Vesak display in front of the Jaffna Public Library
The Sri Lankan military staged an elaborate Buddhist Vesak festival in Jaffna, attracting over 30,000 visitors from the south. I think many of the primarily Tamil, Hindu people were, at best, ambivalent. There were rumors of anti-Sinhala posters around town. It is a bit odd seeing Buddhist flags in front of every military outpost, the fair grounds flanked every five meters by soldiers with guns. However, on the whole, I think this may be OK. Last time I came down the A9 there was a parade of armored personnel carriers heading south. This time they were transported Vesak Kuduwa, basically giant paper lanterns. I think that’s an improvement.
It remains weird that the Buddhist flag flies at every military outpost. That is, at every ferry point the Buddhist flag is flying next to armed guards. It is also a bit odd that every government building is lit up but private houses are not. It was also, personally, horrifying that southern traffic gummed up the whole city, but that is a festival thing and not entirely unright.
I wandered around the festival scene, looking at the lights. In view of the once burnt Public Library, military divisions had put up displays and were watching as the things spun and glowed. It was excellent work, really, better than the Vesak displays I’ve seen in Colombo.
Near the Fort Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil families were wandering around eating ice cream and checking out the scene. Armed troops were omnipresent, but most of the troops were off duty and just looking around. There was a carnival with music and games and a woman driver spinning round the Well Of Death. There was a human-powered ferris wheel, literally guys hanging off and spinning it.
This is all OK. It’s all actually nice. I do feel a bit imposed on even as a casual visitor to Jaffna. I love the place and I don’t love the traffic, the hooting crowds at Casuarina, the overload and closing of the Nageepa ferry point, the elbow to elbow jostling in Keerimalai. But who am I. It’s their country too and if everybody happens to get off work for Vesak, there will be a crowd. I had the luxury of hanging around till Monday and then everything was OK.
But I do wonder how the Jaffna people feel. At the end of the day I am Sinhala Buddhist and I don’t feel especially imposed upon by the flag. But it is a territorial display, surrounded by guns. Those guys are cool with me and we can be like ‘oh, you’re from Matara, my family came from Matara.’ In my stilted Sinhala. But they still speak almost no Tamil. And we’re thronging the town.
I enjoyed Vesak and I think, on the face of it, most people there did. It’s nice to get out of the house. I just wonder how the old Tamil pride is doing. I hope the military does a similar show for Hindu festivals, but that’s seems unlikely. This seems to be the new order, light it or not.