The Bloody Fantastic Poya Holiday on Stamps

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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. 

First Anniversary of the Introduction of the Poya Day

Vessantara Jatakaya on Stamps – Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka

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One of my favourite areas to collect (and yes, I know I have too many) is the depiction of Jataka stories on stamps, something made easier by living in Asia. Each “Jatakaya” features a story about a previous birth of the Buddha in either human and animal form. Sri Lanka has issued several Jataka stamps in the past but recently, I got my greedy paws on some great issues from Thailand and Laos featuring the popular Vessantara Jatakaya.

The story in short is about this gormless muppet Vessantara who walks around giving away all his possessions, including his children. As a rather zealous antinatalist, I find this last point upsetting because duh, bringing new humans into this hellhole of a world without their permission is bad enough, but TO GIVE THEM AWAY LIKE THEY ARE YOUR FUCKING PROPERTY? I MEAN SERIOUSLY? However, since Vessantara also becomes the Buddha in a later life, I suppose we should refrain from calling him names. At least he didn’t try to chop their heads off because God asked him to.

So on 5 December 2001, Laos issued a gorgeous set of four stamps depicting scenes from the Vessantara Jatakaya. The relevant section/chapter of the Jatakaya is mentioned on the stamp.

200 K, Himavanta

200 K, Himavanta – Vessantara giving away the magical elephant which brings rain to his kingdom. Dude felt sorry for envoys from his neighbouring country of Kalinga who were facing a massive drought. Suffice to say, his own countrymen were not too pleased and demanded that he be banished. The pouring of water is meant to signify that the requested boon has been granted.

900 K, Vanapavesa

900 K, Vanapavesa – Although he got a chariot in which to leave the kingdom, our genius Vessantara gave that away too, so we find him and his family trudging through the forest, on foot.

3200 K, Kumarakanda 3200 K, Kumarakanda – Vessantara sends his children away to be slaves to a nasty old man, Jujaka who beats the crap out of them.

3600 K, Sakkapabba 3600 K, Sakkapabba – Sakka, the king of the Gods appears in disguise to ask Vessantara for the gift of his wife Maddi and Vessantara complies. This Maddi was obviously a spineless wench because she should have just kicked them both in the goolies and run off with her lesbian lover but to be fair, Sakka was only playing a trick. He gave her right back to Vessantara framing it as “a reward for all the generosity you have shown so far”. Wiley old fox that one.

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Sri Lanka Mahapola Stamps and Covers from the 80s

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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.

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Amphibians – Thailand and Sri Lanka

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My friend Tom recently sent over some very colourful frog stamps from Thailand – issued on 10 July 2014, these little guys look like they might jump straight off the stamp!

Flat-headed Toad

Flat-headed Toad (Ingerophrynus macrotis (Boulenger, 1887))

Phongsaly Tree FrogPhongsaly Tree Frog (Rhacophorus kio (Ohler and Delome, 2006))

Long-nosed Horned Frog

Long-nosed Horned Frog (Megophrys nasuta (Schlegel, 1858))

Red-eared FrogRed-eared Frog (Hylarana erythraea (Schlegel, 1837))
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Sri Lanka 1991 Survey Department 190th Anniversary FDC

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This first day cover was issued to mark 190 years of Sri Lanka’s survey department and features Captain Gualterus Schneider alongside a commemorative stamp. What’s interesting however, is that the text stating that Captain G. Schneider was the first surveyor general of Sri Lanka appears to be a mistake.

The stamp shows that the Survey Department was established in 1800 which is accurate. The surveyor general at the time was J. Johnwil who was followed by George Atkinson in 1805. Gualterus Schneider then happens to be the THIRD surveyor general coming into office in 1811.

Sri Lanka 1991 Survey Department 190th Anniversary

Sri Lanka 1996 Therigàthà stamps marking Vesak

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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 - Theri Gatha - Vesak 1996

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Sri Lanka School Stamps

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Education in Sri Lanka is a big deal. We have a very high literacy rate, said to be the highest in South Asia and one of the highest when comparing across the whole of Asia. I can’t help wonder though, could this at least partly be a result of, or due to the booming education industry? The government’s free education system is great in theory but there is also a glut of privately run schools, institutes and universities and not all of them deliver. Just to give you some context, our Sunday newspapers often carry TWO multi page educational supplements!

Schools in particular also seem to generate a certain amount of class divide. Of all the things we could have picked up from our British ex-overlords, is the status we seem to confer on those who went to a “good” school. Admittedly, I have not been completely immune to this phenomenon because I still have the occasional fantasy about reading English at Oxford but, that’s a subject for a different post. The number of times I have been asked what school I went to within the first 5 minutes of me meeting someone, well, it’s enough to make my blood boil. And I did attend one of these so called “good” schools – a private convent for girls in fact. Anyone listening to me swear in the vernacular would be hard pressed to imagine that I ever spent any time there.

Allegedly the "best" boys school in Sri Lanka

It all started with this 1985 stamp from Royal College – allegedly the “best” public boys school in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka Vesak Stamps 2015

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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.

2015 Vesak stamps

Date of issue: 20 April 2015

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