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.
A stay in Sri Lanka wouldn't be complete without tasting all the exotic fruits available here. Some of them are very rare and dazzle the taste buds with unexpected flavours that are hard to put into words. Here’s a look at 5 Sri Lankan fruits begging to be tried.
1) Mangus (mangosteen)
Sure, fruits come in all shapes, colours and sizes – but have you ever seen a purple fruit? Well, how about the purple mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana). This tropical fruit comes from Indonesia and mostly grows in Southeast Asia. The tree is 6 to 25 m tall; the fruits reach the size of a tangerine or orange. Interestingly, the purple shell (sometimes with a reddish tinge, sometimes decidedly blue or almost black) is very thick. You usually don’t cut a mangosteen open, but apply pressure with your hands. If you squeeze it, the shell will break open to reveal its purplish inner skin and the actual edible fruit. Inside, there is a tight cluster of white fleshy fruit vesicles surrounding almond-shaped grey-brown seeds. You bite/suck the juicy, sweet and tangy, somewhat fibrous, fluid-filled vesicles and spit out the seed. The taste can’t really be compared with any other fruits. When you eat ripe mangosteens, beware of the shell’s juices as they leave stains on your fingers and clothes that are hard to wash out.
Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) originates from the Indonesian and Malaysian region and is native to Southeast Asia. The evergreen tree can reach heights of 12 to 20 m. There are different kinds of rambutan, some with a sweeter taste and some more sour. The fruits are roundish single-seeded berries, 3 to 6 cm long and 3 to 4 cm broad. They grow in loose pendant clusters of 10 to 20 together. The leathery skin of the rambutan fruit has a red colour with orange or yellow undertones. The redder the fruit’s skin, the riper it is. It is covered with fleshy, pliable spines that look like funny hairs and aren’t particularly prickly. You peel or carefully cut the thin skin open to reveal the small olive-like ball inside. The fruit flesh is translucent whitish, with a sweet, mildly acidic to sour taste that sometimes reminds tourists of grapes or lychees. It surrounds a small greyish, inedible seed. Rambutan isn’t always in season in Sri Lanka – but you’ll know when it is, for the street stalls are usually overflowing with them during those times of the year. If you travel from Colombo to Kandy or vice versa, the road is lined with stalls selling ripe rambutan.
The jambu fruit – also called jambul or jamun in other countries – is native to the Indian subcontinent. Jambus (Syzygium cumini) are also grown in some Caribbean countries now (because they were introduced to the USA). Interestingly, jambu trees can live up to 100 years and reach growth heights of up to 20 m. They aren’t only grown for their delicious fruits but also because of their dense foliage and ornamental value. Many a Sri Lankan garden has a jambu tree for shade with a swing fixed to a branch or a bench beneath it. Jambu wood is water resistant, and its leaves can be used to feed livestock. The trees develop small flowers and then fruits that resemble large, oddly shaped berries. The jambu fruit is oblong or ovoid with a broader middle and bottom, and green in its unripe stage. As it ripens, the colour changes from whitish to pink, then to shining crimson red. The fruit has a very thin, edible skin with whitish flesh inside that reminds tourists of apples or pears. The taste is a combination of sweet, mildly sour and astringent flavours, though some fruits are rather watery and bland. Jambus tend to colour the tongue purple.
4) Annoda (soursop)
Soursop (Annona muricata) is the fruit of a broad-leafed, flowering, evergreen tree. Sri Lankans call it annoda or katu annoda (due to its thorn-like protrusions). The fruits are light to dark green with a somewhat mango-shaped appearance and a prickly skin that can be peeled back with a knife to reveal the whitish flesh with its almond-shaped black seeds. The fruits are ovoid and can be up to 30 cm long. Their flesh – pulp with some fibre, tightly packed together in clusters – is juicy, acidic and aromatic, sometimes reminiscent of plain yogurt. The flavour of annoda can be described as a combination of pineapple and strawberry and with sour citrus undertone which contrasts with the fruit’s creamy texture (slightly like a coconut or banana). The pulp is used to make smoothies, fruit juice as well as candies, sorbets and ice cream. Soursop is sometimes called graviola and promoted as an alternative cancer treatment. There is, however, no medical evidence that it is effective.
5) Divul (wood apple)
This tree (Limonia acidissima) is native to the Indian subcontinent but also grows elsewhere. It is sometimes called elephant apple instead of wood apple – for a good reason: Elephants will swallow the fruits whole and digest them over the course of days before the empty, hard yet porous and still intact shell leaves their bodies during defecation. Wood apple can reach a height of up to 9 m and has a rough, spiny bark. The fruit is technically a large berry with a diameter of 5 to 9 cm. Its flavour toes the line between sweet and sour with a woodsy to earthy undertone. Truth be told, wood apple is an acquired taste – but it’s hardly ever consumed like a normal fruit anyway. Instead, the fruits are used to make a fruit juice with astringent properties as well as pickles and jams. Its leaves are thought to have medicinal properties. The wood apple – called divul in Sri Lanka – has a very hard, brownish, white-spotted rind that can be difficult to crack open. Some people throw the fruits on the floor, others crack the shell open to free the sticky brown pulp and small white seeds.
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.
Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus celebrate the traditional Sinhalese New Year in April. The days are the same each year: the 13th and 14th of April. However, the times for certain ceremonies and many other details vary.
Why is the Sinhalese New Year celebrated in mid-April?
The aluth avurudda (New Year in Sinhalese) adheres to a lunar calendar. According to Sinhalese astrology, the time when the sun moves from the house of Pisces to the house of Aries marks the New Year. It coincides with the end of the harvest season.
Before the New Year
In the weeks and days leading up to event, Sri Lankans will do their own form of ‘spring cleaning’. Houses and homes are repaired, renovated, refurbished and redecorated, vigorously cleaned and painted. People buy themselves and each other new clothes during special sales. Old grudges are forgiven, forgotten ties renewed. In modern times, however, some of these traditions have been forsaken and it seems that shopping for clothes and presents is now the most important thing. On the days preceding the New Year, traditional sweetmeats like kokis and kevum are prepared. These vary in Sinhalese and Tamil households, though many prepare sweets from both ethnicities.
The day before the New Year (13th of April)
Almost everyone will take leave from work. Shops and offices close today or on the actual New Year day. The streets will be nearly deserted, although some people will use this last chance to run hurried errands or travel to their ancestral homes. On the last day of the old year, it is customary to bathe and to look at the moon at night.
Unlike the New Year celebrated all over the world according to the Gregorian calendar (with the old year ending on December 31st at midnight and the New Year dawning in the very next minute on January 1st), there is always a gap of a few hours between the end of the old year and the dawning of the new year. This time is called punya kalaya or nonagathe – neutral time – and is reserved for resting and fasting. For a certain amount of time, nobody will eat or drink anything (with the exception of infants, toddlers and sick people). Absolutely no form of work is allowed, be it housework or anything else. In the past – and still today in some villages and families – this time was used to socialize with the family and play traditional games, to listen to sermons and engage in religious activities or tell stories. Nowadays, everyone simply lazes around or is gathered around the television, as all stations will show live or pre-recorded programs pertaining to the New Year history and customs. Depending on the auspicious times each year, this time period might begin on the 13th and end on the 14th or cover several hours on the 14th itself.
Avurudu (the New Year on the 14th)
At a specific time declared by the responsible astrologers (all the dates and times are known weeks before the event already, so that everyone is prepared), the New Year dawns. People welcome it with fire crackers and cheering, sometimes also with the beating of drums. They wish each other and light oil lamps. It is customary for children – whether they are already adults or still young – to offer their parents betel leaves and worship them. The traditional wish in Sinhalese is “subha aluth avuruddak wewa”. After having wished the family and settled down, phone calls are made, and the ‘neutral time’ is broken.
Several minutes or hours after the dawning of the New Year, there is a specific time when to light a fire for the first time. Some choose the gas stove on which they cook, others prepare a fireplace out of stones and kindling. A clay pot is filled with milk and brought to boil over as an auspicious sign and symbol of prosperity. This is followed by enough time to prepare milk rice (kiribath) and condiments for the first meal of the New Year, with the first bite being taken at the preordained time. Often, the head of the household will feed the rest of the family a bite first. In many households, it is customary to go to the temple on the first day of the New Year.
After the New Year
Following the main event, there are several other customs and ceremonies associated with the Sinhalese New Year. There is a day and time to bathe for the first time after being anointed with a special mix of oil and herbs/leaves. There is also a day and time when to first go to office or start business again. In the days leading up to this, people will visit close friends and distant relatives as well as go on trips.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask us.