Monday, March 19, 2007

Story Jar - Wesak Day, Kuala Lumpur

The Story Jar - a biweekly column in the Patriot and Free Press, Cuba, New York

Published November 15, 2006 - Copyright Elaine Hardman 2006

Wesak Day, Kuala Lumpur, Malyasia

The smells were foreign and intense. Candles burned. Thousands of them. The smoke mixed with diesel fumes and camphor. Aromas from cooking pots and ripening fruits filled the air with scents so strong that we felt them as much as smelled them.

The sounds were more real than simple vibrations in the air. They were solid, golden, reverberating tones of voices, strings, gongs and bells.

The people were as numerous as the candles and they were the essence of variety. Ages, sizes, colors, languages and ethnicity all flowing through the space in their own celebrations of Wesak Day, Buddha’s birthday.

Wesak is the time to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Devotees gather in temples throughout the country to light candles and offer prayers. The date depends on the lunar calendar but it’s always in late May or early June.

Malaysia, in the 1980s, was home to a variety of religious festivals because the cultures of Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Moslems, Animists, Christians and others intermingled. It might not be the same now but then there were festivals and celebrations of great variety.

The Wesak celebration was something that Rick knew about from his previous stay in Thailand so he arranged our travel date so that we would be there in time to know the festival as he did by walking through it.

The Malaysian heat - equatorial, humid, heavy and still new to us - began to dissipate toward evening so that’s when we left the air-conditioned Ramada to take a taxi to the temple. The sun’s light faded but the smoky haze of candles marked the site from outside the gates.

Our children held on to me. Well, maybe I held onto them. When the senses are so full of the unknown, the familiar is something to be clung to.

When we entered the temple courtyard, the ocean of candles had the greatest impact. It seemed that every area not occupied by people held small, smoky candles.

The other unforgettable sight was the profusion of sandals. Shoes can’t be worn inside inner temples so they are left at the gates in tangled piles. Like beds of maple leaves that covered our yard at home in the fall, little children giggled and crawled through the sandals. It wasn’t clear if that was just for fun or if they were searching for footwear. The barefoot people leaving the temple seemed to be admitting the futility of finding the right pair in such a massive community of shoes.

Without intending any insult, we put our shoes in my shoulder bag and zipped it up. Inside the temple, shoeless people lit more candles, gave offerings to the monks and knelt on the marble floors to pray.

Wesak is the time to offer alms to monks in saffron robes who bow, bless and give vials of holy water to their supplicants. Some of the people drank the water and returned the vial while others used the water to anoint their heads or hands.

Though it has been decades since we saw them, the faces of the monks and worshipers are still in my mind. They were peaceful. Kindness was there. These people clearly honored brotherhood, the teachings of Buddha. Their voices mingled musically with the temple bells tingling in the wind. Patience and sharing were palpable so as we wandered through Wesak Day we all accepted Malaysia as our second home.

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