Sri Lankan Festivals and Celebrations
Sri Lanka is home to four main religions and celebrates 25 public holidays throughout the year making it have one of the busiest calendars in the world! The majority of festivals in Sri Lanka are Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim celebrations and public holidays.
The religious Sri Lankan festivals follow the lunar calendar and as such vary somewhat in date from year to year. With the exception of the Muslim festivals, the celebrations which follow the lunar calendar are kept in sync with the solar calendar by an extra month being added to the calendar every few years.
With such a large Buddhist population, poya days (days of the full moon) are very significant in Sri Lanka as this is the day Buddha urged his followers to embark on spiritual practices and modern day Buddhists usually spend most of the day making offerings at the local temple and performing religious rites.
The significant Buddhist festivals are typically celebrated with large parades through the streets with impressively adorned elephants, colourful dancers and drummers – the most famous being the Esala Perahera in Kandy. These processions are really something to behold and if you do have the chance, do visit one during your Sri Lankan tour. While there is a ban on alcohol sales on poya days you should find most tourist places will serve it.
Sri Lankan festivals by month
- Duruthu Poya - marks the 1st of Lord Buddha’s 3 visits to Sri Lanka.
- Thai Pongol - a Hindu festival that honours Surya (the sun god), Indra (bringer of rains) and the cow. It is celebrated in temples by cooking first from the new harvest in milk, in a special pot.
- February 4th is Independence Day - celebrated nationwide with parades and pageants highlighting the nation’s culture and achievements.
- Navam Poya - celebrates Lord Buddha’s announcement ,at the age of 80, of his own impending death. This is celebrated by Navam Perahera in Colombo is a colourful two-day festival centred on the Gangaramaya temple, with processions of dancers, drummers and some 50 elephants parading through the streets.
- Medin Poya - marks Lord Buddha’s 1st visit to his father’s palace after his enlightenment.
- Bak Poya - celebrates Lord Buddha’s 2nd visit to Sri Lanka.
- New Year - April 13 & 14 - With Easter and the school holidays, many people take up to 2 weeks holiday and head off for the cooler hill country. Nuwara Eliya is converted into a hive of activity, with horse races, car races and flower shows. Sinhala and Tamil New Year are celebrated throughout the island and presents are exchanged. The traditional kiribath (rice cooked in coconut milk) is cooked and eaten, new clothes are worn and horoscopes are cast for the forthcoming year.
- Vesak Poya - It is the most important of the Poyas commemorating the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Lord Buddha. This also marks the 3rd of Lord Buddha’s visits to Sri Lanka. The Festival is celebrated with island-wide pageants, the construction of pandals (platforms decorated with Buddhist scenes), the hanging out of lanterns and the distribution of free food (from rice and curry to Vesak sweetmeats) from roadside booths (dansals) to pilgrims. Vesak also marks the last day of the Adams Peak Pilgrimage season.
- Poson Poya - commemorates the introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by Mahinda in the 3rd century BC and is celebrated with rituals across the island, particularly in Anuradhapura and Mihintale, where the new religion was first introduced to the Sinhalese.
July / August
- Esala Perahera - It takes place in Kandy and is one of the world’s most spectacular festivals. It celebrates Lord Buddha’s 1st sermon and the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka and dates back to around 300AD. It is spread over 10 days and features huge processions of dancers, acrobats and drummers who follow hundreds of elephants adorned with ceremonial attire through the streets honouring Lord Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Relic, which is enshrined in the city’s main temple.
- Esala is the month of Festivals - major ones being held in Kataragama(below), Dondra and in Bellanwila one of the suburbs of Colombo.Kataragama Festival - it is held at the same time as the Esala Perahera. Devotees fire-walk and participate in various forms of self flagellation. Vel is Colombo’s most important Hindu festival, featuring 2 vibrant processions during which the chariot of the god of Skanda is pulled from one end of the city to the other.
- Nikini Poya - marks the retreat of the Bhikkhus following Lord Buddha’s death and is a period of fasting and retreat for monks.
- Binara Poya - commemorates Lord Buddha’s journey to heaven.
- Deepavali - is the Hindu Festival of Light (equivalent to the Indian Diwali), which celebrates the homecoming of Rama, the hero of the great Hindu epic the Ramayana. Lamps are lit in Tamil houses across the island, symbolising the victory of good over evil, and the wearing of new clothes.
- IL Poya - commemorates Lord Buddha’s ordination of 60 disciples.
- Unduvap Poya - celebrates the arrival of the sapling Bo Tree in Anuradhapura. Christmas and New Year are celebrated across the island.