Giving Thanks at Okanda
After a successful and tiring season it was time to wind down for the off-season and begin working on improvements. But before any of that, we had our customary field trip to Okanda temple to give blessings and thanks for all opportunities we had, the wonderful guests we met and challenges we had to overcome. All in all, there was a lot to be thankful for.
A proper blessing at Okanda must be timed and planned perfectly. Of course we planned pretty well and timed it sort of okay. But it worked out in the end. The order of events;
1. Get all the food items for the blessing and feast afterward
2. Get there in time to cook the food for blessing
3. Give thanks and offer the food to the priests
4. Have the food blessed and returned to us
5. Light oil lamps and incense to give thanks
6. Break the sacrificial coconuts at the alter
7. Eat the blessed food
8. Arrange pizza and alcohol to show up at a secret beach after the blessing. We can't drink near Okanda as it is a sacred site. Many thanks to our friends at Gecko for timing the arrival of food and booze perfectly.
The first challenge was getting everyone in the jeeps!
We ordered two, but there were too many people to fit so we added a third. Then no body wanted to get in the third because they preferred to squeeze and sit with each other. This took a while to sort out.
After explaining the benefit of traveling in comfort like bosses and that no one would be traveling alone, this seemed to calm people down and they grudgingly acquiesced. Running short on time we high tailed it through the jungle to Okanda temple to set up camp and start cooking.
The menu was fairly simple, Pongal rice (which takes the most time), fresh fruits for the gods, priests and monkeys, and coconuts for crushing at the altar.
Is traditionally made with pistachio, dates, suduru sambar rice, cashews, raisins, jaggery and brown sugar. There was a suggestion of skipping the sugar since there were already a ton of natural sweeteners from the dried fruit but this didn't go down well. If you know Sri Lankans, you know we love unreasonable amounts of sugar. We met in the middle and only put in half the sugar. Every one partook in this, from building the fire to washing the rice, pitting the dates and cooking the ingredients.
After ward everyone felt accomplished! The job of cutting the fruit was more typical as we reverted to the standard work ratio for all Sri Lankan jobs. If you've ever driven past a road work project or anything having to do with municipal works you will observe this...
One guy working while at least 4-6 others stand around, watch and give critical feedback on how it's being done wrong. We barely managed to squeeze in 5 people with their hands on their hips. Phew, made it!
Okay "enough working, lets get to being thankful!" we said, and off we went inside the temple. The order of procession here is to:
1. Place the food inside the temple offering table.
2. Wait for the priests to come and give blessings and recite prayers. This takes a little while. There is a lot of bell ringing, wonderful chanting and overall appreciation happening. Out of respect we didn't take pictures of all this stuff so here we are just standing around.
3. While the prayers are being said, those that can fit will go inside the blessing area.
4. After the prayers the priests will take the food to the inner sanctum of the temple and bless it.
After the blessings the food is given back to us, minus a portion for the gods. Then it's onward to lighting the altar. Many people wander around with Om tattoos adorned on them but if you really wanted to find a decent Om sign, Okanda temple has a really nice one. We lit it with oil lamps - which is surprisingly hard to do with the nearby sea breeze. We take this part very seriously as you can see. After ward we smash blessed coconuts at this altar to give thanks.
Okanda temple is a beautiful and serene place. It has special meaning in Sri Lankan lore and is also the launching point of the annual Pada Yatra pilgrimage to Kataragama. It is truly worth visiting and checking out some of the details of the temple itslef. Do keep in mind that you need to be covered from elbows to knees. Sometimes the priests don't allow shorts, but this is generally only met with a stern grunt.
And then finally, we eat!
Afterward we gathered everyone back into the jeeps and went to a semi secret beach nearby, out of the temple vicinity. After rendezvousing with our supplies tuk tuk with pizza, beers and a few good bottles of arrack we were ready to let loose! Of course no pictures of that, but we were greeted with a pleasant ripple of shin high peelers and off shore winds. Given this was the off-season the gods must have been happy with us. Naturally we brought some boards.