The festival dates back to the time of the Buddha. It once happened that a group of 30 bhikkus or monks were on their way to the place where the Buddha was based so as to spend their retreat season with their great master. However, as luck would have it, vassa or the Rains Retreat began before they could reached their destination. As per the rules, during the three month period of vassa, the monks had to cease all their travel and live peacefully together. The monks followed all the rules but were, quiet obviously, unhappy at not being able to stay with their master. When the period of vassa came to an end, the monks continued with their journey. The Buddha, on knowing their sad state, knew that something needed to be done to cheer them up. He also knew that nothing in this world could be as uplifting and cheering as sharing and showing generosity. With this in mind, he allowed the monks to wander completely freely after the Rains Retreat and collect cloth for robes. When they had enough cloth, the monks were to sew a robe using a method which entailed spreading out the the pieces of cloth on a frame and stitching them together. This frame was known as a Kathina. It is from here that the festival draws its name.
Kathina, today, is celebrated as the largest alms giving festival of the Buddhist world. The tradition of collecting cloth at the end of the Rains Retreat continues till date. From the time the vassa comes to an end to the four weeks that follows, supporters can make an offering of cloth to the Sangha. The Sangha, themselves, cannot go about seeking cloth, so the offering has to come from the lay people themselves. Given the fact that the festival holds so much of significance in the life of the Buddhist, it hardly happens that cloth is not offered or falls short for the ceremony.
On the day of the festival, people begin to pour in large numbers in the monastery. By 10.30 in the morning, the sangha is served a meal, the remainder of which is consumed by the rest of the people. At around 1 pm, the ceremonial offreing of the cloth takes place. A representative of the lay people leads the group and announces the offering, which is then presented to two monks who have been selected by the Sangha. The monks, thereafter, announce the name of one senior monk who will receive the robe once it is made up.
After this, the bhikkus get together to make up the robe. The entire cutting and sewing has to be completed before the dawn of the next day. When the robe is completed, the formal Kathina offering ceremony takes place.
The Celebration Time
The celebration of the Kathina festival takes place during the months of October and November. The date of the festival varies from one country to another depending upon the rainy season.
The festival is most important for the Burmese, Sri Lankans and the Thai Theravada Buddhists.