DIY Project: Wesak Lanterns

17 May

As you may recall from about three-fourths down the Auspicious Times, Parts 2-115 entry last year, Wesak is May’s Poya full moon holiday, and the most important one of the year. Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death are all celebrated during Wesak. This year’s Wesak is Monday, May 19 (the day after Wesak is also a holiday).

The whole country is suddenly decorated with handmade lanterns with colorful streamers, floating around gracefully among the heavy winds that is characteristic of May weather (this is also the time of the year kites fly high in the sky a la The Kite Runner).

You have two options in Sri Lanka–buy some off the street or make your own. Making lanterns from scratch happens to be way more fun!

To make your own, take a bamboo trunk, and whittle it down with a small machete so that you have 24 equal-length flat pieces of bamboo (suggested length: six inches). Make sure the ends of each stick is filed down to a narrow, even more flat point.

Take string and tie together the ends of four sticks to make a square. Do this six times for six squares, then tie together the squares to make a polyhedron with six square faces and eight triangle faces.

The end result should look like below, which Jeewantha has already started covering with colored tissue paper.

Mix flour with some water in a coconut half-shell to make a sticky glue. Using your fingers, spread just a little glue along the edges of a single face. Then take tissue paper (you can pick the colors yourself!) and carefully affix it onto the lantern. Make it as taut as possible without ripping the paper. After completing one face, carefully trim off the rest of the paper, saving as much paper as you can for covering the entire lantern.

Don’t worry too much about excess paper at the edges; those will be covered up later. It is recommended you do the squares first, then the triangles. Leave the top and bottom of the lantern uncovered.

Ishara has opted to go for an all-white base, while Supun is using white for the squares and blue for the triangles.

You can further embellish your lantern with a crosshatch pattern like Sameera has done here:

To make the scrunchy fringes for the edges of the lantern, take a large piece of tissue paper. Fold it several times along its length so you have a long, folded strip of paper. Cut it completely into several folded pieces of paper. Take one folded piece, and, using the scissors, nip it several times along both sides to make fringes. Unfold the paper and you’ll have a long, narrow strip of fringed paper.

Observe Rajitha doing a splendid job of affixing the fringes onto the lantern. Wet one edge with the flour-water sticky mixture, and put the fringe onto it. Scrunch it up with your fingertips to make an interesting pattern. You will also probably see that Rajitha has used his slipper to hold some glue too.

This is also a good time to tie string to the top of the lantern so you can hang it.

To make the colorful streamers hanging off the sides and bottom of the lantern, pick two colors of tissue paper. Cut both into wide strips. Glue together the wide strips, along their sides, to make an alternating pattern. Use slippers to hold down the paper in case you’re working outside and it’s very windy.

Fold it up several times (like you just did with the scrunchy fringes). Instead of cutting clear through the folded paper, leave some room at the top, and nip the folded part many times to create thin strips. Here’s an example from Ishara:

After you’re done, carefully shake the paper to unfold the fringes. Place some glue inside (not outside) the bottom of the lantern, and affix the top, uncut part of the fringes.

You can also make fringes and affix them to the four outer corners of the lantern. You’re done! Sameera’s lantern has turned out to be a real beauty:

Hang them from the ceiling, or if you’d like, from a hanging light bulb so it can be illuminated at night.

Once you’ve made your basic Wesak lantern, you can see how there is a lot of room for creativity. Cut out snowflakes from folded paper (in Sri Lanka, they’re called flower patterns, not snowflakes, for obvious reasons) and paste them onto the square faces. Or cut out temple silhouettes, bo leaves, and other Buddhist symbols.

If you’re feeling quite bold, you can make elaborate lanterns like the Year 10 class did to win second place this year’s secondary school contest:

First place went to Year 11’s tall lantern:

And I think this flower-shaped one, by Year 4, placed second in the primary school contest.

In the end, the lanterns will last for about a week or two, depending on how well-sheltered they are from the high winds and nightly rains, so be sure to make them no more than a week before Wesak Poya day. When they’re starting to look worn, dispose of them in an environmentally responsible matter. By this, I mean that I think all these materials can be composted, but Sri Lankans like to put them in with their regular rubbish and burn it.

*Note for Westerners: regular school glue will work fine as a substitute for the flour-water mixture. In fact, that’s what we used last year. If you are not skilled at whittling down bamboo (or if you even have bamboo growing in your backyard), wooden sticks are plentiful at crafts stores. You can also take strong plastic or wax straws, and melt the edges together–tricky but worth the effort.

2 Responses to “DIY Project: Wesak Lanterns”

  1. cat 18. May, 2008 at 7:39 am #

    the lanterns are beautiful!! i love the blue one with the flower patterns (not snowflakes :)) and the one that landed 1st place. that is an amazing one. maybe you can teach the tilden club (tildeners) on how to make this when you come back to the bay area. heh


  2. Sue 16. Apr, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    There is a picture with a slipper on the paper. That is not good. We make the lanterns with a respect. Please take off the picture with out insulting Buddhism.