Westerners are often amused at best and horrified at worst to realise that us lazy, brown people have a get-out-of-work-free card in the form of the full moon aka the Poya holiday. Basically, if the moon is out in all her glory, the Sri Lankan government insists that citizens be allowed to stay home in order to perform “religious observances” regardless of their actual religion or complete lack thereof. I personally like to raise a glass of Scotch to the good old moon and thank it for deciding to come out on a week day. When this full moon falls on a weekend, we unfortunately do NOT get an extra holiday. Somebody should recommend that though.
The downside of Poya is that they can’t sell meat or alcohol in our shops. This however is a minor obstacle, as many of us have a well practiced system of planning ahead and stocking up.
So anyway, Ceylon issued a set of four stamps in 1967 to commemorate the first anniversary of the introduction of this absurd but useful Poya holiday system. They feature different Buddhist shrines and the values are 5, 20, 35 and 60 cents. The best part about this issue is the sheer variety of first day covers they issued along with it. I have acquired four different ones featuring the 5 cent stamp and 35 cent stamp but research indicates that there are many more.
The Mahapola scheme which provides scholarships to undergraduate students in Sri Lanka was the brainchild of the late Lalith Athulathmudali (26 November 1936 – 23 April 1993), a former Cabinet Minister of Education. The story goes that his own father passed away when he was just about to go abroad for studies, putting him in some financial difficulty. The young Athulathmudali had then made a request to the government and been provided a grant. It is said that the establishment of the Mahapola scholarship scheme was his way of repaying this favour.
Mahapola was not just a name given to a scholarship scheme though. it actually began as a trade fair, exhibition and carnival of sorts to promote an open market economy in Sri Lanka in a way that benefits rural communities. A Mahapola lottery scheme was later introduced where the proceeds would go into the Mahapola Scholarship Fund. It’s interesting to note that these scholarships were granted almost purely on economic need (90 percent) with merit counting for only 10 percent.
Thus, the 1980s in particular saw a flurry of Mahapola themed stamps with an issue coming out every year starting from 1984. This cover celebrating the fourth anniversary of the much lauded scholarship scheme featuring four colourful stamps is my favourite, regardless that is, of the religious undertones.
This is the first in a series of posts which will take an in depth look at some of the most interesting Vesak stamps of Sri Lanka.
The four stamp set issued to commemorate Vesak in 1996 featured four scenes from the Therigàthà which is the ninth book of the Khuddaka Nikaya, which in turn is the fifth part of the Sutta Pitaka, which in turn appears in the first division of the Tipitaka, the sacred scriptures of Buddhism (and boy what a mouthful that was). It has a companion volume,the Theragàthà.
Sri Lanka has been issuing Vesak stamps every year since the late 70s. The majority of these early issues are some of the most treasured in my collection because they depict some awesome bits of history, mythology and art and I tend to geek out over that type of thing. Unfortunately, most of the later ones have not been as interesting and this year is much the same.
We actually had two separate Vesak issues this year with a three stamp set commemorating Vesak and a separate one stamp issue commemorating the State Vesak Festival. Why this was necessary is beyond me and none of the stamps look particularly special.