My sister turns one and we celebrate with a trip to hell

We were at the tail end of an introductory 10 day tour of Sri Lanka that was kicking off the semester-long stay for the students and the year-long stay for my family. Focusing on the Southern part of the island, we had seen temples and tradesmen, wildlife and worshipers. It was my sister’s first birthday. For her, however, this day would seem no different than any other as she was celebrated every day and everywhere we went. Crowds of smiling Sri Lankans flocked around her pinching her cheeks and stroking her hair, and her blond head could be seen bobbing through the sea of people who all wanted to hold and play with her. As an added celebration, Mom did arrange a bit of cake which we ate while enjoying a relatively cool wind off of the water.

“Today we are staying at a lovely rest house or government run hotel right on a lake. The breeze off the lake is wonderful and very cooling. There are fishermen on the lake, people washing their clothes and others bathing. We also saw a very large crocodile just off on an island several hundred yards from us. Don’t think we’ll go swimming here! The people here are so friendly. They always have a ready smile. And they really love babies – especially pretty blond ones. Janelle draws a crowd everywhere we go. If she gets fussy during dinner one of the waiters just comes over, pickers her up and we don’t see her until we’re finished eating.” –Judith August 27, 1982

As a ten year old, you go where your parents tell you to go and I often would board the vans with the students on this island tour and have really no idea where I was going. Once such excursion was a memorable trip to the Southern coastal town of Dickewella. Although I didn’t know exactly where we were going, I was certain we had arrived at our destination when we pulled up to Wewurukannala Vihara Temple. A statue of a sitting Buddha eight stories tall in bright yellow-orange robes peered down at us from under mostly closed eye lids. Legs folded lotus style with hands resting open palmed on top of one another, the Buddha looked like he was about to fall asleep. He leaned against a building behind him which extended up to his head and was only surpassed in height by a decorative swirl that resembled multi-colored soft-serve ice cream.wewurukannalabuddha Several small white stupas dotted the temple complex but reached no higher than the statue’s knees in contrast to many temple complexes we had visited where the stupa was the main feature. Entering the temple there were also many brightly colored statues of the Buddha sitting, standing and reclining as well as figures of monks and other worshipers dressed in ceremonial clothing.  buddhagraphicstoryWe walked up inside the building behind the large Buddha and as we climbed behind the statue we enjoyed portrayals of the Buddha’s life- like a graphic novel of the journey of a prince turned ascetic turned spiritual leader that unfolded as we moved towards the top. At the peak we peered into the Buddha’s head and could see a representation of the knowledge he garnered throughout his lifetime. A series of scrolls and a lotus flower illustrated the enlightenment he ultimately attained.

The most striking images at Wewurukannala Vihara temple were the vivid depictions of Buddhist hell. Brightly colored statues showed gruesome accounts of punishments for various behaviors. A man standing on his head is being sawn in half by two devilish minions.

sawinhalf Another does a painful back bend over a large spike that impales him in the middle. A guilty individual has molten lava poured down his throat. The bright cartoon-like statues gave this section of the temple a feel of Disney’s It’s a Small World meets the harsh Old Testament. dickwellapunishements

Another long dimly lit hall shows cartoon-strip pictures of various behaviors and the punishments that befall those who take part in such practices. Conducts worthy of terribly violent retribution were many but burned in my memory were walking nude through another person’s house, killing a cow or particularly interesting to the students and me, wearing Western clothing. Punishments included sliding naked for eternity down a spiked pole, having your head cleaved with a saw and being stabbed forever with a burning spear. nailthroughstomach

buddhisthellWewurukannala Vihara temple was in stark contrast to other temples we had visited in Sri Lanka with gentle calm imagery.

If it seems ludicrous to you that something like wearing Western clothes should get you a ticket to eternal suffering, think about what you were taught in your religious tradition. In Leviticus for example, shared by Christians and Jews, there are many rules mentioned that seem absurd to most today – Do not wear clothing made of more than one fabric or allow different types of cows to graze together. It should make you ponder other acts or lifestyles labeled as transgressions by religious clerics. Maybe even some that you and those in positions of authority have deemed sinful. Are they equally absurd?

After our tour of hell to celebrate my sister’s first birthday, we concluded our ten day island tour with a trip to the central mountainous region and ended with a day of rest at a beach-side inn. Some of the famous and interesting places we would investigate again many times as family and friends visited us or my father conducted research trips. But after a week and a half of dusty, hot travel and cramming heads with history and culture we were all anxious to get back to the relative structure of our days in Colombo.


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

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