Viktorija Panovaite
What story hides Vesak day lanterns?

What story hides Vesak day lanterns?

Probably most of you, at least once, seen the spectacular pictures or read amazing impressions about Vesak celebration in Borobudur temple in Indonesia? Thousands lanterns fly up at night in the horizon of Buddha statue and temple? But how many of you know what people are ready to do to see this unforgettable view? What is going on during all day celebration and how are treated officers?

I have been in Vesak celebration this year and I will share what real story hides Vesak lanterns ;).

Why this day so special?

Waisak (in Indonesia language) also known as Visakah Puja or Buddha Purnima in India, Visakha Bucha in Thailand and globally known as Vesak – is a major event in the religious calendar for most Asian Buddhists. Buddhists this day celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Those who observe the religion use it as an opportunity to pay homage to The Enlightened One, seizing the opportunity to reiterate their devotion to principles of Buddhism: the determination to lead a noble life, the promise to develop their minds, the practice of love and kindness and the strive for peace and harmony with humanity. The holiest day is celebrated across the Buddhist world, but is most spectacular at Java’s island Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Many articles already written about rituals of this celebration, so if you are interested you can read about it more here or here.

2015 year celebration was more special

First of all, this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and other government officials decided to attend the opening ceremony of the Vesak celebration. It means more people wanted to come, not only to see the lanterns inflammation but to see the president from close. Second, organizers were expected ~20 000 Buddhist to attend this event this year.
Also because of some anxiety between Buddhist and Muslims in Myanmar, was a bit worried that can be made some Muslim attacks during this ceremony (like revenge for Buddhist actions in Myanmar). Even not so many monks, that usually come, came this time (maybe they were afraid?). Because of these reasons in Borobudur and around that area were working ~15 000 soldiers and policemen from all central Java.

And what is the reality, how people get inside for celebration closing ceremony – lanterns ignition?

People can freely enter daytime ceremony in front of Mendut temple, as well join the procession from Mendut temple till Borobudur. But to the final part, closing celebration in the evening, you can enter only in several ways (not allow to get inside all people, it’s just prevention not to make too crowded around UNESCO heritage – Borobudur temple): you need to be Buddhist and prove it then you will get invitation or you can give donation at least ~100 000 Rp (~7 EUR) (for this amount you will get your own lantern, will enter Borobudur temple cheaper during daytime and you can go to closing ceremony at night).

To get invitation you need to come to Mendut temple in early morning (and depends on you – you can follow all ceremony till the evening or leave and come back at night).
But to get invitation you need to be a Buddhist. Guess how many tourists who are coming to see lanterns during Vesak day are Buddhist? Probably not a lot (I didn’t check, it’s my guess:P). So how they get to the evening ceremony? Donate? Mostly, not. Because maybe 100 000 Rp (~7 EUR) it’s too big amount for donation even if they can save money on entrance fee to Borobudur temple (what normal cost for tourists ~280 000 Rp – ~18 EUR).

They prefer lie, pretend Buddhist, jump over the fence and maybe try other tricks. How do I know? I was a witness of all this actions.

During daytime, when we arrived to the place where invitations are given, we were told that invitations will be given at lunch time. I met couple of other tourist who were trying get invitations like me.
We all came back to the same post on exact time. Everyone’s had their own strategy how to get invitations (because mainly people weren’t Buddhist)

  • The foreigner’s couple that I met before and had short conversation, came to me and asked if I already got invitations, I said not yet. And they were happy that they have it already. I asked how they get it – they very joyful and satisfied told me that they lie that they are Buddhist
  • One foreigners group which for me didn’t look like Buddhist (sorry maybe it’s my stereotype, but come to holy celebration wearing things like going to the beach, doesn’t associate with going to pray or meditate) had local guide. He was convincing responsible person that this tourist group is Buddhist and wants to get inside in the evening. Unfortunately they didn’t have any paper that proves that they are Buddhist. Guide took some time for convincing but finally he got invitations.
  • I met one more familiar foreigner. She was wearing T-shirt with one Buddhist organization logo. When I asked if she is a Buddhist, she said no. Just she have Indonesian friend who is Buddhist, so she asked him to be written in their organization participants list to get inside in the evening ceremony.
  • I saw and Indonesian people who I know from the look. They are not Buddhists (they follow other religion). They came wearing white T-shirt (they dressed up it when arrived). It’s not written law that Buddhist if not wears they organization T-shirt, they can wear white T-shirt – it means they are Buddhist or at least very supportive to Buddhism.
  • Inside the temple, in the evening, where you can get in with invitations, I met one foreigner. He was surprised that to get inside people needs invitations. He didn’t know about it. He just jump over the fence to get in. Even if it was many security who checked surrounding, probably if you really want you can find the way to go through the fence.
  • Others-were waiting in front of the entrance gate for the time when they will be allowed to get inside (usually when ceremony already partway, people are let inside without invitation as well). But instead of waiting they started organize “fake” pressure in front of the gate just to get in. Security didn’t want any tragedy, they open the gate for couple of minutes, to first people get inside and reduce crush.
  • Some Indonesians made “fakes” organization paper with participants list, to get inside “officially”.

I’m not writing here the advices how to get in the ceremony “illegally”. I just want to share reality of people behavior.  What they can figure out and do just because of their aim. The right way to get inside – is just come with an official paper from the Buddhist organization. If you are not Buddhist just donate money. I started to think is those 100 000 Rp really worth to lie, pretend and betray your belief? Is this holy celebration is all about it?

You curious how I get in, if I’m not Buddhist? No I didn’t use my “contacts”, lied or did something else. I went to post where they was giving invitations and ask for couple of them (for me and friends). They asked me if I’m Buddhist and I asked back “how you will check it, if I will say yes? The religion written only in Indonesians ID, in my country ID isn’t written”. I told him “I don’t want to lie or pretend that I’m Buddhist, because I’m not, and will be honest with you, because all this celebration about good things. I just really want to go inside and see how its looks like”. He smiled, said thank you for honesty and gave me couple of invitations. Why I didn’t donate money instead of asking invitation? For me, living only from scholarship amount, these 100 000 Rp believe or not is big money – I can eat for this sum almost 10 times. Reason only this, otherwise, I would be happy to have my own lantern and put it to the sky with my wish. Many people do that, leave a note on inflammation lanterns in willing that their wish will come true.

How 24 hours working soldiers and policemen were treated?

All security people came to Borobudur area ~4 am and should leave next day at the same time or whatever other time, when all people from Borobudur area will be gone. People were working all day long, without any care from government to provide them water and food (one soldier told us). Do you think these people will be motivated to work and secure if they treated like this? Some group’s chiefs paid for food and drinks from their own money. And when policemen left some water bottles in boxes near the gate (for the later time when they will be trusty), other people just came and took it from boxes while soldiers were further. I saw it by my eyes. They did that without any shame or hiding.
I know all this things because during the day and in the evening, till we were waiting, few policemen, soldiers came to me to speak. You know everybody is curious about foreigners. Even if there were many foreigners they felt more comfortable to come to me, because I was with Indonesian friends, so they felt that I can be more open and friendly to chat with them. Yeah, I really like to speak with people and know more about their work, what they think and etc.

And finally what about organizational side?

This year, some of the parts were a bit different than previous year (my friends who participated before told me). The good thing that almost nothing was delay, everything by the program, maybe because of the president visit? But the lanterns first time were prepared not upstairs Borobudur temple but downstairs. There were a lot of volunteers who helped to show the way and organizing things. As well all rubbish from all area were cleaned so quick that I couldn’t believe that what I saw 15 min. ago, already gone (Indonesian people put trashes whatever).
But something didn’t work out properly with lanterns inflammation. Usually the lanterns should by lighted after monks make the last part of ceremony “Pradaksina”, when they goes 3 times around the temple and turn on the first lantern from the stage, that symbolize enlightenment for the entire universe. But this time the guys in down part started to light them much earlier, when procession wasn’t finished yet. And I saw how organizers on the stage were confused tried to fix the situation, but it was too late. As well this year they didn’t put the thousands of lanterns at one time, just small amount little by little. Like ceremony finished at ~2 am, people were already tired. Most of them started leave after first amount of lanterns were up in the sky. We left ~3 am and we saw that many lanterns still waiting their turn to be lighted.

The bright side

Yeah, even if I experienced different reality of Vesak day (I even thought that I was expected “fairy tale”, but got “daily life” experience), still it’s really beautiful ceremony. In the evening especially. I can’t describe the feeling when 20 min. of meditation thousands of prayers were totally quite. Was possible to hear only moving leaves sound and geckos. Really amazing to see that magnificent lights, joy of prayers. If you will have chance to see it, it’s worth – just please don’t get inside in “wrong” way. It’s holy celebration, so at least you can behave in good way :).

As well, by accident we met one Danish guy with whom we met in Gili Meno island in January. It was so nice surprise in thousand people crowd to see known faces after 6 months :). And one funny thing that I still remember – one Indonesian youth couple, was sitting all the time in front of “angkringan” where we stayed for a while. Till it was bright outside – the girl was with hijab, but when became dark she took out her hijab. So what means to wear hijab in Indonesia? Fashion? About this I will tell you later :)

So this is my story behind the lanterns beauty.

Have you been in Vesak celebration in Indonesia or somewhere else? What was your experience?

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

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