Sri Lankans are extremely friendly, and hospitality plays a major role in their lifestyle. Religion and social protocol are deeply embedded in the culture and Sri Lanka with its great ethnic diversity, has a multitude of colourful festivals throughout the year.
Lunar and Poya Days
Sri Lanka is primarily a Buddhist country and most of its festivals are based on the lunar calendar. Every full moon day, also known as ‘Poya’ is a holiday. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to undertake spiritual practices during the full moon period and Sri Lankan Buddhists spend these days in meditation and prayer. Each Poya day is related to an incident in the life of the Buddha or to a historic Buddhist event.
Duruthu Perahera is conducted on a full moon day in January at the Buddhist temple in Kelaniya. It commemorates the first visit of Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka.
Thai Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated on the 14th or 15th of January by the Hindus in honour of the Sun God. ‘Pongal’ in Tamil means boiling over. After worshipping at a Hindu temple, a large pot of rice is cooked in spicy, sweetened milk and left to boil over. The direction of the spilling will indicate good or bad luck in the coming year.
National Day is celebrated on the 4th of February. It commemorates the day Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain. Celebrations include parades, dances and national games around the country.
Navam Perahera is conducted on the full moon day in February. This festival is held in Colombo.
Easter – the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated by Christians.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year- This holiday signifies the beginning of the New Year for both Buddhists and Hindus. It marks the completion of the solar circuit and is celebrated around the second week of April. New clothes are worn and horoscopes are foretold. Money is exchanged among families and friends in a tradition known as ‘ganu denu’. Special food items and sweetmeats are prepared and in the villages various New Year games are played. It is a day spent in rituals and fun-filled activities.
May Day is a holiday as in the rest of the world to honour the nation’s workers.
Vesak – Buddhists honour the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha on the full moon day in May. Devotees visit temples with flowers and offerings and partake in religious observations. In addition to the religious significance of this holiday it is also a festival of light and colour. Buddhist houses are decorated with oil lamps and paper lanterns known as ‘Vesak Lanterns’. Large pandals depicting Lord Buddha’s life are erected throughout the country along with puppet shows and open-air theatre performances. As it is considered meritorious to offer food and drink during Vesak, roadsides are dotted during this holiday with booths or ‘dansals’ offering free food and drinks.
Poson Poya celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Poson is best experienced in the town of Mihintale, in the central region of the island, where Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka of India first preached Buddhism to Sri Lanka’s reigning monarch.
July (Nikini)/August (Binara)
Kandy Esala Perahera takes place on the full moon day in August and pays homage to the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. The sacred Tooth is carried in a magnificent procession that includes temple chieftains, caparisoned elephants, acrobats, frenzied drummers, trumpeters, pipers, traditional dancers, torchbearers, and whip-crackers. This festival, which has been described as the “most spectacular event in Asia”, lasts for 12 days.
Vel is a Hindu festival held in Colombo in July or August to venerate the God of War. A gilded chariot, containing weapons of this fierce god is carried in a procession that starts in a Kovil (Hindu temple) in Pettah. It ends at a Kovil in Bambalapitya or Wellawatte, located 5 km away. The temples have stalls selling sugar-cane, sweets and souvenirs.
Kataragama, a town in the south of the island attracts pilgrims from every part of the country. The temple ‘Kataragama Devale’ is a focal point for Buddhists and Hindus alike. Devotees make or fulfil pledges during this period, in return for various favours from Sri Skanda – the God of the Kataragama Devale. You will find pilgrims partaking in religious ceremonies as well as ritualistic torture practices which include rolling naked on scorching sand, walking barefoot over searing hot coals, flailing, piercing a spear through one cheek, or skewering their tongues.
October (Vap)/ November (Il)
Deepavali is the Hindu festival of lights. It is held at the end of October or at the beginning of November. Oil lamps are lit to denote the triumph of good over evil as it signifies the Indian god king Rama’s return from Sri Lanka. The festival also welcomes Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.
Adam’s Peak is the most sacred mountain in Sri Lanka. Pilgrims, usually in groups, climb this steep mountain for various religious activities. People of all faiths congregate at this site to venerate the giant footprint found at the summit, believed by each religion to be that of Adam’s, the Buddha’s or Prophet Mohammed’s. The sunrise from the top of the mountain is an amazing sight with the mountain’s shadow cast onto the ground below.
Christmas Day – the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.