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Akash Deep and Phom Phai: Where two traditions meet

Akash Deep and Phom Phai: Where two traditions meet

Sentinel Digital Desk

By Dr Ramala Sarma

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects you ~~ Edith Wharton

Let your life shine! Shine in your own unique way! Probably nothing could feel better than having such a wish from someone you care. Indeed, it feels great when people wish to see in us the same brightness that we see in the celestial bodies like the Sun, the Moon, and the like. Again, in every such act of wishing, we have a surreptitious desire to get illumined. For we always want to have a clear vision of everything and never want to be in obscurity about anything. We thus have an inte tendency to budge toward the light, to inherit the potency of light. Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (from darkness, lead me to light)— a verse in Brhadarnyaka Upanishad which perhaps aptly explains why we use light as the metaphor of positive energies that dispel the pessimism of darkness.

With all these glories said about light, we can say that we have every reason to celebrate festivals of light. And we do, Diwali being one such festival that the Hindu celebrate with great pomp and merriment. Aside from this great festival, we do observe some lesser known rituals of light like akash deep that draw us nearer to other traditions in terms of the significance of the celebrations. Indeed, the Hindu ritual of akash deep (or akash bonti in Assamese) has pretty close similarity with that of phom phai of Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Celebrated in the month of Kartik (the seventh month of Indian calendar), akash deep is a Hindu ritual of lighting lamp facing the sky. In the dusk, people light the lamp on the top of a bamboo stick placed in the courtyard of the house. Devotees observe this ritual throughout the month of Kartik. It is observed to pay homage to and to seek blessings from the departed loved ones and other ancestors. It is believed that lighting akash deep would light the path of the departed souls on their way to heaven and in return, the latter would bless them richly and would always guide them to a wholesome life. Thus akash deep or sky lamp is the ritual of lighting other's path for lighting one's own. This lesser known festival dates back to the time of the Mahabharata when the people first lit akash deep in honour of the deceased soldiers of the Kurukshetra war.

'Offering sky lanterns have also been an important ritual in Theravada Buddhist tradition. However, sky lantern is called differently in different regions. Thus it is called khom loi in Thailand and phanush in Bangladesh. The Tai Buddhists of Assam, the followers of Theravada tradition, call it phom phai. Phom phai is a small hot air balloon made of paper with an opening at the bottom where a small fire is suspended. Releasing phom phai or sky lantern in the air is an important event of Pavara— a ritual observed to mark the end of Vasavassa or three-month rain retreat in Theravada tradition. On the day of Pavara, which generally falls in October, the devotees gather together in the mosteries or vihars in the evening and release sky lanterns with joy and merriment. Some do believe that offering sky lanterns to the Buddha will ward off bad luck and bring in good fortune. Buddhist canonical texts, however, say that lighting lanterns help cultivate the wholesome roots of non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion. It leads the mind to tranquility by freeing it from the three evil roots, viz., greed, hatred, and delusion. The exact date of sky lantern ritual is unknown. However, a story of the Buddha's life is associated with this practice. As the legend goes, during his stay at Sravasti, the Buddha left for Tavatimsa (heavenly adobe of thirty-three devas) to preach the Abhidhamma to his mother Mayadevi. It was vasvassa (three-month rain retreat) then. He spent whole three months there preaching the Abhidhamma to his mother and other monks gathered there. At the end of rain retreat, he returned to Sankassa, which is now known as a Buddhist holy place, located in Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh. During his journey back to earth, all the gods welcomed him with flowers and garlands and lit lamps to lighten his path. Since then, sky lantern ritual is believed to have started.

Despite the differences of the backdrops to the rituals and the variations in the way of their observance, akash deep and phom phai seem to be the symbolic representation of our eagerness to get freedom from the darkness of our ill thoughts, words, and actions and of our yearning for eterl light of knowledge that not only illumites us, but also enlightens everything around. These rituals subtly point to our shared purpose that underpins the ceremonies that seem to diminish the difference which is often created by our faiths. Owing to our different religious beliefs, we walk different paths, but our goal is always the same, i.e., to live a happy fulfilled life. Now it is left to us which we should cherish more— the difference (of paths) or the similarity (of goal).

(The writer teaches Philosophy in Nowgong College, gaon)

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