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A season for giving: Dansals of Sri Lanka

Buddhism comprises of ideals which signify the importance of living a life for the benefit of
fellow beings. One of the most important virtues of Buddhism therefore becomes giving and
sharing. Vesak or the Buddha Purnima is celebrated throughout the world in the month of May
and Buddhists of Sri Lanka in general practice giving of alms and donating more than usual in
view of the season. One way this is being accomplished is through the Dansal movement.

The mention of Dansal could be found in earliest Buddhist writings. In both ancient languages
and the contemporary Sri Lankan, dansal stands for a place which gives freely without any
obligation. In ancient Buddhist India as well as Sri Lanka, a dansala had been where the king
and the affluent donated food for the less fortunate of the society. Mahavamsa: the Sri Lankan
chronicle which recorded written history for over 2000 years mentions of Dansals which were in
operation during the reign of King Devanam Piyatissa (247207 BC). In later times, it is
mentioned that the consequent kings would order a dansal which will be open throughout the
years offering free food for the poor and the needy of the day. Practice of it was considered to be
of great merit and that belief continues to the present day.

A significant rise of movements as the dansal were noted as the colonial occupation of the
British eased the rules for the practice of Buddhism in the island. One such dansal in the district
of Matale boasts a history of over 130 years. The Wembley Cinema Dansal which operates
during each Buddha Purnima has been in existence since 1978. This dansala is a unified effort
of people from all religions. Our Katukele United Youth Society includes among its ranks,
Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Each Vesak, we organize this dansal for the benefit of our
community which enhances the communal bond H. M. Priyawansa of its coordinating
committee commented. Each season we serve around five thousand visitors and we cook over
350 Kilos of rice with additional curries. He says with a smile.

Interestingly, the dansal movement does not only concern itself with giving away cooked rice
and curry. In some instances dansals giveaway beverages like tea, coffee or iced coffee and
occasionally desserts like ice cream or cakes. Past School Prefects society of Kandy district had
organized a coffee dansal with collaboration of the public relations office of the Kandy police
station. We have been organizing this for ten years comments Thisum Wijethunga of the
prefects society.

In the context of a multi ethnic society as Sri Lanka, caring about each other and sharing what
we have as a community promotes harmony and co-existence. Vesak day which celebrates the
birth, enlightenment and the passing of the Buddha gives an opportune moment to practice
giving while we remind ourselves that he spent his life for the benefit of all beings. In that
aspect, the dansal movement prepares ground for the individuals and communities to come
together for the benefit of the poor and the needy of each society.

Palitha Kokmadoowa
Sri Lanka
palith@gmail.com