The Art of the Pandol

An Oregonian from Sri Lanka strives to create America’s first giant, Sri Lankan-style Buddhist shrine -- in his Beaverton garage

By MARIA CHOBAN and BRETT CAMPBELL

One hour to sunset. Beaverton’s Sri Lankan New Year festivities known as Vesak pick up momentum. Cashew curry, dal curry, fish balls crowd the counter while coconut sambal and a pot of spiced rice march up the driveway and through the garage into the kitchen, carried by women from Washington County’s small Sri Lankan community, which numbers about 500.

In the garage, a growing squadron of fellow Sri Lankan-Americans offers advice to the two engineers working on a seafoam blue drum criss-crossed with inch-wide strips of shiny metal, coiled like a geometric Minoan bracelet around Cleopatra’s arm. About four feet across and ten inches in diameter, the drum is part of a mechanism that resembles a player piano roll.

“Screwdriver! No! Flathead!”

The only English words as one engineer’s son digs through a tool box. The squadron of eight Sri Lankan-American men staying out of the way erupts in advice, but we don’t understand Sinhalese and the two engineers continue dancing around each other; quiet, efficient, calm.

About one million blue coated wires connect the drum mechanism to the twelve-foot tall yellow shrine looming over the driveway, blocking the house’s front door, because it’s also ten feet wide.

Thirty minutes to sunset, marking the beginning of Vesak on May 26th this year — the celebration of Buddha’s life, enlightenment and passing — to be inaugurated with the lighting of this massive yellow shrine.

Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi and his Flasher

The shrine is called a Pandol. The seafoam blue drum mechanism is called a Flasher. Four-hand drawn and painted four by four foot panels show the story of Sama: one panel for each chapter. A banner at the bottom credits the family and community members who helped design, draw and build this work of sacred art. Buddha perches atop, serenely blessing all 1,800 lights attached to the panorama that honors him. Above him flutters an American flag.

Driven by the drum mechanism with its 79 bicycle spokes, like cat whiskers brushing against the criss-crossed metal strips as it rotates, the lights will dance around the shrine like a kaleidoscope. If, that is, everything goes as planned.

Red ribbon warns us to stay on this side of the Pandol-in-progress. One of us is on the forbidden side snapping pictures of the sheets of three by three foot, precisely drawn plans stapled to the garage wall. A white piece of 8.5 X 11 inch paper hanging on the red ribbon instructs, “In case of fire: Dump sand stored in the pail on the fire.” If this doesn’t work, “Contact Jeevan immediately and / or call 911.”

This is the story of Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi’s quest to create what he believes to be the first Sri Lankan Pandol in America.

Jeevan is not, officially, an Artist. He has no degree in art. He does not speak of his “practice” or “making work” or hang out in Portland’s art hipster neighborhoods. He earns a living for himself and his family by working as a civil engineer in a Washington county tech firm.

But if you define artist as someone who creates art, who sees the world in a different and more original way than most others, who diligently, even obsessively, applies craft and skill to that slant vision, and who builds an object of beauty that dazzles and moves others, what other word applies?

What if you yearn for an art form from your birth land and there’s nothing like it around you in your new homeland? What if you’re meticulously rigorous as an engineer, but your artistic sensibility doesn’t quite fit the corporate culture mold? Someone who steps outside the expected stereotypes — tech company number cruncher, middle-class suburbanite, first-generation-Asian- immigrant professional success story? How long does it take to make Art in a new home where it has never existed before?

For Jeevan, it took six months, or possibly 37 years. He has 15 minutes left.

Sama and the King, part 1:

Immaculately conceived when his father’s forefinger presses into his mother’s navel, the Bodhisattva, Sama, cares for his unlucky parents. To help atone for the sins of their ancestors, they were forced into marriage, and then blinded by snake venom when Sama turned sixteen.

Lush tropic greenery, crystal drops of water cascading into cobalt blue pools, happy yellow glinting days. As the first full moon of May and the rainy season arrive in the south Asian island of Sri Lanka, Buddhists augment the island’s natural splendor with Pandols and lantern displays. In dozens of towns, hundreds of people labor for many months to celebrate Vesak. Multi-storied shrines resembling gigantic pinball machines turned on their sides spring up, as do the elaborate lanterns.

Like sand mandalas and Rube Goldberg dominoes, Pandols are as temporal as life. They live for the celebration only and are then dismantled. A reminder that we are not everlasting.

Jeevan and the advice squadron remember their families in Sri Lanka talking about these shrines, much as native Portlanders reminisce about really cool Christmas light displays like Peacock Lane, or the great Grinch display in Bethany, only a memory now. In Sri Lanka, Pandols are as welcomed at the start of the monsoon season and Vesak as Christmas lights are here at the beginning of winter.

Pandol in Piliyandala, Sri Lanka

Building a Pandol requires a balanced mix of artists and engineers, kind of like creating a Pixar movie, or the Eiffel Tower. For the multi-storied Pandols in big Sri Lankan cities, fifty or more people can be involved: The overseeing visionary who chooses which of the Buddha’s 550 stories will be depicted and directs the team of artists who paint the panels or fashion the Buddha and his halo; the team of electricians who design the lighting scheme and engineer it so it works; even the wide-eyed youngsters who do the scut work of untangling nests of wires. Others procure donations to finance the building of these celebratory gifts to the Buddha and to the community.

Sama and the King, part 2

Accompanied by deer, the gentle Sama daily brings water from a nearby stream and gathers nuts and berries to feed his blind parents. He sweeps the floor to make sure they don’t trip and builds a series of bamboo railings outside the house for his parents to grasp for guidance as they feast their remaining four senses while strolling together around the bucolic outdoor surroundings.

In tenth grade, Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi finally got to work on a Pandol in his Sri Lankan hometown of Gampaha. “A pack of us kids swarmed on a Pandol being built,” he remembers of that day 37 years ago. “Of course they didn’t let us work on the drum. We were assigned to clean the wires.”

The notion of creating his own Pandol never left him, even after he left Sri Lanka for college and then work as an engineer in Dubai and eventually Oregon, joining a small Sri Lankan American community drawn here to work in Washington County’s burgeoning technology industry. But he was always a little different — from the other Sri Lankans, from his fellow engineers, even from his neighbors. Jeevan the Engineer was also Jeevan the Artist.

In 2014 Jeevan the Artist built a small three foot by three foot model of a Pandol as part of the Vesak celebration at the Buddhist temple where his family worships. Impressed, the monks asked him to build a larger version for the temple for a future Vesak celebration. Jeevan the Engineer began preliminary design and budgeting, addressing myriad questions. How could he build such a large shrine in his garage, then disassemble for transport to the temple? What was the maximum current he could employ using the power available in a normal home like the one housing the temple?

The first question, though, was which of Buddha’s stories to tell. Sama’s tale is a filial family story. After researching 550 stories, “I chose it because I could depict it in four panels instead of 10,” Jeevan the Engineer explains.

One thing he couldn’t figure out: how to manufacture the metal framework that cradles the drum. He couldn’t find a factory that would custom build a single unusual frame like that. And no wonder: Jeevan was trying to create the first Sri Lankan Pandol in America.

It turned out the easiest way was to go to the source. In 2015, Jeevan the Engineer traveled back to Sri Lanka and built one in one of the island’s many small, informal factories often used for that purpose.

It takes a village to make a Pandol in Sri Lanka, but in Bethany, Oregon, Jeevan the Engineer supervised only himself as the head of everything: choosing the Buddhist story, drawing the panels, heading the electrical team, the drum-and-cradle team, supervising the safety squadron, funding the project, managing the budget and schedule, procuring materials and members from his family and the community to breathe life into his creation.

One year ago he started drafting the plans for the shrine and lights on pages of a green graph paper tablet, looking at photos of actual Pandols and scaling them down to what American municipal and electrical codes and the house’s electrical system would permit.

Jeevan in his garage with his blueprints, drawings, and drum apparatus.

Six months ago, drawings not culled made it onto three by three foot wall hangings on his garage, beautiful in their patterned austerity, like Da Vinci’s. The family surrendered the kitchen table to panels and paint as Jeevan the Artist drew and and his wife and teenage kids, following Sama’s example of filial devotion, painted the story of Sama in four shrines.

Jeevan’s wife, Sujeewa, shooed him out to the garage to work on his Art — creating the intricate electrical system that would power a vast array of elaborate lights. Meanwhile, their kids painted and Sujeewa painstakingly wrote the script for the story of Sama for Jeevan to intone as they recorded it in Sinhalese — a soundtrack backing the spectacle.

“She also took over helping our daughter with college applications while I basically lived in the garage,” Jeevan says, looking at his wife with great appreciation. Later, wife and daughter laugh as they simultaneously describe the artist they live with.

Wife: “He’s a nuclear bomb!”
Daughter: “He’s a hermit! — Just like me!”

Beginning last November, Jeevan the Engineer worked alone in his garage till midnight or later — after work and family dinner, on weekends. He started with the flasher — the magic drum that he and his tenth grade school chums were not allowed to touch. And he quickly found out why: When he tried to fit the drum into the cradle he made in Sri Lanka in 2015 and brought back to Oregon, it wouldn’t seat properly. The 79 wires combed the drum unevenly, missing connections. He went back to the drawing board many times, soliciting help from engineers in his community to overcome obstacles.

With their help, as Vesak drew near, everything finally seemed on track to move the Pandol to the temple, which was coincidentally undergoing a lengthy, massive remodel that had caused much disruption. In mid-March, two months before the beginning of Vesak, the head monk told Jeevan: Because of all the construction and upheaval, the celebration was canceled. There would be no Pandol at the temple this year.

Sama & the King, part 3

One day Sama goes out to fetch water. That same day a king is hunting deer. As Sama stoops to fill his pitcher at the bank of the stream, the king shoots his arrow, hitting him. The king rushes to the stricken Boddhisatva’s side. Perplexed that the mortally wounded Sama never blames him, the king quickly assents to Sama’s two wishes: that his blind parents will be cared for by the king, and that the king bring them to him so he can see them before he dies.

Jeevan Kasthuriarachichi now faced a choice: abandon the work of the last six months, the dream of the last 30 years — or complete it. But where?

Jeevan the Hermit emerged from his cave and consulted his family. They decided they had invested too much effort, too much devotion to what was now their dream. If they couldn’t erect their Pandol in a temple, then they’d put it up right on their own doorstep, just steps from the garage where it was finally taking shape. Jeevan asked and received permission from the United Nations cul-de-sac. “Our neighbors are Chinese, across the street; next to them, Spanish speaking, and on our left, Indian,” Sujeewa Kasthuriarachchi beams.

The hermit returned to his garage. He had six weeks to finish it.

Jeevan the Engineer checked and double checked his electrical circuits, his circuit design and other plans, the height of the shrine, the length of the Sama story. Everything. He painstakingly calculated permitted electrical loads, then doubled the tolerances, just in case. (He’s a civil, not electrical engineer.) To keep the amperage manageable, he split the power supply into two separate circuits, routing the line for the lights, and the line for the rotating drums, through different junctions.

And if, despite all of his conservative estimates, something were to go awry … well, there was the omnipresent safety team and all those directions on the warning sign. And the bucket of sand next to the wires.

Finally, only days before Vesak began, and with help from the family and the faithful squadron, the shrine moved from garage to driveway. As the artist and his team put the pieces together, the shrine grew to twelve feet high, reaching the house roof line, an explosion of color against the backdrop of neutral colored suburban homes in the tidy flag lot.

As outsized as it seemed in the neighborhood, just as Oregon’s Sri Lankan small community is dwarfed by the population of their homeland, so too is Jeevan’s Pandol compared to those of his youth in Gampaha.

There are 1,800 bulbs on Jeevan’s shrine, arrayed on multiple circuits, and upwards of 80,000 in some of the colossal Pandols in Sri Lanka.

There, the drum is made of non-conducting wood from the Arecanut tree. Here, Jeevan the Engineer used American plastic. In Sri Lanka, the Flashers are thirty inches in diameter and more than ten feet long. Jeevan settled for something more manageable: ten inches in diameter by four feet in length.

In daylight, the shrine itself, with its detailed paintings, is an impressive achievement. But it’s incomplete without the over-the-top lighting effects that brighten Sri Lanka each May, and to which the engineer/artist has devoted so much effort.

The festival lasts all week, but Jeevan had promised himself and his neighbors that it would be ready by the first night, a Sunday. By 6 p.m. on the night of intended lighting, there was still some work to do. “I was so exhausted,” Jeevan remembers. “I went to bed at 2:30 a.m. last night.” His friends in the advice squadron were ribbing him. Another engineer friend was helping plug cables into sockets and Jeevan’s son was shuttling tools, including a flathead screwdriver, to both. The Indian-American neighbor next door comes over to ask whether it’s ready yet so he can bring his wife.

Gathering to watch the lighting of the Pandol

So here we stand in Jeevan’s driveway at 9 p.m. on the night of the full moon. Fifty or so Sri Lankan-Americans, two Indian-Americans and one Greek-American. All of us united in our impatient excitement to see this thing come to life!

Finally, the second engineer nods her assent that the wires are all connected properly. The preparations are complete — just in time! The sun is setting, and other Sri Lankans and neighbors are gathering. Vesak has arrived, and it’s time to light the Pandol.

Jeevan flips the switch. The shrine balks. It coughs up the outlining white lights but refuses to illuminate the other colorful bulbs. Thirty smartphones and one high powered Nikon aim at the display. Perhaps it’s camera shy. The Buddha’s halo glows a trinity of colors. But only for five seconds. Bits and pieces light up in fits and starts. About half the circuits refuse to close.

Jeevan looks perplexed. Still, we cheer on the artist until his wife corrals us inside for the buffet.

(Why don’t we have a Sri Lankan restaurant in the Portland area? Cashew curry. Coconut sambal. Fish cakes. Even the rice is a work of art.)

Jeevan the Artist comes in after we’ve descended upon the buffet. He looks like he’s gone ten rounds with a Flasher. “Sorry guys,” he says wearily. “I’ll try to figure out what’s wrong and light it again tomorrow.” Thirty-seven years of imagination have come down to this. A half-lit failure.

Sama & the King, part 4

The king, after rethinking his promise to Sama, furtively looks around and thinks maybe he can slip away. But a Goddess, sensing his chicanery, appears and scolds him. Contrite, the king slinks off, finds the parents, admits his horrible mistake and leads them to their dying child. Kneeling beside Sama on one side, his mother weeps and Sama turns toward her. Kneeling beside Sama on the other side, his father weeps and Sama turns toward him. All the Gods and humans and flora and fauna of the forest wait to see if a miracle will occur.

In the morning Sama opens his eyes, completely healed, having expunged the sins of the ancestors. The parents regain their sight. Not even the just and gentle Sama could have given back his parents their vision without the help of the bumbling, all-too-human king.

For two days and nights, Jeevan the Engineer obsesses over which wire was shorting. Where was the connection not connecting? He and his electrical engineer friends test them all separately, and each one worked. Yet each time he tries to activate all of them, it sputters out again.

On the second night, he finally goes to bed at midnight, still perplexed. He closes his eyes — and suddenly wakes. Maybe… Designers of home electrical systems, as cautious as Jeevan, program homes with conservative tolerances for each line hooked up to the house’s main power source. In effect, that doubled safety margin paradoxically made the circuit breaker less tolerant than it would have been had he run everything through a single line. So even though the total power draw remained substantially under the legal limit and any danger threshold, every time he tried to power it using both lines simultaneously, the breaker tripped.

He’d never tried running both circuits through a single conduit. In the middle of the night, he gets up, hastens to the garage and joins the two loads into one. Checks once again to be sure the sand was nearby. And flips the switch.

His daughter, who never sleeps, sees the light and runs outside to rejoice with her dad. And then she runs in to wake her mom.

The next night, a smaller crowd gathers. Sujeewa prepares tea and snacks. As the sun sets, Jeevan throws the newly rewired switch. The small drum begins to rotate. The paparazzi aim their phones.

Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi’s Pandol

One by one, each series of bulbs brightens, transforming the suburban driveway into a kaleidoscope. But the brightest glow emanates from the beatifically beaming Jeevan himself, and his assembled friends and neighbors, all a bit awed by the elaborate visual spectacle in the driveway.

The light display is neither random nor self-indulgent. Colors correspond to states of mind: Blue – tranquility, Yellow – detachment, Red – life force, etc. Patterns of light flow correspond to the eight layers of consciousness (nine if you count pure consciousness). The lighting artist must adhere to these precepts and then create something original and moving. It makes a typical Christmas light display look like we flunked kindergarten.

As the early summer evening breezes swirl, a dozen or so smiling visitors and family members, their faces changing color along with the flashing lights in front of them, stand in a semicircle, admiring Jeevan’s creation. A saffron-robed monk from the temple arrives and joins them, chatting amiably between glances at America’s first Pandol.

After about 20 minutes, hands creep into pockets against the descending evening chill. Cheerful and relieved, Jeevan the Engineer’s friends and family gradually move inside to sip the tea, chat, and munch on donuts and Costco’s pound cake. But before following, Jeevan the Artist lingers a bit in the driveway, checking his wiring again, then gazing on his work of art just a little while longer.

Last week, Jeevan was gifted a visit by the Venerable Madawala Seelawimala Mahathera, lecturer of Theravada Buddhism at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, who visited the family to bless them and the Pandol. Surprised and moved by the monk’s appreciation of his accomplishment “for doing a [Pandol] in the USA, overcoming all the issues,” explained Jeevan, “I understood that the time, money and effort I put together to build the Pandol was unbelievably more valuable than we thought. That gave us a lifetime of happiness.” Although a Buddhist temple in California has asked Jeevan to erect the Pandol there during Vesak 2019, Jeevan hasn’t figured out how to make the logistics work. Jeevan’s Pandol lit up the neighborhood through his birthday — which also happened to be Father’s Day. Then father and son dismantled the shrine.

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One Response.

  1. Wonderful story on a wonderful subject.

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