The Historical Significance of Vesak for Sri Lanka

Vesak is no doubt the most glorious and colourful festival of the Buddhist world. During Vesak Buddhist devotees all over the world try their best to pay tribute to their master by decorating their surroundings with colourful lanterns, flags and various paintings. As the sun sets, the night is illuminated by thousands of lamps, candles and artificial lights. Temples are crowded with devotees who practice the teachings of Buddha. One can witness dansal (refreshment halls (daan-sal) and thoran in the city, which are unique features of the Vesak festivals held in Sri Lanka.

Based on historical facts the history of Vesak celebrations in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the 2nd century BCE. According to Mahavamsa, celebrating Vesak was a traditional custom of the state. It is a widely known fact that Vesak festival is celebrated to commemorate the birth day of prince Siddhartha, the day of enlightenment of ascetic Siddhartha and the day of Parinibbana of Gautama Buddha, the Supreme one. Apart from these three incidents, Vesak full moon day is important to the Sinhalese for other historical events that happened on this day. These historical events are of political and socio-cultural importance to the Sinhalese.

After going through a number of historical and archaeological sources, these events can be arranged in a chronological order as bellow;

Buddha’s third visit to Sri Lanka (Kelaniya) and marking his foot print on the summit of Mt.SumanaThe second coronation of King DevanampiyathissaKing Dutugamunu started to build the Great Stupa or the Ruwanmali seya

Buddha’s third visit to Sri Lanka (Kelaniya)

In the eighth year after enlightenment, Buddha made his third and final visit to Sri Lanka accompanied by 500 bhikkhus. It is said that he visited to Kelaniya to fulfil a request by the Naga king Maniakkitha who was the ruler of Kelaniya. Although some scholars doubt the historical accuracy of this incident, reliable sources such as the Mahavamsa, Deepavamsa, Vansaththappakasini and Poojawaliya refers to this event. It is recorded in these historical sources that after three years of Buddha’s visit to Nagadeepa (Jaffna), king Maniakkitha met Buddha and invited him to visit his kingdom. Therefore, the very next day, which was a Vesak full moon day, Buddha who was then residing in Jethavanaramaya, visited Kelaniya accompanied by five hundred arhat monks.

The Naga king had prepared a spectacular seat adorned beautifully for Buddha. It is said that the Kelaniya stupa was later built at the place where this seat was kept. It should be noted that there is no reference about Maniakkitha building a stupa at Kelaniya.

The first Buddhist king of Sri Lanka?

It is interesting to see the role of this Naga king during Buddha’s three visits to Sri Lanka. According to these historical texts, Maniakkitha was present during Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka, at Mahiyangana. It is stated that he converted into Buddhism at Mahiyangana. During Buddha’s second visit to the island, which was to Nagadeepa, once again Maniakkitha was present there. He went to Nagadeepa to support his uncle, King Mahodara, who was in a war against his own nephew, king Chulodara. Legend says that Buddha visited Nagadeepa in order to reconcile this war. Once the war was settled, Maniakkitha requested Buddha to visit his kingdom at Kelaniya on another day.

Considering these facts, King Maniakkitha can be known as one of the earliest Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka prior to Devanampiyathissa. Also it is notable that this king has enjoyed quite a lot of power and authority as he was free to visit other kingdoms such the Yaksha kingdom at Mahiyangana and Nagadeepa.

Kelaniya; a lost kingdom, in the West or in the South?

This is not the first time Kelaniya is mentioned in the history of the island. As we have discussed in our previous week’s article, Kelaniya is considered to be the abode of the Raksha king Vibhishana who is known as one of the guardian gods and also the god of the West. It can be assumed that Vibhishana devale was built much later, during the times that god venerating cults became popular among the islanders. Kelaniya is also known as the kingdom of king Kelanithissa, and his valiant daughter princess Viharamaha devi. The eminent scholar Professor Senarat Paranavitana, challenged this belief when he discovered and interpreted some inscriptions and said that Viharamaha devi was not from Kelaniya of the Western province of the island, but from a kingdom named Kelaniya in the ancient Rununa-rata. Therefore, the exact location of the real Kelaniya kingdom is yet to be solved. It could be that there were two ancient Kelaniyas, one in the West and the other in the South.

Buddha’s visit to Sumana kuta

On the same day, Buddha visited Sumana kuta, abode of Sumana divvy raja, and marked his left footprint on the summit of the mountain. The Deva king Sumana has also met Buddha during his first visit to Sri Lanka that was to Mahiyangana.

Once he marked the left footprint at the summit of Sumana kuta, Buddha visited sixteen places all over the island, making them holy places of worship.

2. Second coronation of King Devanampiyathissa

Thus on the full-moon day of the month Vesakha the ruler of men, in whose name was contained the words ‘ friend of the gods’, bestowing good upon his people, held his consecration (as king) in Lanka, where in every place they held high festival. (Mahavamsa, Chapter 11)

Historical texts records that King Devanampiyathissa held a second coronation on a Vesak full moon day. He was already the king and according to Pali texts, he has had his coronation in December, previous year. It is a well-known fact that the Mauryan emperor Asoka was a close friend of the Sinhalese king. By this time, Asoka was the most powerful monarch of the region.  The Mauryan emperor wished the Sinhalese king to hold a coronation as per Mauryan custom and rituals. Therefore he sent all the necessary equipment to Devanampiyathissa along with a message, requesting him to do so. Fulfilling his friend’s request, king Devanampiyathissa held his second coronation on the Vesak full moon day.

Religion; a mode of wining foreign lands

It should be noted that Emperor Asoka sent his own son and daughter to Sri Lanka during his religious missionary campaigns. Although he sent missionary groups to many parts of the world, none of those groups had the king’s relatives. Also the arrival of arhat Mahinda to Sri Lanka was not a sudden visit but a well-organized royal visit.

Since past times, monarchs has used religion as a mode to spread their authority in far regions, where they could not or need not to supress by war or political power. Yet religion and culture has always been a tactic of wining foreign lands in a rather peaceful and diplomatic way.

3. King Dutugamunu started to build the Great Stupa or the Ruwanmali seya

When the wherewithal to build was thus brought together he began the work of the Great Thupa on the full-moon day of the month Vesakha, when the Visakha-constellation had appeared.

(Mahavama, Chapter 29)

King Dutugamunu started building his most celebrated work, the Maha stupa or the Ruwanwali seya on a Vesak full moon day. The construction of the ground and the basement was started on this day, on an auspicious time.

The Greatest of all stupas

It is no doubt that the Maha stupa also known as the Ruwanwali seya is the greatest of all stupas built in Sri Lanka. One reason is that the stupa was built by the heroic Sinhalese king Dutugamunu, who freed the island from forty four years of foreign rule. He is considered as a protector of Buddhism and also that he will be one of the two chief disciples of future Buddha Maitreeya. Also, this stupa is venerated as the stupa which has enshrined the largest number of Buddha’s relics.

A prediction comes true

Legend says that Arhat Mahinda has foreseen that a future king named Dutugamunu, a great grandson of Devanampiyathissa, will be constructing a Great stupa. Hearing this prediction, Devanampiyathissa raised a stone pillar inscription on the location where Arhat Mahinda showed him. Centuries after, Dutugamunu having seen this stone pillar inscription, decided to build the stupa there.

Rathnamali or Ruwanmali; a promise that is kept for centuries

When the king chose the land to build the Great stupa, the tree goddess who was residing on the large tree at that location was not happy. She requested the king not to destroy her tree abode. However, promising her to name the stupa after her, she agreed to leave that tree and move to another tree. The name of this goddess is known as Ruwanmali or Rathnamali. Her name is also known as Rathna Valli, the golden damsel.

It can be assumed that she was a pre Buddhist goddess worshiped by the early Sinhalese and her abode or shrine was at the location where the Great stupa was built. In our first article about local deities we have shown that trees and tree deities were venerated by the pre Buddhists Sinhalese. She must be one of them. The king who wished to acquire the land, promised her to name the stupa after her and give her another place to reside. Till to date, this stupa is known by her name. However, we still do not know where her new shrine was. It should be also noted that Dutugamunu built the shrine to Skhandha or Mahasen, the war god at Kataragama. His consort is also known as Valli, a local tribal princess. Although the evidences are scattered it is not impossible to identify the connection of Dutugamunu with local pre Buddhist beliefs. Thus once again making this king a unique and heroic local ruler. His local roots are once again clarified by the fact that he is the son of the valiant princess Viharamaha devi, who was a princess of Kelaniya, the Naga kingdom.

Buddha marking his left footprint at Mr.Sumana, a mural at Kelaniya temple by Solias Mendis

Buddha’s visit to Kelaniya, a mural at Kelaniya temple by Solias Mendis

Buddha’s visit to Kelaniya, a mural at Kelaniya temple by Solias Mendis

Buddha marking his left footprint at Mr.Sumana, a mural at Kelaniya temple by Solias Mendis

King Devanampiyathissa and Arhat Mahinda, a mural at Kelaniya temple by Solias Mendis

Viharamaha devi of Kelaniya, a mural at Kelaniya temple by Solias Mendis

Stone figure of king Dutugemunu at Ruwanweliseya

Stone figure of king Dutugemunu at Ruwanweliseya

Uncategorized, Sri Lankan festivals, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Vesak, Vesak celebrations