A Lantern As Big As A House: Sybil Wettasinghe

A Lantern As Big As A House: Sybil Wettasinghe

Festival of VesakThe festival of Vesak takes place in May, at a time when the full moon seems to shine with special brightness and splendor. It is a feast in honor of the Lord Buddha, and people’s hearts are filled with fervor as they flock to their temples to honor him. They bring offerings of milk-and-rice gruel and long thin sticks of fragrant incense. They also bring heaps of flowers, and, as they place them on the altar, they chant the Lord’s teaching over and over: “Just as these lovely flowers must fade away, so too must our lives end. Just as these lovely flowers…”

Some people observe the first day of the holy festival by meditating and fasting from the afternoon until sunrise of the next day. Others listen to the monks deliver sermons on the teachings of Buddha. And still others give alms to those less fortunate than themselves, so that the poor enjoy a rare feast during the festival of Vesak.

At sundown on this first day many, many lights of various colors begin twinkling in homes everywhere. These are lanterns lit to celebrate the festival of Vesak, commemorating three events in the life of the Lord Buddha – the day of his birth as Prince Siddhartha, the day he attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha, and the day he died and passed into Nirvana, or eternal peace. Thus is the Buddha remembered with deep devotion: people rejoice at his birth, venerate his name, and strive to follow in his footsteps.

And thus it was that in preparation for Vesak a young boy was making his festive lantern. He had traded a gourd from his grandmother’s vegetable garden for some strips of bamboo, and now he was busily tying the strips together to form the diamond-shaped framework of the lantern. He wanted to make a big, big lantern, just like the ones he had seen in the city last year when he and his grandmother had gone with some neighbors to see the festival illuminations there. Some of the lanterns had seemed as big as houses, and the boy had been unable to forget them.

Young Boy Making LanternThere were now only twenty days before Vesak began, and all the villagers, young and old alike, were busy making preparations. Families worked together in large groups, making the clusters of small lanterns that would create such a gorgeous sight on the first night of Vesak. The young children especially wanted their family’s lanterns to be the best in the village, and they worked away excitedly with their older sisters and brothers. But the boy who wanted to make a lantern as big as a house had to work all alone. He had no brothers and sisters to help him. He had only his old grandmother, with whom he lived in a tiny mud house.

Granny loved him dearly. He had come to live with her while he was still a small baby, and she had raised him with all the tenderness and care in the world. She still called him Patiya, which means “Baby.”

Granny sold vegetables to earn a living, growing them in a small garden behind the house. It was tiring work, and she was glad when Patiya became old enough to help her. He was only ten years old now, but already he worked like a man, pulling weeds and turning soil, watering plants and gathering manure for fertilizer. He also went to school. He wanted to learn figures to help Granny keep accounts, and he read to her from his schoolbooks. Each Sunday, early in the morning they went to the market fair to buy and sell-to buy their few necessities and sell their vegetables. They were a happy pair, busy old Granny and her lively little Patiya.

Granny worked and worked, all day, every day. And it was Patiya who added the spice to their work. He made a gong to frightened birds away from their garden and dressed up a scarecrow to put on the fence. And he made some flowerbeds in their front yard. He also made kites and popguns for his own amusement. Granny smiled when he worked beside her. She often called him her industrious little man. And when she saw him start building the huge Vesak lantern, she laughed and said: “Why, it’s as big as a house! We could live in it, couldn’t we?”

Patiya worked on his lantern every afternoon, and the children of the neighborhood came to watch. Soon the news of his mammoth lantern spread far and wide, and children came from all over to see Patiya’s work.

“How will you be able to hang such a giant?” they asked him.

“I don’t mean to hang it,” replied Patiya confidently. “I’ve leave it standing right here.”

Young Boy With Big LanternThe bamboo framework stood on the tiny mud-paved porch of their house. It grew and grew until it completely filled the porch, and they had to creep through the framework to get in their house through the front door.

Six days before Vesak, Patiya finally finished the framework. Sitting back to admire it, he was struck by a thought. How could they afford enough paper to cover such a huge lantern? Worrying about this, he went to see how his friends’ lanterns were progressing. Most of their masterpieces had already been given their finishing touches. There they stood, inside the houses, like ladies dressed up and waiting to go to a wedding. And he thought of his bare framework at home, blocking the front door. He walked sadly home, and there the framework stood looking like a poor beggar woman who would look beautiful if only he could attire her in fine clothes.

It was noon. He went to the kitchen looking for Granny. She was blowing the cooking fire under the rice pot, and hot foam was just beginning to bubble between the pot and its lid.

“I’ve been a fool, Granny,” he began.

“Why, my treasure?” Granny asked, turning to look at him.

Tears brimmed in Patiya’s eyes. He said: “We won’t have enough paper to cover the lantern.”

“Oh, yes, we will,” Granny said. “There’ll be plenty of paper, never you fear.”

Patiya’s eyes grew big and round. Then Granny explained what she meant: “Tomorrow is Saturday, and we’ll dig up the sweet potatoes. On Sunday we’ll sell them at the market. And then-” She paused, and Patiya’s face began to glow. The tears twinkled on his cheeks, and a smile came through. “And then we’ll bring home the rainbow!” she sang.

So on Saturday they dug up a large harvest of sweet potatoes, which they sold on Sunday for a good price. Leaving the market, Patiya was filled with joy. Already he could imagine how his lantern would all lit up on Vesak night. Looking at Granny, he saw a smile playing hide-and seek on her face.

Boy On ShopThe bazaar shops were showing their special wares and tinsel, festoons, paper caps and masks, bunting, paper flags, and piles and piles of bucket-shaped lanterns.

Patiya walked proudly into a shop and bought all the needed for decorating his lantern. Then they went home.

Soon after lunch, Granny lay down for a nap. It had been a tiring day for her. Patiya brought out the sheets of new, smooth colored paper. Then he got out Granny’s old pair of scissors. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to make the first cut: he was afraid something might go wrong. If he made a mistake and ruined the paper, he knew they couldn’t afford, to by more. There were just four days left before Vesak, and he kept worrying and worrying.

After Granny had got up and was going about her many chores and preparations, she noticed that no progress had been made on the lantern. “You’d better hurry, Patiya,” she said. “There’s not much time left.”

Finally Patiya told her what was worrying him. Granny agreed that they couldn’t buy more paper. She thought for a while and then agreed to help him cut the paper and paste it on the lantern. But first she must finish washing and cleaning the whole house, rubbing the crockery with ash and soap, soaking the mats and scrubbing them with coconut husks, washing all the clothes and linen, and cooking extra food so she could meditate all the first day of Vesak.

So it wasn’t until the last day before the festival that she could help him. But they began working on the lantern early in the morning. It was harder work then they had expected. Granny had long forgotten how to make Vesak lanterns, and Patiya had never learned. But Patiya remembered how the city lanterns had looked, and Granny thought of her own childhood lanterns, over half a century past. Thoughts came rolling back to her over the years-the easy way to cut the flower patterns, how best to cut the long frilly “tails.”

On and on they worked. There was not room enough on the small porch for the lanterns and two persons. So Granny got inside the framework and sat on the floor, cutting out the paper. Patiya stood on a chair outside and pasted the pieces of paper on the framework.

By sundown the lantern was still incomplete. Granny went into prepare supper, while Patiya worked more and more desperately. “Tomorrow’s the beginning of Vesak,” he told himself, “and Granny will spend the day meditating at the temple.”

After supper, they worked into the night, but still they couldn’t finish. Patiya tried to console himself with the thought that he could finish covering the lantern with paper by himself the next day and that even if there wasn’t time for the other decorations, still the lantern would look pretty enough. But all the same he went to bed that night feeling very unhappy.

Imagine his surprise the next morning when Granny didn’t start for the temple-before dawn as she usually did each Vesak day. To remind her, Patiya said: “People are already on their way to the temple.”

“I hear them, son,” she said. “But I won’t go alone his year: we’ll go together.”

“But you have to meditate,” said Patiya.

For an answer Granny took the boy’s little round head in both her gnarled hands and said: “A good grandmother must always do her duty.”

The rising sun bathed everything in its soft light. Patiya and his grandmother set out for the temple. They fell into the stream of people carrying flowers, and rice gruel and joss sticks. And when they reached the temple, they joined in the offering ceremony. Then they prayed wholeheartedly and started home word.

How bright and joyous was the day! There was excitement in the air. People everywhere were putting up Vesak decorations, which were swinging gently, lightly in the breeze. The whispering rustle of tissue paper made Patiya gaze longingly at the decorations.

Granny walked faster and faster, and once they were home, she hurried him through breakfast. Then she stepped inside the half-finished lantern, and they both resumed work.

By noon the lantern was turning out to be a thing of beauty. The passers-by on the road could see only Patiya at work and remarked on how clever he was to do all this by himself. Inside the lantern Granny kept cutting out paper flowers and trimming. Patiya kept taking them from her by reaching into the top of the lantern and pasting them on the lantern to way he thought they looked best. The lantern they were making was white and blue and red with white and blue and red tinsel.

After a hurried lunch, they went to work again. Granny worked swiftly and silently, and Patiya sang bits of song now and then. Their fingers moved more briskly, cutting, gluing, pasting. Granny had no other thought but to get the lantern ready for lighting at sunset. She would cut a length of paper, fold it just a bit, cut a queer shape, and out would come some lovely design that Patiya would take and fix to the lantern.

On and on they worked till the sun began to go down. Soon it would be night. But tonight it would not be all darkness. To adorn the night there would be gems of light in all directions.

The temple bell rang, and a drum began to sound. It was time for the evening ceremony. Patiya looked around and saw blobs of colored light moving out of the houses. Slowly the lanterns moved in all directions and soon fell into a regular pattern and shone brightly.

The last bit of trimming went into place. Patiya stood up. His radiant face was aglow with joy. “Click! Click!” went Granny’s scissors inside the lantern. She was still cutting trimming.

“Stop, Granny, stop,” called Patiya gleefully. “The lantern is finished!”

“With the help of Lord Buddha…” began Granny. Then she fell silent. After a moment she wailed: “But, Patiya! Patiya-a-a! How can I get out? You’ve pasted me in.”

In his excitement Patiya had indeed closed the last opening, the one that was being left for Granny’s exit.

“Oh, Granny! Whatever are we to do? We just can’t tear the paper now,” Patiya pleaded.

“Now, don’t worry, my precious,” Granny called from inside the lantern. “All problems have solutions. Throw me the matches, and I’ll light the candles.”

Patiya fetched the box of matches. He could have lit the candles himself by reaching down from the hole at the top, but since Granny was inside, he threw the box into her, and Granny lit the candles one by one until the lantern glowed with a brilliant, mellow light.

Granny Open Side of Lantern“Aren’t you happy, son?” she called. But before Patiya could answer, she went on: “As for me, I’m happy, too, because there’s still time for me to do what I always do on Vesak night.” Then she quoted some words of the Buddha’s: “If by renouncing some little pleasure a wise man can derive greater pleasure, let him renounce his little pleasure for the greater one.”

Patiya did not quite understand, but he knew that Granny was happy, filled with a joy beyond his understanding.

Now a plate of gold was rising in the eastern sky. It was the full moon riding high in the heavens to take part in the Vesak celebrations. And it seemed as though this queen of the night had left her gem-studded crown on earth. And the diamond in the crown had rolled onto a tiny mud-paved porch, where a little boy stood gazing at its beauty.

Against one side of the lantern there appeared the shadow of an aged woman in deep meditation.

Surely this was the grandest Vesak lantern of them all. All the villagers came to see it some time during that night. They came from far and near. They came till after midnight. And they stood in silence watching the lovely sight, the glowing lantern and the meditation shadow from within it.

The moon shone serenely overhead. Clouds moved gently across its face. There was peace.

Then ever so slowly the lantern began to dim. The candles were burning out one by one. Quietly, ever so quietly, Granny tore open a side of the lantern and stepped out. And there was Patiya, asleep beside the lantern, his face full of contentment. Perhaps, even in his dreams, he could still see that lantern as big as a house.

∼ ‘A Lantern As Big As A House’ story by “Sybil Wettasinghe”

Kala Keerthi Sybil Wettasinghe was a children’s book writer and an illustrator in Sri Lanka. Considered as the doyen of children’s literature in Sri Lanka, Wettasinghe has produced more than 200 children’s books which have been translated into several languages.

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  1. I still remember this story from our. English literature book whilst I was in my 5th grade. I felt happy then and contented now! This is such a beautiful story, which I’m sure I’ll never ever forget. I might as well narrate this story to my kids one day in future when they’ll arrive… Thank you for sharing with us!

  2. Can’t understand