Traditional Sri Lankan festivals and pageants are held for religious or astrological reasons, with Buddhist and Hindu cultures sharing the same solar and lunar calendars. In addition, Buddhists observe the Buddhist Nirvana Calendar for religious events.
All Buddhist religious festivals follow the Buddhist Nirvana Calendar. Thus the month of January is known as ‘Duruthu’, ending on the day of the waxing moon. The Full Moon day is a public holiday in Sri Lanka, a fact you should note while on your Sri Lanka holiday. Liquor shops, Bars and Pubs are closed on such days, including those in your Sri Lanka Holiday resort.
The Duruthu Perehera or Procession celebrates the first visit of the Buddha to Sri Lanka in January at the sacred temple of Kelaniya near Colombo attracting hundreds of thousands of devotees and visitors. The colourful pageant comprising of caparisoned elephants, along with dancers, drummers, and musicians playing traditional wind instruments begun with the firing of cannon. The Randoli Perehera, the magnificent finale, is held the day prior to the January full moon.
The Navam Perehara which culminates on the February full moon is a spectacle that has the certain participation of more than 100 caparisoned elephants brought from all over the island. Since 1979 (the year it was first held) the Navam Maha Perahera has attracted nearly a million spectators to the Gangaramaya Temple, at Hunupitiya, Colombo that overlooks the picturesque Beira Lake.
The New Year Festival of the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka coincides with the end of harvest. The New Year dawns with the transition of the sun from the house of Pisces to that of Aries, according to the Vedic Solar Calendar. The New Year begins usually on 13th and 14th April with the exact time determined by the constellation of the planets. The country grinds to a halt with people traveling home to be with their families. The household rituals are determined by astrological dictates such as lighting the fire and making a Kiri Batha (milk rice). The celebrations then begin, with families mingling in the streets and Kawun and Kokis (small oil cake and crispy sweetmeat) freely distributed.
Vesak is the main Buddhist religious festival in Sri Lanka that is on the full moon in May. Thus, Vesak is the first month of the Buddha Nirvana calendar. The Buddhists celebrate the triple anniversary of the important events in the life of the Buddha. His birth, his attaining of Enlightenment and his passing away into Nirvana. The day is expected to be spent in reflective prayer with a cessation of worldly pursuits and engagement in religious observances at temples and shrines. Streets are full of bright illuminations and constructs, and roadside stalls distribute free refreshments to passers-by.
The Poson Festival in June commemorates the conversion of Sri Lanka to Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. Illuminations and processions can be seen all over the country with the most impressive being at Mihintale. The ancient city is built around the area where Sri Lanka’s king converted to Buddhism having listened to the words of Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka.
Esala Perehara in Kandy On the full-moon day of August each year, the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, encased in a golden casket, is taken in procession on the back of the temple elephant. The magnificent procession is in all probability the most spectacular torch lit parade in all of Asia. The sacred ritual has been followed for centuries, recorded with meticulous care since the sacred relic was moved to the Kandy Dalada Maligawa – the Temple Palace of the Tooth Relic. The old cannon booms after dusk and the Procession descends on to the streets every night, with the parades growing longer each night until the final night of pageantry, when the parade is at its pinnacled finest.
More than a hundred elephants dressed in their fabulous finery, Kandyan chiefs in their traditional royal regalia, thousands of dancers, drummers, flag bearers, fire-juggling acrobats, musicians, whip crackers, torch bearers and thousands of barefoot pilgrims walk in measured steps in the torch lit procession. People in their thousands line the streets of Kandy every night during the festival to glimpse the golden casket and to pay homage to the Buddha with thousands of vocal chords releasing the cry Sadhu! Sadhu!
Bellanwila Perehera in Colombo In the Month of August on the days of the waxing moon prior to the Esala full moon the Bellanwill a temple located close to Colombo holds a colourful Perahera (Pageant) to the Buddha. The perahera features traditional dancers performing to the drum beats. The temple has a hallowed history due to its sacred Bo tree which according to Palm leaf texts is one of the thirty-two saplings that sprang from the sacred Bo tree at Anuradhapura.
The Katharagama Esala Festival at the Kataragama Shrine in the Deep South honours the God Katharagama worshipped by Budhists and Hindus with equal fervor and devotion. During the two-week festival, thousands of Hindu devotees bear chariots; pierce their flesh with hooks, s and commit acts of penitence mostly to hounor vows beseeching the benevolence of the God Skandha.
The devotional rituals conducted in a frenzied air of urgency reaches its end with h the “water-cutting” ceremony. A holy casket is dipped in the Manica Ganga the sacred river. Accompanying this ritual in the river are the thousands of pilgrims who submerge themselves – with their arms raised and crying “Haro Hara” in obeisance to the God of many names – God Skandha, Lord Murugan and God Katharagama.
At around 4 am after the river ablutions are concluded, the square in front of the main temple is cleared and carefully covered with burning Tamarind fire wood. Ccleansed pilgrims slowly make their way, barefoot, across the burning embers. The piety and devotion protects the soles of their feet. The souls relived.
The Adivel Festival is a Hindu Religious festival in honour of Lord Murugan. The festival is held each year sometime between the months of May and August, the auspicious date for the festival is usually announced 45 days prior to the event. The festival requires the devotees to draw the the idols of Lord Murugan, Sri Valli and Theivaanai on a silver plated chariot from the temple of Kathiseran temple in the busy commercial hub of Colombo Pettah to the moreornate and grand Bambalapitiya shrine on Galle road the main artery of the city of Colombo. The decorated chariot is followed by musicians and devotees singing in praise of Lord Murugan . Cracking fresh coconuts nuts and burning incense add to the sanctity of the ritual conducted to celebrate the victory of Lord Murugan over evil forces.
Deepawali Festival is the most picturesque Hindu festivals celebrated in November. The Festival of Light, the triumph of good over evil. The festival is marked by illuminations in the form of clay land brass lamps and making figures out of sugar known as Misri. The oil lamps that are lit in plenty are an invitation to the Goddess of wealth and success Lakshmi.
The St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church located on a quite stretch of beach in Kalpitiya peninsula has held the annual feast for more than three centuries in August.
Roman Catholics observe the annual Feast of St. Anne, dedicated to the mother of the Virgin Mary. It is reputed as a place of miraculous healing by the faithful. Pilgrims flock to the annual festival from all over the island.
It really does not matter when you decide to holiday in Sri Lanka. You are bound to see some festival while on your Sri Lanka tour.