The evolution of the lantern

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

This week, Sri Lanka and many Theravada Buddhist countries in South and Southeast Asia and various Buddhist communities across the globe celebrated Vesak as the most important religious festival. Buddhists celebrate Vesak Full Moon Day as it is believed the birth of Gautama Buddha happened ona Vesak Full Moon Poya Day. The Southern Buddhist Tradition believes that the Enlightenment and the Parinibbana of Gautama Buddha also happened on a Vesak Full Moon Day. 

Vesak is also known as Buddha Purnima, Buddha Jayanthi, and Vaishakya. To celebrate this day and to pay homage to Buddha, Buddhists engage in various rituals and practices. As the main focus is on following the teachings of the Buddha, religious programmes are organised at every temple by Buddhist monks and lay devotees. The uniqueness of Vesak celebrations that makes them different from all other Buddhist celebrations is the grandeur and lavishness of the decorations used to celebrate Vesak. The Vesak decorations are created and displayed by almost every Buddhist household, and on buildings, as much as they can. These decorations are colourful, creative, bright, and narrative. These could be lanterns, lamps, lighted buckets, light works, flower decorations, pandols, flags, and recreations of various life events of the Buddha (for example, Sal Uyan – the birthplace of the Buddha, the Enlightenment, and so on). 

Among the various customs and traditions associated with Vesak, the Vesak lantern holds a special place. Almost every Buddhist household and building is decorated with beautiful Vesak lanterns illuminated with electric lights or candles. These lanterns, known for their vibrant colours and intricate designs, symbolise light, wisdom, and the enlightenment of the Buddha. 

Origins and historical context

The tradition of celebrating Vesak dates back to ancient times and the use of lanterns is believed to have originated in Northern India, the birthplace of Buddhism. In its early days, Buddhism spread across Asia, influencing various cultures and adopting local customs. The use of light as a symbol of wisdom and enlightenment is common in many cultures, and it was natural for this symbolism to be incorporated into Vesak celebrations.

In ancient India, among spiritual and religious practitioners, fire played an important role in their daily practices and rituals. Fire is believed to be a god’s gift and in some ancient religions, fire is a god as well as a messenger of god. Also, some ancient Asian religions believe that fire represents the Sun God.

 Due to these beliefs about fire, fire is considered sacred and holy in many religions and spiritual practices. Fire is also believed to have healing, cleansing, and purifying abilities. Fire also symbolises the dispelling of darkness and ignorance. Thus, fire is offered to gods, and lit during religious and spiritual practices. Hence, fire is an essential offering and decoration in temples and sacred places. 

Therefore, since early times, using lamps and lighted lanterns to honour and celebrate gods and religious leaders during temples and religious ceremonies has been a practice. The Vesak lantern tradition in Sri Lanka, for instance, has deep roots, influenced by both Buddhist and local cultural practices.

Evolution of the Vesak lantern Early development in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, Vesak lanterns are called ‘Vesak Kudu’. Historical texts say that Vesak was celebrated grandly in Sri Lanka since the Anuradhapura Period. Although we do not have clear evidence of the Vesak lantern (Vesak Kudu) used as an offering and an object of decoration during historic or medieval times in Sri Lanka, the practice of making and displaying these lanterns is believed to have begun during the Kandyan Period (1469 – 1815). During this time, the Kandyan kings promoted Buddhism and encouraged the celebration of Vesak with grand processions, decorations, and religious activities. The Vesak lanterns, originally simple in design, gradually became more elaborate and artistic.

Early Vesak lanterns were made using natural materials such as bamboo, palm leaves, and paper. They were often constructed in simple geometric shapes like cubes or pyramids and illuminated with small oil lamps or candles. The lanterns were hung in homes, temples, and public places to celebrate the spiritual significance of Vesak and to create an atmosphere of festivity and reverence.

Influence of the colonial period

The colonial period in Sri Lanka, particularly the British rule (1815 – 1948), saw significant changes in the Vesak lantern tradition. The introduction of new materials such as coloured paper and the influence of Western artistic styles led to a transformation in the design and construction of Vesak lanterns. Lanterns became more colourful and intricate, with elaborate patterns and shapes inspired by both traditional Buddhist motifs and contemporary artistic trends.

The British colonial administration also promoted Vesak as a national festival, recognising its importance to the Sinhala Buddhist community. This period saw the institutionalisation of Vesak celebrations, with organised events, competitions, and public displays of Vesak lanterns becoming more common. The Vesak lantern competitions, in particular, encouraged innovation and creativity, leading to the flourishing of this art form.

Cultural significance

The Vesak lantern holds great cultural and religious significance in Buddhist communities, particularly in Sri Lanka. It symbolises the light of wisdom and the teachings of the Buddha, which dispel the darkness of ignorance and suffering. The act of creating and displaying Vesak lanterns is seen as a form of merit-making, a way of honouring the Buddha and spreading his message of compassion, peace, and enlightenment.

Symbolism and rituals

Vesak lanterns are often made in various shapes and sizes, each carrying its own symbolic meaning. The most common and widely made shape is the Atapattama or the eight-framed lantern. Other shapes and types include; the lotus flower-shaped lantern which represents purity and spiritual awakening and the star-shaped lantern symbolising brightness and enlightenment. The materials and colours used in the lanterns also hold symbolic value, with white representing purity, red symbolising love and compassion, and yellow denoting wisdom. The most common colours used in Vesak lanterns are the six colours of the Buddhist flag which are blue, yellow, red, white, and orange; these colours are believed to be the colours of the Aura of the Buddha.  

But today, colours such as pink, purple, and green are also used to decorate Vesak lanterns. Traditional design motifs are cut on the paper or pasted on the lanterns to elaborate the decorativeness of the Vesak lantern. 

The process of making Vesak lanterns is a communal activity that involves family members, friends, and neighbours coming together to craft and decorate the lanterns. This collective effort fosters a sense of community and shared purpose, reinforcing social bonds and promoting cultural continuity.

Public celebrations and displays

Public displays of Vesak lanterns are a major feature of Vesak celebrations in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries. Streets, homes, temples, and public buildings are adorned with lanterns, creating a visually stunning and spiritually uplifting environment. Large-scale Vesak lantern competitions and exhibitions are held, showcasing the creativity and craftsmanship of participants. These events attract large crowds and foster a sense of pride and cultural identity.

In Sri Lanka, the city of Colombo hosts an annual Vesak festival, where the streets are illuminated with thousands of lanterns, pandols (elaborate structures depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life), and other decorations. This festival has become a major cultural event, drawing visitors from around the country and abroad.

Contemporary practices

In the contemporary era, the tradition of Vesak lanterns continues to thrive, adapting to modern materials and technologies while preserving its cultural and religious essence. The use of electric lights and environmentally friendly materials has become more common.

Innovation and sustainability

Modern Vesak lanterns often incorporate LED lights and solar-powered lamps, reducing the reliance on candles and oil lamps and minimising the risk of fire hazards. These innovations also make the lanterns more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, aligning with global efforts to promote sustainable practices.

Additionally, there is a growing awareness of the need to reduce waste and environmental impact. Many communities and organisations encourage the use of recycled and biodegradable materials in the construction of Vesak lanterns. Workshops and educational programmes are organised to teach traditional lantern-making techniques while promoting sustainable practices.

Global influence and adaptation

The tradition of Vesak lanterns has also spread beyond Sri Lanka, finding resonance in other Buddhist countries and among Buddhist communities worldwide. In countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, similar lantern traditions exist, reflecting local customs and interpretations of Buddhist symbolism.

Internationally, Vesak lanterns have become a way of celebrating and preserving cultural heritage. Buddhist temples and organisations in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia hold Vesak lantern-making workshops and public displays, fostering a sense of community and cultural continuity among international Buddhist followers.

Evolving while preserving core values 

The history of the Vesak lantern is a rich tapestry woven from centuries of religious devotion, cultural expression, and communal effort. From its origins in ancient India to its development in Sri Lanka and its contemporary global practice, the Vesak lantern symbolises the enduring light of the Buddha’s teachings and the resilience of Buddhist cultural traditions.

As a visual and artistic representation of enlightenment, the Vesak lantern continues to inspire and uplift, reminding us of the transformative power of wisdom and compassion. Its evolution and adaptation to modern contexts reflect the dynamic nature of cultural traditions, capable of embracing change while preserving their core values and significance.

In celebrating Vesak with the creation and display of lanterns, communities not only honour the life and teachings of the Buddha but also affirm their shared humanity and commitment to a brighter, more compassionate world. The Vesak lantern, in its many forms and interpretations, remains a beacon of hope, guiding us toward greater understanding, harmony, and enlightenment.

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