Buddhist Temple Workers Cant Afford Worship in Sri Lanka

by Anuradha Gunarathne, Global Press Institute, August 8, 2011

KELANIYA, SRI LANKA -- Nilantha Dias and his father operate a flower boutique in Kelaniya, a small town near Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. The shop, which specializes in flowers and other items used for worship, is one of 11 boutiques that belong to the much revered Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara temple here.

Said to have been made holy by a visit from Lord Buddha, the temple is one of the most ancient and sacred worshipping places for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. It is situated along the Kelani River, six miles from Colombo. According to the Mahavamsa, a historical poem detailing Sri Lanka's founding, Lord Buddha visited this ancient temple during his visit to Sri Lanka in 523 B.C.

While Buddhists used to worship at the temple every day of the year, today worshippers and pilgrims crowd the temple mostly on Saturdays, Sundays and Poya Days - Buddhist public holidays that occur during the full moon.

The 11 small boutiques that belong to the temple sell items used for worship - including flowers, coconut oil, oil lamps and sandalwood sticks - to worshippers and pilgrims. Ten boutiques are situated close to the temple parking lot, while one boutique stands near the temple's front entrance. Eleven different businessmen run the boutiques, with each paying weekly rent to the temple.

"On Poya Days, Saturdays and Sundays, we get good income comparing to other days," says Dias, whose shop sells flowers. "In my boutique, three of us are working."

Dias, whom everyone calls "Jabba," introduces his father and a young employee, Tharidu Kumara, 19.

Dias and his father often work from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. to accommodate worshippers - and even longer on Poya Days.

"On Poya Days, the shop is open [until] 10 or 10:30 p.m.," Dias says.

In addition to running the shop, each store manager is also responsible for paying rent to the temple. Dias says the money from the store he operates goes toward temple upkeep.

"According to the agreement with the temple, we pay 3,000 rupees [$27 USD] per week for the welfare of the temple," he says. "Our team has taken the responsibility of cleanliness of the temple."

But sometimes it is difficult to come up with the money.

"In some weeks, it is very difficult to pay 3,000 rupees [$27 USD] of our sales," he says. "I have to pay salaries for two persons. In my shop, another two persons are working except me. With our income and the current economic situation of the country, it is very difficult to manage."

Still, he says they're happy to do it.

"But it is our pleasure to pay that 3,000 rupees [$27 USD] for the maintenance of the temple," he says.

Kumara, the energetic teenager who helps Dias, stands outside the shop, calling customers in.

"Enna mal ganna," he calls, which means, "Come and buy flowers from our boutique."

Kumara, who studied only through primary school, says he joined Dias' shop as a salesman three years ago, when he was in 16. He works from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week - every day except Monday - and gets paid weekly.

"I get 700 rupees [$6.40 USD] per day," he says. "Except that, breakfast and lunch are provided by Jabba."

Born in Matara, located in southern Sri Lanka, he came to Colombo when he was young after his father died. He says his mother has done several jobs to look after him, so he started this job to look after her. They stay in a rented room close to the Kelaniya temple.

"This money is enough for me and my mother," he says, arranging a bunch of flowers.

"It is my responsibility to keep this place clean and neat," he says, while moving around the shop to arrange the worshipping items. "Otherwise, customers will not buy things from us."

But because Dias and his employees depend on their earnings from selling worshipping items to pay rent to the temple management and to support themselves and their families, they say that - ironically - they never get the chance to worship at the temple themselves.

The boutique workers spend their days selling flowers and other items for Buddhists to use to worship at the sacred Kelaniya temple. The sellers are Buddhists too, but they say that because of their economic status and the hefty fee that must be paid to the temple, they can't afford to worship inside the temple they help to maintain.

More than 75 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, according to the government. The majority of Sri Lankan Buddhists go to temple and worship on the Poya Day of every month.

The national poverty line in Sri Lanka was 3,239 rupees, $30 USD, per person a month as of June 2011, according to the Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics. The percentage of Sri Lankans living below the poverty line declined by nearly half from 15 percent in 2006-2007 to 9 percent in 2009-2010.

Dilrukshi Hettiarachchi, 38, sells flowers in another of the temple's boutiques. Since joining the boutique's staff two years ago, she says she has worked almost every day from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. She says she earns 500 rupees, $4.60 USD, per day in wages, plus an extra 200 rupees, $1.80 USD, for breakfast and lunch.

"My house is in walking distance to this place," she says. "For the breakfast and lunch, I [must] go home and share it with my children."

Hettiarachchi says she works at the boutique in order to support her three children.

"I am the breadwinner of the family," she says. "My husband drinks alcohol all the time of the day and does not look after me or my children."

She says she is worried about her children's education. She says her eldest son finished his ordinary-level schooling but failed his exam and has since stopped going to school.

"My elder son was good in education," she says. "But I do not know what happened to him. I believe that because of our family problems, he missed his education."

She says she is working at the boutique to educate her two younger sons, who are in grades nine and six. Hettiarachchi, who completed her education up to the ordinary level, says she aspires for them to achieve their dreams since she couldn't.

"Because of poor family background, I was forced to stop my education," she says, then starts to cry. "I wanted to be a dancing teacher. It was my dream. I got a distinction for dancing."

She says she works for 14 to 15 hours in the boutique per day. Still, she says she rarely earns enough to make ends meet, much less to be able to take time off work to worship at the temple.

"It is very difficult to run the family by my wage," she says.

And after finishing her daily work at the boutique, she must fulfill her responsibilities at home.

"It is very [tiring] to do housework after finishing this job," she says. "The whole day standing and calling to people to sell flowers. No chairs to sit down [on]. My legs pain. But [at the] end of the day, I cannot sleep peacefully without giving cooked food by myself to my children."

She says she is happy to provide for them. Still, she says she wishes she didn't have to work so hard so that she had the chance to worship inside the temple once in a while.

"We sell flowers and worshipping items to thousands of people," she says. "But we are not lucky enough to go inside the temple and worship [with] flowers. I could not remember the last day when I worship [inside] this temple. One day I would like to observe Sil here. But it's a dream."

Sil is a religious ritual observed on Poya Days in which Buddhists sit and listen to several sermons by Buddhist priests on righteousness in an effort to enhance their goodness.

But Hettiarachchi says she can't give up a day's wages.

"If so, who gives food for my children?" she asks. "Not only me, most of these flower sellers do not go inside the temple. But Triple Gems may protect my children."

Triple Gems is a Buddhist blessing.

P.A. Nandawathi, 45, also works in the boutique with Hettiarachchi. Nandawathi, a widow, says she started working in the boutique four months ago to support her son and mother.

"Before that, I worked in a tea factory," she says. "I worked there in night shifts, too. It was difficult. So I left the job. After that, I sold fruits in the market. But I failed to get a profit."

She says she is happy to earn a decent wage here, but that it's not always easy.

"It is difficult to stand up [the] whole day and calling people," she says. "That is the only problem I face. [My] doctor has advised me to not to stand for long hours. But I cannot do this job without standing up."

Like Hettiarachchi, Nandawathi also says she doesn't have the luxury of visiting the temple.

"I have never visited inside the temple in these four months," she says. "On Poya Days, ladies of the age of me come here to observe Sil wearing white cloths. When I look at them, I feel I also want to observe Sil."

But like the other boutique workers, she says she can't afford to miss a day of work or the clothing needed to participate.

"If I do not earn the wage of the day, it is difficult to survive my family," she says. "I do not have clean white clothes to wear. It has to be spent a lot of money to buy clothes. So it is better to forget it."

The boutiques buy their flowers from wholesale flower sellers, who collect the flowers from areas far from Colombo, such as Chilaw, Kurunegala, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, and bring them to Kelaniya.

Somapala Banda, a wholesale flower seller, delivers flowers in his minivantwice a week - on Tuesdays and Fridays- from Chilaw to Kelaniya.

"I sell 4,000 lotus flowers a day to this market," he says, adding that olu and manel flowers are also popular in the shops here.

But sales vary by season.

"I have a good profit in dry season, but we face difficulties in rainy season," he says. "We cannot supply the flowers to fulfill the demand."

Like the boutique workers, he says that he is so busy earning a living that he doesn'thave the time or peace of mind to go inside the temple to worship.

One of the Buddhist monks, who is a resident of the Kelaniya temple but declined to give his name, says that all boutique owners pay their weekly rental fee on time to the temple for its upkeep. But he says that the temple management doesn't have much information about the sales personnel in the boutiques.

"They are casual, daily-waged laborers," he says. "Some of them work in the boutiques for a long period and some of them for a short period. We have only the details of the owners. We do not know about their employees."

But he says he has noticed that they rarely come worship in the temple.

"According to our observation, most of these sales [personnel] are from very poor families," he says. "They try to earn some money for the [survival] of them. It is a very rare incident that they come inside the temple for worshipping. I am a resident of this temple for more than six years. Since then, I have not seen any step taken to develop the lives of them. It is needed to have a system to develop their lifestyle."

But he says the monks have no control over whether the sales personnel have time to come worship. He suggests they band together to improve their working conditions.

"If the sales [personnel] could form a welfare society, they could have [a] common system of work, wages, leave, etc.," he says. "Then they should have at least one day leave per week. But the problem is they are not capable enough to form that kind of society with their educational background. We also cannot intervene for that because the owners run the boutiques as their private business."

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