Sri Lanka, the tiny teardrop-shaped island, offers infinite experiences ranging from world-class historical sites and cultural marvels to verdant tea plantations, palm-fringed beaches, and thrilling national parks overwhelmed with wildlife. It is also home to the world’s four main religions and is a land of endless festivals and celebrations that depict all life facets. Celebrated with great warmth and display, festivals in Sri Lanka offer a perfect opportunity to be a part of this beautiful country’s traditions and cultural roots.
Here’s a list of some of the best festivals of Sri Lanka that you should experience during your vacation.
Kandy Esala Poya Perahera
The Sinhalese term ‘Perahera’ implies a parade of musicians, singers, acrobats, dancers, and various other performers accompanied by a large number of decorated Tuskers and Elephants marching the streets to celebrate the religious event.
The Esala Perahera celebrated in Kandy is among the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals celebrated in this beautiful island nation. This colourful festival features dancers, musicians, jugglers, fire-breathers, and some highly decorated Elephants. Kandy Esala Poya Perahera festival is celebrated in Esala (which generally falls in July or August). The Esala is the month that is said to celebrate the Lord Buddha’s first teaching after he attained enlightenment. This festival lasts for ten days, and you can witness various festivities right throughout these ten days.
The festival is celebrated in honour of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the four ‘guardian’ Hindu Gods, Vishnu, Kataragama, Natha, and Goddess Pattini. During the Perahera, the Maligawa Perahera, a procession of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth, takes place in the evening and is joined by the other four processions honouring the four guardian Hindu gods and goddesses.
It is believed that the Kandy Esala Perahera Procession is done to beseech the gods’ blessings to receive rains to cultivate crops and enrich the kingdom’s lands. The beseeching rituals are performed by carrying the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha through Kandy’s streets, done in a flamboyant and colourful way. The Kandy Esala Perahera is said to be among the most beautiful celebrations in Asia. You will have to witness this festival to believe it.
The Duruthu Perahera is among the most glorious cultural processions celebrated by devotees in Sri Lanka. The festival is celebrated annually during Duruthu (or January), a month in the Sinhalese calendar. The main celebrations are organized at the historic Kelaniya Rajamaha Viharaya in a place called Peliyagoda, 11 km from Colombo, annually during the Poya day, a pre-full moon time in January. This day holds importance to Sri Lankan Buddhists as it also marks the first visit of Lord Buddha to this island nation.
This festival first started back in 1927. This grand gathering is observed and celebrated by devotees who visit the Kelaniya Rajamaha Viharaya from all parts of the country. This festival perfectly depicts the culture, age-old traditions, and the grand heritage of Sri Lanka throughout the procession, many rituals, and ceremonies. This is why thousands of tourists flock to experience this festival and are left in awe.
The Duruthu Perahera consists of three stages. The festival begins with a range of religious sermons held each night, leading to the final celebrations. This is followed by a week of Pirith Ceremonies, and finally, all the proceedings end with a grand Perahera, which is held for three consecutive nights.
The Thai Pongal is a Hindu festival which is celebrated worldwide. It is also said to be one of the most traditional celebrations globally. The Thai Pongal is held on the fourth day of Thai month as per an astrological Hindu-Tamil calendar and generally falls in the second week of January every year.
Thai Pongal is said to be a farmers festival, or a harvest festival is dedicated to Mother Nature and her elements, as farmers heavily depend on nature’s bounties to get a good harvest of their crop, which is mainly rice. It is said to be the celebration of the rain, the sun, the water, the soil, buffaloes, and cows.
While many people come to experience this beautiful festival, but many might not know that this festival is actually a 4-day celebration. The first day of the festival is called Bhogi, a day devotees burn their unwanted and old items. Day two, which is the main day of Thai Pongal, is dedicated to the God Surya, the Sun God. On day three, devotees dedicate prayers and rituals to the cow and other farm animals. Day four is called Kaanum Pongal. On this day, devotees prepare sugarcane and milk rice as an offering and visit their loved ones and relatives. Preparation of the traditional sweet dish “Pongal” is the most important feature of Thai Pongal. Pongal is sweet rice with milk, plums, jaggery, and spices like cardamoms and cloves.
Making Kolam is another very important feature of Thai Pongal. Kolam is a traditional hand-drawn design made using lime powder and sometimes other natural colours, drawn at the house entrance.
The Navam Perahera festival is celebrated in the Gangaramaya Temple, which is located in Colombo city. The Gangaramaya Temple is among the most famous Hindu temples in Sri Lanka temples and is visited by thousands of devotees and tourists alike. The temple was created in the 19th century, over 120 years ago, to worship and learn Buddism. It is said that the Gangaramaya is an international reckoning institution due to the best collections of Buddhist artifacts and texts.
The Navam Full Moon Poya Day celebrated in February holds an important significance to Buddhists. And since 1979, the Gangaramaya Temple has organized this colourful and exuberant festival known as ‘Perehera’ to celebrate this day.
The Perahera induces peace and harmony amongst the communities, regardless of race or religion, and is loved by everyone witnessing this festival.
The Perahera takes place for two days. The festival’s main portion is the Sacred Relic Casket’s parade on the parade’s elaborately adorned main tusker (elephant).
Mask Dancers, Drummers, Kandyan Dancers, Stilt Walkers, Sword Dancers, and many other artisans parades during the Gangarama Nawam Perahera. All the events take place either late in the evening or at night, and the events are lit by flaming torches. All these events are accompanied by Buddhist flag bearers, hundreds of monks, and traditionally ornamented elephants with their mahouts. The Gangaramaya Nawam Maha Perahera is all about vibrance, colourful celebrations, following the age-old traditions and should not be missed during your trip to Sri Lanka.
Sinhala & Tamil New Year
In April, people who plan to visit Sri Lanka are rewarded with the fun-filled festivities and the colours of the Sinhalese and Tamils New Year’s celebrations. Even though most of the world welcomes New Year on 01st January every year, however, Sri Lanka and a few other countries have a calendar that marks the New Year differently.
The Sinhala and Tamil new year celebrations (Aluth Avurudda or Puthandu) generally begins on 13th April and ends on the 14th, which is also the end of the harvesting season. This is also the time when the sun is directly above the island. Based on the sun’s movement from House of Pieces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya), Sri Lanka welcomes the biggest holiday with loud bursting firecrackers and Avurudu music and games.
With almost every household following the auspicious calendars and the age-old customs and traditions, Sri Lanka displays true authenticity, and the whole island gives off a truly Sri Lankan feeling. With the Erabudu trees (Erythrina variegata) in full blossom and the musical notes of the Koha (cuckoo bird) marking the beginning of a new year, the whole country hopes for continued peace and prosperity.
The hustle and bustle in the kitchens start with the preparation of ambrosial sweetmeats. The air is infused with the tantalizing fragrance of Kavum, Asmi, Aluva, Kokis, Unduval, Athiraha, and many other traditional delights in Sinhalese households across the island. In Tamil households, plentiful sweetmeats include Pongal, Laddu, Adhirasam, and Murukku, are prepared to commemorate this festival.
The new year’s official announcement starts at dawn with the sound of the rhythm of rabana and firecrackers. As the mood for New Year sets in the houses, traditional oil lamps gleaming in gold are lit, which truly is a sight to behold. Ladies of the house lights the hearth and boils a pot of milk, which signifies prosperity.
Once the rituals are over, celebrations are seen on the streets. People on this day play the traditional games and the highlight of the day for many includes kamba adeema (tug-of-war), kotta pora (pillow-fighting), Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greasy pole), and havari hengima (hiding the wig). So, if you are visiting your trip to Sri Lanka in April, be sure to indulge in this beautiful festival and remember to visit a local family to rejoice in this colourful festival from very close quarters.
By now, you would have understood the importance of the full moon in Sri Lanka. Like all the other festivals, Vesak is also celebrated on the full moon day but in May.
Vesak Poya Day is considered one of the biggest days of Buddhism and is celebrated by all Buddhists worldwide. On this day, Buddhists celebrate important events in Lord Buddha’s life on this very auspicious day. The first and most important event is the birth of Siddhartha Gautama in Lumbini, Nepal. The birth of Lord Buddha took place under the area that was shaded with Sat trees. The second most important event was Siddharta Gautam’s enlightenment and transformation as the Buddha, the Enlightened One. The third most important event was 2500 years ago, Parinirvana of Lord Buddha’s at Kushinagar.
Apart from Sri Lanka, many Asian countries following Buddism, including Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and India, celebrate Vesak Poya. During the festival, a lot of religious activities are organized, such as Bodhi Poojas, Sil campaigns, Dansalas (Freely giving foods, coffee, tea from people), Vesak devotional songs, pandols (thoran), and lanterns. If you ever visit Sri Lanka on Vesak Poya, be sure to visit a Buddist monastery to enjoy this beautiful festival at its best.
Poson, a full-moon Poya day, is celebrated as the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. It is a festival of great religious and historical significance and is celebrated by Buddhists across Sri Lanka. Poson, which is organized on the full moon day in June, marks an event that happened 2,000 years ago when the Great Emporer Asoka’s son, Arahat Mahinda, converted King Devanampiyatissa to Buddhism. Though the festival is celebrated throughout Sri Lanka, the main celebration is held in Mihintale, an ancient monastic complex of the royal missionary monk Mahinda who perched the first sermon to the ruling king. Another center for great celebrations is at Anuradhapura, the ancient capital, which attracts many pilgrims, especially during this time of the year. Generally, people take part in the mass religious observances and the illuminations of pageants.
For Buddhists, this holy day of Poson is the second most important day of the year, just after Vesak. On this day, long lines of devotees take climb many steps dressed in white attire to reach Mihintale hill’s top. The first visit the temple and then go pray at the dagobas that lie adorn the nearby hillocks.
Poson Poya is an annual celebration, which is celebrated with great fervor in Sri Lanka, especially in Mihinthalaya, the cradle of Buddism. Mihinthalaya, the cradle of Buddism, is said to be the place where Mahinda Thero first put his foot to preach Buddism and the words of Lord Buddha.
During the Poson period, several religious activities are throughout Sri Lanka, such as Bodhi Poojas, Sil campaigns, Dansalas (Freely giving foods, coffee, tea from people), Poson pandols (thoran), Poson devotional songs, and lanterns. A lot of Poson pandols and Poson Lanterns are making Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. If you are planning to visit Sri Lanka, do attend Poson as it is one of the most important festivals here.
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