sri lanka

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


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.