddhist flags for the festival. Army soldiers hung lanterns to celebrate Poson in Colombo.

Last year's Poson was also celebrated in a low-key manner following the Easter Sunday terror attacks. On April 21, 2019, nine suicide bombers affiliated to local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing at least 279 people, including 37 foreign nationals, and injuring at least 500.

Ariyawathi was planning to listen to Pirith chanting and preaching programs relayed via loudspeakers while maintaining social distancing.

“Then our hearts can be filled with peace and love even during this pandemic,” she said.

"Last year we could not celebrate the festival with our relatives and neighbors due to the Easter attack. This year too we could not go to the temple freely and celebrate it. I hope we can celebrate this festival without any harm next year."

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