Ancient festivals at Mihintalava
Poson is the month of a series of Buddhist festivals, ceremonies and celebrations in conneciton with the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and in honour of the arrival of Arahat Mahinda Thera, the leader of the mission which brought not only Buddhsim but an enhanced social and cultural upliftment to Sri Lanka.
Mihintalava and Anuradhapura have been the focus of these celebrations throughout the centuries. At present the Government has taken the burden of providing every protection and facilities to the pilgrims who visit Anuradhapura and Mihintalava during Poson.
While being on top of the Missaka Pabbata enjoying the serene beauty of this holy festival during the full moon night of Poson, it is quite natural if one’s thoughts go back to search of how and in which manner these celebrations were conducted in ancient times.
Our chronicles and legends along with ancient inscriptions and the writings of scholars provide a lot of information about these Buddhist festivals and ceremonies of early times.
Before the advent of the Arahat Mahinda Thera, the famous royal festivals of the Vasantha and Gimhana Seasons (Spring and Summer) were the water festival and the game (hunting) festival. Towards the month of Poson the tanks were full of lotus and lillies forming appropriate venues for the water festival.
By that time animals also would have got themselves fed for quite a sufficient period during the Spring in which time natural vegetation grew luxuriantly. Ambastala (Mihintalava) was famous for the festival of hunting deer. To prove that the king skilled and victorious, he himself had to kill the deer. That was how a deer became part of the great encounter of the Arahat Mahinda Thera with King Devanampiyatissa.
As a result of the introduction of Buddhism, a new series of festivals and celebrations evolved gradually. Ceremonies in connection with the Sacred Bo Tree and the Chetiyas and Viharas with preaching of Pirith, especially during famines and other calamities, were held most probably in a normal way, while the Vesak festival, Giribanda Puja festival, the Tooth Relic festival and the Mahinda festival were conducted as special ventures as and when the King’s patronage was available with a Royal Order to that effect.
The following passage from the “History of Buddhism in Ceylon” by Dr. Walpola Rahula Thera, gives us a fair description about the nature of these festivals: “These festivals, though religious, were not dull and dreary. There were in them liveliness and colour and variety.
All religious ceremonies and festivals were accompanied by music, dancing and singing…. These festivals were so attractive that people from long distances assembled to see them…. Unlike today, in ancient times., opportunities for public entertainment were few. Religious festivals provided both entertainment and satisfaction of religious sentiment”.
Among these festivals, the Giribanda Puja and the Mahinda festival were directly connected with Mihintalava. King Mahadatika Mahanaga (67 – 79 A.C.), having completed the great task of building the Mahathupa at Mihintalava, celebrated the event on a grand scale. This festival was called the Giribanda Puja, which means the ceremony of offering commodities on the mountain.
This King, extremely pious in every sense like his brother (Bhatiya 38 – 66 A.C.) decorated the Mahathupa for this festival and got the whole of Mihintalava mountain area magnificently done up with flags, arches and rows of lamps. The four main gateways and streets were adorned with shops full of various commodities. Pandals were erected in suitable places. Singing dancing and music added glamour to the event.
The highway from (Anuradhapura) Kadamba Nadi to Mihintalava was covered with pavada or carpets to enable devotees to reach the Chetiya with clean feet after ablutions at the river. Alms for the priests and others were organised by the King and among other things many of the prisoners were released to mark the occasion.
According to the account in the Mahavamsa about this great festival, we can imagine vividly how excellently it would have been celebrated by the King and his retinue with the whole-hearted co-operation of the people, who enjoyed the occasion with high spirits and full of devotion.
It is a pity to mention that there is no evidence to show that this unique festival was celebrated by the kings who succeeded Mahanaga. The next important festival connected with Mihintalava was the Mahinda festival which was inaugurated by King Sri Meghavanna (362 A.C.). This king, who endeavoured to undo the damage his father (Mahasen) did in destroying the Mahavihara and its monasteries also was a very pious Buddhist.
It was during his reign that the Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to this country from Kalinga. The King was very much pleased about Arahat Mahinda Thera and He decided to honour him by holding a grand procession carrying a golden image of the Thera.
On the seventh day of the month of Vap, the image was taken to Ambastala where the Thero met King Devanampiyatissa, and on the following day the King followed by his retinue, people and a large number of Bhikkhus, proceeded there to bring down the image to a temple called Sotthiyakara, where the image was venerated for three days while the people of the locality were engaged in various ceremonial activities.
Large scale alms-giving was organised. The city was beautifully decorated and the roadway from Anuradhapura to Mihintalava was excellently beautified with various embellishments.
It was on the fifteenth day of the month that the mammoth procession with the image reached Mahavihara through the city and from there the image was taken to the courtyard of the Sri Maha Bodhi to be kept there for exhibition and veneration for three months. It seems that this festival was ordered by the King to be held annually and as records reveal it had been in existence even during the thirteenth century.
Anyhow, later this festival had been abandoned. From recent times it has been revived and small-scale Mahinda processions are held throughout the country in many places. Anuradhapura and Mihintalava, where this festive originated, do not have the practice of holding a procession now, but other religious and festival activities along with the illumination of the Maha Chetiya and its environs are done with the patronage of the State and other benevolent institutions.