Sri Lankan Buddhists celebrate the religious festival of Vesak every year in May, for roughly a week. Many consider it a festival of light(s) - and it is, in the literal and figurative sense.
Why do Sri Lankans celebrate Vesak?
Some people see the festival of Wesak / Vesak / Vesakha as some sort of birthday celebration for Lord Buddha, but that is only partly true. The full moon day in the month of May - or like this year at end of April - stands for Lord Buddha’s birth, his enlightenment and his great passing away into Nirvana (more bluntly and wrongly: his death). The name stems from the fact that the commemoration always falls on the month of Vaisakha in the lunar calendar of the Buddhists. While Vesak is sometimes internationally called Buddha Day, Sri Lankans use the term “Vesak Full Moon Poya Day”. Each full-moon day of the year is also a poya day, a Buddhist holiday reserved for religious observances.
How is Vesak celebrated in Sri Lanka?
Vesak is not only about celebrating Lord Buddha, his life and his teachings, but also about spreading kindness and happiness and bringing some light into the dark. Hence, giving alms is closely linked to the Vesak celebrations in Sri Lanka. In most villages and in all cities, people will get together to cook huge meals and erect tents where everyone can sit down and eat their fill. This is called a dansala, and it takes place on the actual holiday as well as afterwards. More often than not, Sri Lankans will refrain from cooking at home on those days and don’t mind coming a long way and waiting in endless queues to receive their share. Some people offer free meals with rice and curries, others offer roasted or boiled snacks, yet others hand over tea cups, soup, Maggie noodles or ice-cream to every passer-by on foot or in a vehicle. It is also possible to offer other things for free, like a service (car wash e. g.) or non-food items like petrol. All meals have to be vegetarian. In tune with that, the week reserved for Vesak usually sees a ban on selling alcohol and fresh meat.
Religious observances play an important role too. Many Sri Lankans go to the temple, offer alms or donate money. Television and radio focus on religious themes, especially on the story of Lord Buddha’s life and also on historical dramas and Indian as well as Sri Lankan royalty. Around town, children or adults in special trucks or on daises and stages will sing devotional songs in the evening.
Feast your eyes on light, colours and splendor
So why is Vesak also deemed the Festival of Lights for Buddhists? Because it is customary to light the house with small colourful bulbs on a string, much like Christians do it during Christmas. People also make and buy intricately designed Vesak lanterns and ‘buckets’ to decorate their home and garden. On the streets you will find huge pandols – the Sinhalese term for this is thorana – that depict a scene / story from the 550 Jataka Katha that pay homage to Lord Buddha’s past life. On the evening of Vesak as well as on the evening of the following day (also a public holiday), people throng the streets to look at everyone’s decorations, enjoy free treats at the numerous food stalls, and gape at the beautiful pandols / pandals.
The Independence Day in Sri Lanka falls on the 4th February as the island nation gained Independence from the British on February 4, 1948 (one year after its neighbour India).
The pride-filled day is of course a national holiday (and in 2018, it falls on a Sunday). The island-wide celebrations encompass parades in the major cities, flag-hoisting ceremonies with prominent guests, dances and cultural performances by children as well as adults. Schools celebrate it (in advance) as well as institutions and companies. The main celebrations - during which the president raises the national flag and delivers a speech at a nationally televised event - take place in the capital, Colombo, though it may also be held in Kandy. The speech (delivered in Sinhalese as well as in Tamil) highlights the achievements of the government during the past year, raises important issues and pays tribute to the country's national heroes. A military parade is part of the annual celebrations.
It is interesting to note that Sri Lanka was not just a British colony going by the name of Ceylon but had previously also been colonized by the Portuguese (16th century) and the Dutch (17th century). To date, many traces remain, in the form of architecture - such as the Dutch Fort in Galle - as much as culture and food. Some people are of mixed heritage or carry a formerly Portuguese, Dutch or English name.
The British, notably, were the ones who introduced the cultivation of coffee and later of tea, making the small island in the Indian Ocean one of the world's biggest and best-known exporters of tea. Ceylon tea is still highly sought after. If you stay with us, it's not even a 15-minute drive to the Ceylon Tea Museum located in Hanthana as well as to tea factories. Alternatively, you can use Kandy as a starting point for a scenic train journey to Nuwara Eliya and Ella, famous for their mountains and lush tea plantations.
The Esala Perahera in Kandy is one of the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka. It is celebrated over the course of ten days each year, falling on astrologically determined dates in July and/or August. The Kandy Perahera is held in Esala, which is the month believed to commemorate the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The Sinhalese term ‘perahera’ means a parade for religious ceremonies.
This annual historical procession is held to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, which is enshrined at the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). It features dancers, musicians, jugglers, fire-breathers, and beautifully decorated elephants. Especially these caparisoned tuskers are an awe-inspiring sight to behold. The Kandy Perahera begins at roughly 7 p.m. and lasts until midnight or even longer.
The Esala Perahera 2017 starts on July 29th. You can watch it alongside the locals by sitting or standing on the sidewalk along the designated road. Be advised: It's best to arrive hours before the starting time, as hundreds of people from all around the island flock to Kandy for the event and camp out in the area days in advance. A safer option is to book a seat reserved for tourists, which will also guarantee that you actually see the spectacle despite the crowd. You can book a seat here and find more information here.