Festivals in Sri Lanka
Being home to four main religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity – there are many festivals and public holidays to celebrate in Sri Lanka. From religious festivals to harvest festivals, there are a plethora of reasons for communities to gather together and celebrate.
We have listed below, some of the many events you may wish to combine with a holiday to Sri Lanka.
Thai Pongal has been celebrated for over 1,000 years and is one of the most cherished of Tamil holidays. It starts on the first day of Thai on the traditional Tamil calendar, which usually falls in mid-January, and marks the start of the sun’s six-month journey northbound. This important harvest festival focuses on honouring the sun god ‘Surya’ as well as cattle, both of which play an integral role in bringing a good harvest. During the first day of Thai Pongal, families decorate their homes with banana leaves and colourful kolam patterns made with rice flour and boil rice in milk along with spices, nuts and raisins to share with locals. On the second day, the cattle that help farmers in their rice fields are honoured by being bathed, painted with coloured dyes and given beautiful garlands that hang around their neck and horns.
Maha Shivarathri is the celebration of the Hindu god Shiva. Festivities take place in June in the Hindu Shiva temples around the island. Devotees take a purification bath at dawn and fast all day. Shiva statues are also bathed in milk and honey and covered in red vermillion to represent the purification of the soul. Some temples, like Sri Kaileshwarar temple in Colombo, have dance and music performances as part of the celebrations.
Vesak Poya – Festival of lights
Vesak Poya falls on the full moon in March, as according to the Buddhist moon calendar, it’s the first full moon of the new year. Vesak Poya is a triple celebration of Buddha. commemorating the day Buddha was born, found enlightenment, and passed away. The festival takes over most of the island, as every home and business hang paper lanterns that are lit at night, and Baudaloka Mawata and Biera Lake are particularly pretty. People traditionally hand out food and drink to passers-by on the streets and worshippers spend hours at the temples.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year marks the beginning of the Lunar year and usually takes place in April. The fun-filled colorful festivities take place all around the island. Just like the Poya holidays, all formal or government businesses close and the island takes on a relaxed festive state. This is a festival celebrated by the entire population. Sri Lankans love friendly competitive games and the New Year is when you will find these kinds of games happening everywhere.
Poson Poya Festival
Poson Poya celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, It usually takes place during the full moon in June, when there are celebrations all over the island like all Poya days but the main festivities for Poson Poya are at Mihintale. The Mihintale rock outcrop is believed to be the first place that the Buddhist monk Mahinda talked about Buddhism with King Devanampiyatissa.
Pada Yatra Pilgrimage
Prior to the Kataragama Festival, thousands of devotees take part in the two-month Pada Yatra pilgrimage, otherwise known as The Long Walk to Kataragama. This traditional and challenging pilgrimage begins at the Jaffna Peninsula in the north, and the journey follows south down the beautiful east coast of Sri Lanka, through the spectacular Yala National Park and on to the holy Kataragama shrine in the jungle. The oldest annual pilgrimage in the country where Sri Lankans from different backgrounds join together to complete the incredible spiritual journey through diverse and beautiful landscapes in order to reach the sanctified Kataragama.
Esala Poya Perahera - Kandy
Another Poya celebration is the Esala Poya Perahera in Kandy. Esala Poya is the day that celebrates the arrival of the Buddha Tooth Relic at the town's Temple of the Tooth. With a Perahera procession every day for 10 days, with dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-breathers and ornately decorated elephants taking part, leading up to the last night which is the biggest Perahera of all. The main event is the carrying of the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha through the streets of Kandy and is considered to be one of the most beautiful pageants in Asia.
Aadi Vel Festival
Vel is Sri Lanka’s most important Hindu festival reflecting the religious and cultural heritage of Hinduism. The main celebrations take part in Colombo which attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the island. Dedicated to the war god Skandha, the festivities commemorate the victory over evil forces and worships his trident, the vel. During the main procession in Colombo, Skandha’s vel is placed in a dazzling gold chariot which is pulled by hundreds of devotees dressed simply in white with their faces smeared in holy ash. Accompanying the main event is hundreds of musicians, dancers, acrobats and elephants who snake through the various parts of the city. Together with the aroma of burning incense and jasmine flowers, the sound of drums, bells and chants and colourful performers parading the streets, the Vel festival is a spectacular and mesmerising sight.
Held in the southern town of Kataragama, one of the holiest places on the island, this festival is of significant religious importance in Sri Lanka. Although the festivities at Kataragama during July or August are predominantly celebrated by Hindus, other faiths also attend. The pilgrims are there to seek divine guidance from Lord Kataragama. As the festivities begin, locals and visitors enjoy the energy of elephant parades, musicians, dancers, fire eaters and jugglers and acrobats who all perform to the rhythm of the chants and drums.
Nallur Festival - Jaffna
The remarkable Kandaswamy Temple is the focus of this 25-day festival where thousands of followers congregate. Men dress in white sarongs, and women wear their best saris. Throughout Nallur there are many parades featuring floats, performers and glistening thrones being carried around town. The 24th day of Nallur marks ‘Ther’, when a huge chariot is pulled by hundreds of men and becomes the biggest night of the holiday. The following day, entranced devotees drive skewers through their bodies and make their way to the temple to the beat of drums, believing that God will protect them from any pain.
Deepavali is the Hindu festival of lights, it is the celebration of Lord Rama’s defeat of Ravana, symbolizing the defeat of light over darkness. Homes will be decorated with little clay lamps and buildings and streets are illuminated in celebration. In Western calendars, it takes place usually in October or November. Deepavali celebrations last for five days but the biggest and most important day is the last. Devotees will wear new clothes and give each other gifts, usually sweets treats.
Even though only about 20% or less of the population in Sri Lanka is Christian, Christmas is still a big celebration on the island. Every mall, store, business, and bakery is colourfully decorated with trees, lights, and garlands. Religious places or businesses owned by Christians will have nativity scenes. All big hotels serve Christmas dinner on the 24th. Don’t forget to try the Sri Lankan Christmas cake, the richest and most spiced cake in the world.
Ramadan and Eid
Ramadan is the month-long Muslim festival of cleansing and fasting during daylight hours. The festival begins at the first sighting of the new moon. A lot of restaurants will have special nighttime menus for Muslims to come together and break their fast. Eid, on the last day of Ramadan is a big celebration of feasting and giving.