The month beginning on the full-moon day of Vap and ending on the full-moon day of Il – i.e. October-November is referred to as the cheevara maasa, literally “the month of robes”, for this is the period in which new robes are offered to the Sangha and this ancient ceremonial offering of robes is called the Katina. In the last few weeks, there has been a Katina ceremony in some temple, somewhere in the island. The Katina is in big letters in the calendar of every urban and village temple, even small rural temples.
The Katina ceremony comes at the end of Vas or the “rain retreat” which began on the full-moon day of Esala. The Buddhas disciples living in the Gangetic plain were forced to observe this retreat, confined to one place, because of the torrential rains, and the practice continues at the same period of the year, in countries to which Buddhism has spread, although it is not a season of rain in those countries, and ends on the full-moon day of Il which fell yesterday.
Katina is one of the main festivals in the Buddhist calendar, says Bhikkhu Walpola Rahula: “The Katina ceremony was the culmination of the Vas season. At the end of three months a special robe known as the Katina was offered to monks of every monastery which observed the Vas.
This offering was considered particularly meritorious. Moggallana III is said to have given the Katina to all the monasteries in the island. (Mahavamsa XIIV). Even today the Katina ceremony is a great occasion in the religious life of Sinhala Buddhists”. (History of Buddhism in Ceylon). The chronicles especially records the Katina offerings of kings Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa, Parakrama Bahu II of Dembadeniya and Parakrama Bahu IV of Kotte.
Down the centuries and to this day, the Katina is a great occasion in the life of Buddhists not only in Sri Lanka but also in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia. Annually the Thai embassy makes a Katina offering to a vihara in Galle which has some special connection with Thailand.
It was woven, cut up, sewn, dyed and ready for offering by dawn. The town was seething with people going sight-seeing. There were pandals at vantage points and street plays on make shift platforms to entertain the town that didn’t sleep that night. As we too went sight-seeing – Sybil Wettasinghe, Padma Punchihewa and I – I was reminded of our Vesak nights, but what was strange was the cooking that was going on in the open verandahs. Women were busy cooking the daana for the marrow.
In days gone by, the Katina would have been offered on the full-moon days of Vap or Il, but now each temple schedules the ceremony for a Saturday or Sunday in the “cheevara” month for the convenience of the laity. The Katina is offered very early – in the first flash of light. this was the old custom until about 50 years ago, some temples began to have the Katina ceremony in the afternoon, ending with a “bana” preaching at night.
The eve of Katina is a hive of activity at the temple with devotees decking the “Kap Ruka” the wish-conferring tree of mythology with utility gifts for the bhikkhus like sugar, tea, coffee, balms and drugs like Siddhalepa, Samahan and Panadol and brooms, brushes and dusters. Each devotee brings whatever he/she can afford and knows will be of use to the monks.
Each year one dayaka or dayika, a lay supporter of the temple undertakes to make and offer the robe and organise and bear the cost of the whole ceremony. But the Katina is a community affair in which the whole village takes part, binding Buddhist devotees “into a unit that transcends family and local ties”.
The Katina robe was at first sewn by the monks themselves with the cloth offered by the laity. The cloth was cut up to specifications and sewn according to a set pattern and dyed in water with some pieces of jak wood, the jak wood giving the yellow dye.
Later the dayaka who undertook the Katina had the robe sewn by his household with relations and neighbours giving a helping hand. As the offering of a Katina robe was considered especially meritorious, everyone tired to put even a few stitches.
Katina is perhaps the oldest Buddhist rite, Vesak, Esala celebrations came later after the Buddha’s parinirvana. Katina is the one rite, the procedure for which is set down in the vinaya.
There is a whole section in the Maha Vagga, a text in the Vinaya Pitaka that has details of procedure to be followed when the robe is consecrated when it is offered and when it is accepted by the monk who has been selected to accept it. Even the formula to be repeated is set down.