Beautiful coloured lights reflected in calm waters, brightly dressed elephants parade the streets and the smell of the traditional Thai Pongal meal in the air. Welcome to Sri Lankan festivals. Festivals are a way of life in Sri Lanka. Many even believe Sri Lankans to have the most festivals in the world. This is probably because of the multicultural nature of the country with four main religions; Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and each with their own festivals. There are at least twenty five public holidays in the country and they often follow the lunar calendar. Because the full moon signals the start of a new month for the lunar calendar festival dates will often change from year to year.
In January the Duruthu Poya is the first of three festival days that are held every year to celebrate Buddha. This first has a fantastic parade in Colombo.
The biggest festival of the month is the Thai Pongol festival which takes place on the 14th of January each year. It is a Hindu festival that is very colourful. Houses have kolam and drawings are made on the floor using flour. It is celebrated to honour the sun god Surya, the rain bringer Indra and the cow. Prayer ceremonies (Pujas) are held in temples and afterwards the first grains of the harvest are cooked in milk.
February 4th is Independence Day in Sri Lanka and there are many celebrations around the country with dancing, games and parades.
Maha Sivarahri is not celebrated on the same day each year but usually falls at the end of February the beginning of March. It is a very important Hindu festival that is dedicated to Shiva. Held throughout the country there is a one-day fast and all night vigils.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year is on the 13th April annually (or 14th on leap years) and it is the time that the Sinhala and Tamil people celebrate the New Year and it coincides with the end of the harvest and the start of the southwest monsoon season. This Buddhist and Hindu festival is a time when people exchange gifts and is a public holiday enjoyed by all Sri Lankans.
Easter – The Christian festival is celebrated everywhere in Sri Lanka but is larger in the coastal regions. The festivities include a three hour acting out of the crucifixion of Christ.
Vesak - Every full moon day (Poya) is a holiday in Sri Lanka but the Vesak Poya is the most important for Buddhists. It is held on the first full moon of May and the day after this and it is to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha as all are believed to have happened on the day of Vesak Poya. It starts at dawn and Buddhists dress in white and observe sila in the temple. The day is then spent meditating and listening to sermons. Paper lanterns are lit in front of houses and pandals, which are decorated platforms, are put up everywhere. Free food is given out from booths called dansal and cars are decorated. The festival is particularly impressive in Colombo. Be aware that it is forbidden to sell alcohol, fish or meat in restaurants for six days after the Vesak so these will not be available at this time.
Poson Poya –This festival sees thousands make a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura
The Esala Perahera in Kandy is a particularly glamorous cultural procession that lasts for 10 consecutive nights. It celebrates Buddha’s first sermon and the arrival of the sacred tooth relic that was carried by Diyawadana Nilame. In Unawantuna the village and beach become overrun with revellers and the final night in Colombo sees 100 elephants in costume parade.
Vel is a very important Hindu festival that has two processions that are particularly vivacious. The processions celebrate the god of war and the god’s chariot and vel (trident) is the focus of the procession.
Deepavali – The Hindu festival of lights also marks the beginning of the financial year for Hindu and is the equivalent of Diwali which is held in North India. It commemorates Rama’s return after exile and this is marked by the lighting of lamps in the home and kolam decorations. It symbolises the goddess of wealth being welcomed into the home and the triumph of good over evil.
Christmas – An important festival for Sri Lankan Christians. Christmas is celebrated with family gatherings and midnight mass.