Colourful hexagon lanterns in many homes and places of businesses in Sri Lanka during the Vesak season that falls in May. Vesak, the most important day in the Buddhist calendar, marks the birth, death and enlightenment of Lord Buddha.
Strips of bamboo form the frame of a basic lantern, which is then covered with sheets of colourful thin paper. Lanterns come in all shapes and sizes.
The intricate ones, are designed to have between six to 18-sides on a single lantern, while others are shaped like a lotus flower.
Lanterns are lit by either a small electric bulb or a candle.
"Traditional lanterns made out of bamboo stick are rare to find," says Vineetha Kumari, 34, browsing through a makeshift lantern stall in Colombo. "Now it’s cheaper to buy plastic Chinese lanterns, they can be put away for later use."
May, is a traditional monsoon month in Sri Lanka and the wet weather takes its toll on paper lanterns. While many people cover the bigger lanterns with transparent polythene, the smaller ones inevitably get a ducking.Chinese Imports
"Lot of my customers prefers Chinese lanterns because they don’t get wet in the rain and are very pretty in designs and colours," says Saman Wilson, 53, a street hawker.
Priced at between 200 rupees and 1,000 rupees, the Chinese lanterns come in small flat packs, with visual instructions in English to help users assemble them in their homes.
In contrast, locally made lanterns are delicate and cannot be packed away like their Chinese rivals.
"Its easy to store too,” said bookshop owner Champa Priyadharshani. "We keep between 50 rupees to 100 rupees margin on Chinese lanterns. What is not sold this year, is stored, for the next season. You can’t do that with local lanterns."
Tuk tuk driver, Kamal Anton, takes a break from his taxi duties to make traditional lanterns during the Vesak season. He grumbles about high prices of raw material and wages he pays for seasonal workers.
Like many lantern-makers, Anton uses plastic strips instead of bamboo to cut cost. Sourced from plastic factories in Ratmalana, he says plastic frames have a better shelf life than bamboo strips.
"But we can’t afford the thin wires and vinyl cloth used by Chinese manufactures to make their lanterns," says Anton who prices his lanterns between 150 rupees and 600 rupees.
Demand for readymade lanterns have also surged over the years, as families with working parents, have little time to indulge in the timely tradition.
"My grandchildren think Vesak lanterns come from the shop, just like a toy," says retired history teacher, W Thilakaratne, who had brought his two grandsons for a spot of lantern shopping.
Bandula Perera, who has been making lanterns for years, feels its time the state gave some help to local lantern makers who are feeling the pinch from their Chinese rivals.
"I have around 100 people making lanterns over the past seven months. I have already spent over 200,000 rupees for material. But can’t recover even the labour cost, because Chinese lanterns are cheaper," said Perera.
Perera’s skeleton lanterns, sells from 100 rupees for the eight-sided lantern to nearly 1,000 rupees for the 18-sided lantern.
Anton suggests a steep tax to deter Chinese lanterns might be helpful in the long-run.
Their calls are hardly surprising.
In recent years, stealing their fellow citizen's ability to buy freely via import taxes, or enriching themselves through subsidies paid from coercive taxes extracted from others have become a popular game among Sri Lanka's 'domestic production' lobbies.
Both farmers and industrial oligarchs have teamed up with the elected ruling class to use the flag of nationalism and the ability of the state to legislate against the freedoms of the people and enrich themselves unjustly.
Industrial oligarchs played a key role in scuttling a free trade deal with India that would have allowed the citizens of the two countries to interact with each other more freely - as they did centuries earlier under the island's ancient kings.
But in a rare case Sri Lanka’s deputy economic development minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, disagrees.
"Our Vesak lantern producers should increase the quality of the product to compete with them (Chinese). That is the solution," says Abeywardne, perhaps wary of irritating Sri Lanka’s long-time diplomatic allay China, who also have many economic projects in the island.
China, who helped stave off Western demands that Sri Lanka improve its human rights and governance track record, is also the island’s largest foreign donor.
"The government is scared that Chinese funds will come to an end,” laments lantern maker Shirani Pushpika, 42. "The government must do something to protect traditional industries like ours.”
This week, Sri Lanka raised import taxes on milk to 'protect' dairy farmers. Only infants were left unharmed by the taxes.
When questioned why milk powder was taxed and not Chinese Vesak lantern, Abeywardene said:
"Vesak lanterns and milk are totally different issues."