Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pooja Festival. Dondra.



When Chandana left us behind with the stilt fishermen, I thought he was taking his family home. Instead, they met back up with us at the hotel a short while later. Crammed into the last two rows of seats in the van were Chandana's wife, his three kids and his mother in-law and behind them, a bunch of his neighbors! I don't even know how many neighbors were back there. I felt bad that my brother and I had the entire first row to ourselves and I offered for his family to move up, especially his mother in-law, but they all wanted to be together.


We were all going to the Pooja festival in Dondra.  I know what pooja is and I vaguely know where Dondra is but put those two things together and I have absolutely no idea what we're in for.....but with this gang in tow, I was sure it was going to be interesting.

Chami pulled into a driveway, at the end of which was a very small parking lot.  In the US, we'd take one look at the lot and say to ourselves that it was already full and we would pull out and look elsewhere.  But this is Sri Lanka.  If there is space to squeeze in a van, then you squeeze in van!  Even with Chandana standing outside and guiding him, it took quite a bit of effort for Chami to navigate the van into the space.




Every one started walking and my brother and I just followed.  The moment we hit the main road, we were immediately submerged into a swarm of people!  Dondra was a happening place!  Not all that surprising given that it was a Saturday night!  On the opposite side of the road was the main temple complex of Dondra - everything was brightly lit up with Christmas lights.  They like things flashy here!







Once inside the complex, our entire group headed over to a relatively secluded spot and took our shoes off.  Looking around, there were clusters of shoes everywhere.  The path was filled with sand and the dark of night had cooled it so walking was easy.....for once.





The place was wall to wall people.  I was worried we were going to get separated and lost so we agreed with Chandana that if that did happen, we would meet back up at the shoe pile.  But I really didn't want to get lost or lose my brother so I kept a close eye on him.

Like Kataragama, this place was filled with several temples - some Buddhist and others Hindu.  People were carrying all sorts of different offerings and presumably, they would leave them at the temple of their faith.











The temple also had a large 20th century reproduction of the Aukana Buddha, a very beloved statue.













Every temple was lit up with lights and there were people queuing up to go inside each one.  Despite the size of the crowd, everyone was very well behave - no shoving or pushing of any sort.  At one point, Chandana lost sight of his family but luckily he and his wife both had their cellphones with them so they were able to connect.  We also lost sight of his neighbors but somehow we also managed to meet back up with them!










The place was lit up like a birthday cake!










Even the only stupa on the site was all decorated with strings of lights.  It looked a Buddhist Christmas tree!  Okay, I know there's no such thing as that but if there were, this is what it would look like!


And what would a temple complex be without a Bodhi tree?


Located in the same temple but in another section were the Hindu temples....all in some shade of blue.


Solely for the experience, Chandana had us queue up to go inside one of the Hindu temples.  I felt like a salmon swimming upstream.  I think if I could have lifted both my feet off the ground, the crowd would have carried me in.  I managed to get close to the front but was too short to see anything so I just headed out the door.   If I had an offering in hand, I might have been able to make it all the way to the head of the line but no such luck since I was empty handed.


Off to one side was the most un-Hindu Hindu temple I have ever seen.  In fact, it looked like a blue colored gingerbread house.  I later Googled and learned it is the Devundara Shrine; dedicated to Lord Vishnu.  Apparently, it was built during the latter part of the British colonial era, atop the ruins of a much earlier Vishnu temple.  Though it does not look like any other Hindu temple that I have ever seen, its form is supposed traditional, with three slant-eaved storeys.

You can't see them very well in the picture, but underneath the clusters of leaves hanging from the sticks, are stone columns from the hall of the original temple.


One temple after another and a million people milling about.  It got to be dizzying after a while.  Aside from the one temple that he walked into with us, Chandana didn't go inside any of the other places so he, my brother and I would just stand outside while the rest of the group would make their way inside one temple or another.  Even Chami didn't look too interested into going into any and he's a faithful Buddhist.
























Here's a photo of Chami and I posing in front of the entrance gate to the complex.  The temples are in front of us and the main street behind us.


We didn't really spend a whole lot of time inside the temple complex.  Seems like you go in, queue up, leave your offering, say a prayer and leave.  Not really much else you can do - it's not like you can sit down and grab a bite or check out the gift shop.  So, after we made our way around the complex, we headed back to the shoe pile and got our shoes on.  Some folks needed to make a quick potty break (have no idea where they went to do that) before we headed out.

We back tracked our way across the street and joined another crowded mass of people.  The narrow lane we were on was flanked mainly by food vendors.  Oddly enough, there was stall after stall after stall selling Elephant Brand ice cream.  Seems to be THE brand of ice cream in Sri Lanka but it was bit odd seeing so many vendors, selling the exact same thing, sitting one next to the other.





 From the food stands, we headed down a short flight of stairs.  Walking down, all I could see was an endless see of tented stalls.  We were quickly heading towards an enormous flea market!!  Everything you could possibly want was for sale....from food to clothing to kitchen appliances and even furniture!  It was a shopper's paradise!









I'm not much of a shopper and even less of a shopper in a place like this.  What the heck am I going to do with any of this stuff.  For a few minutes, I did debate whether or not to try out some of the snacks but with the crowd around me and my not wanting to get lost, I decided to just stay close to every one else - not to wander off.












At some point during our walk, it started to rain so everyone huddled under the tents to stay drive.  It was only time that the paths, that ran between the various stalls, were clear of people!









Every now and again, we'd also lose track of a neighbor or Chami or Chandana's wife but somehow, we would always meet back up with them.  I guess they go to enough pooja festivals that they have figured out ways to find each other.  For me, it was easy spotting Chami in his bright orange shirt.

Masses of people buying stuff.  Even my brother got into the act.  He saw a vendor selling household hardware and decided to see if the guy had AAA+ batteries for sale as he needed ones to replace the dead ones in his headlamp.


As he shopped, I kept a close eye on him and Chandana and gang.  Surprisingly, he did get the batteries and of course, they were dirt cheap compared to what he would have to pay for them in the US.  After the batteries, came the leather belts.  Yes, my brother needed a belt (not for wearing in Sri Lanka but for work) and he saw a vendor selling a bunch.  But, before he could really check out the offerings, we had to move along.  The group moves, we move.




 

Even Chandana's wife got into the shopping action, treating her twin daughters to some headbands. It was the girls' birthday after all!


Miraculously, we eventually ended up at the bottom of the same set of stairs that we had originally come down from.  Somehow, we had walked in a circle.

We passed by the same ice cream vendors and this time, we took a break.  As odd as it was that the vendors were all selling the same product, it was even odder that inside each tent, plastic chairs had been laid out with one row lining the far wall and then two rows of seats, sitting back to back, running down the center of the tent.  I guess this is the layout and allows you to efficiently fit in the maximum number of people possible??




















While everyone else slurped on ice cream, I decided to try a bottle of Kik cola, Sri Lanka's equivalent of Coca Cola.  It didn't taste like either a coke or Pepsi but it was good.


After we were done eating and drinking, we made our way back to the van and from there, back to the hotel where my brother and I got dropped off.  We have to meet the guys at 5:30am tomorrow so best to get to bed as early as we can.  We waved goodnight to everyone.

As the van pulled away, my brother mentioned that he was hungry and of course, I asked him why he didn't say anything earlier but understandably, with the crowd in tow, he thought it would be awkward to take a meal break.

So we went in search of food, checking out a couple of the restaurants near the hotel. By now, it was close to 11pm and as expected, even if the restaurant was open, the kitchen was closed.  Unfortunately, there was no little corner store or anything like that, nearby.  Poor bro.  Had to go to bed on a bit of an empty stomach.  He'll live.

It had been a long day filled with a lot of activity but I have say, I really enjoyed spending time with Chandana and his family and experiencing of his home life in the village.  Given how hectic his work is and how much time he has to spend on the road, I can see why he enjoys coming back to the peace and tranquility of his home.

Good night!