Celebrating Vesak (or Wesak) Day in Penang

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

"Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." – Buddha.

Vesak day falls on the full moon in May. Also known as Buddha Purnima, it is considered as a holy celebration for the Buddhists as the day commemorates Gautama Buddha's birth, enlightenment (nirvāna), and death (parinirvāna).

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

The decision to agree to celebrate Vesak as the Lord Buddha’s birthday was formalised at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950. However, at that juncture, centuries-old traditions celebrating this special day in the Buddhist world were already present.

Vesak is observed traditionally by Buddhists in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and the Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia. Here in Penang, Vesak is celebrated with much colour and gaiety.

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

On the thrice-blessed day for Buddhists, they visit local temples throughout Penang to attend prayer services and listen to teachings as well. Chanting and praying are an important part of this holy day commemorating Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing.

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

"Bathing" the statue of Buddha is a common ritual on Vesak. Water is poured over the shoulders of Buddha as a reminder to believers to purify minds from greed, hatred and ignorance.

Gifts are offered at the main altar of the temple, right before the statues of Buddha as a sign of respect and gratitude to the Lord for his life and teachings. Some will set free pigeons and tortoises (which they would have purchased) as a symbolic gesture of kindness in releasing the soul from bondage.

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

In Penang, the annual Vesak Day procession plying through the streets of George Town has been organised since 1949 and runs entirely by volunteers, funded through donations collected. The grand procession usually starts in the evening from the Malaysian Buddhist Association at Burmah Road. Buddhist devotees from all walks of life, both young and old, participate by following the procession which passes through various streets in the city. Beautiful floats decorated with colourful flowers and bright lights are accompanied by many, singing and chanting prayers along the way. 

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

Although the celebrations for Vesak day come to an end after the procession concludes, what resonates more are the teachings of Lord Buddha.

The heart of his teachings is contained in the Four Noble Truths:

  • The Noble Truth of Dukkha or suffering,
  • The Origin or Cause of suffering,
  • The End or Cessation of suffering, and
  • The Path which leads to the cessation of all sufferings.

The message of the Buddha stands today as unaffected by time and the expansion of knowledge as to when they were first enunciated. His teachings appeal to reason and freedom of thought, recognising the dignity and potentiality of the human mind. It calls for equality, fraternity and understanding, exhorting its followers to avoid evil, to do good and to purify their minds.

In 2020, the annual Vesak Day celebrations in Penang were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Malaysian Buddhist Association (MBA) however prepared two series of online programmes for devotees to celebrate Vesak Day in their respective homes concurrently.

In 2021, Penang was under the third movement control orders (MCO) with lockdowns and travel bans enforced from 10 May till 7 June 2021. That year was no different from 2020. We hope 2020 and 2021 will be exceptions and a thing of the past as the grand Vesak Day celebrations return in full swing in the coming years.

2022 marks the 60th year since Vesak Day became a national public holiday in Malaysia. This year Wesak Day will see devotees in Penang back at temples to seek blessings. However, for the third consecutive year, there will be no procession.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 14 May 2022