With four major religions, diverse culture and no less than 25 public holidays, the teardrop island of Sri Lanka is a land of vibrant festivals and colourful celebrations. Sri Lankan festivities don’t only showcase the culture and religions of the country, but also its intriguing history and beautiful traditions.
Kataragama Festival. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, the Kataragama Festival takes place every year in July or August and is dedicated to one of the Hindu gods. It takes place over a two-week period and people from all over the world come to join in. The festival is jam-packed with parades of elephants and colorfully dressed performers. There are countless traditional dances that take place; with musicians, acrobats, and fire-breathers feeding into the festival’s contagious energy.
Vesak Poya – Festival of lights. Vesak is the Poya festival that falls on the full moon of the month of March. According to the Buddhist moon calendar, it’s the first full moon of the new year. Vesak Poya is a triple celebration of Buddha. It is on this day that Buddha was born, found enlightenment, then many years later passed away. The Vesak festival takes over the city and most of the island. Every home and place of business hang white paper lanterns that are lit up at night. Areas like Baudaloka Mawata and Biera Lake are specially decorated. People hand out food and drink to passers-by on the streets and worshippers spend hours at the temples.
Kandy Esala Poya Perahera. Another huge Poya celebration is the Esala Poya Perahera in Kandy. Esala Poya is the day that celebrates the arrival of the Buddha Tooth Relic to the famous Temple of the Tooth. Perahera means procession in Sinhalese. Peraheras take place every Poya holiday on small scale in Colombo and other places around the island, but none compare to the week-long celebrations in Kandy during Esala Poya. With a Perahera procession every day for a week, the experience is unbeatable. Dancers, musicians, dressed elephants, rituals and more, every day until the last night which is the biggest Perahera of all. Best way to make sure and get a seat at one of the Peraheras in Kandy next year is to book through an agency like Lakpura.
Poson Poya Festival. Another grand Poya festivity is Poson Poya, which is the celebration of the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, It usually takes place during the full moon in June. 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. To get to Mihintale you can take a train to Anuradhapura and a car from there.
Maha Shivarathri – Festival of Shiva. 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. Many of them take part in mediation rituals with the help of the Panchakshara mantra “Om Nama Shivaya“. Shiva statues are also bathed in milk and honey and covered in red vermillion to represent purification of the soul. Some temples, like Sri Kaileshwarar temple in Colombo, have dance and music performances as part of the celebrations.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year. The Sinhala and Tamil New Year marks the beginning of the Lunar year. It usually takes place sometime in April. Festivities are colorful and fun 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.
Duruthu Perahera. Marking the beginning of Buddhist calendar in Sri Lanka, this grand procession in the month of January (Duruthu) is one of the greatest & most glorious cultural traditional festivals in Sri Lanka, attended with great enthusiasm by devotees and tourists alike. Duruthu Perahera is celebrated to commemorate Gautam Buddhas first visit to the country 2500 years ago, with 3-day long festivities at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. You can witness a magnificent spectacle on the final day with decked up and bejeweled elephants, acrobats, singer, drummers & torch-bearers conjuring up a grand procession.
Independence Day. Independence day of any country is important to its citizens and so is the case with Sri Lanka. On 4th February 1948, Sri Lanka got its independence from colonial rule. Every year to celebrate this auspicious day, the whole country participates in ceremonies and parades. While you are exploring the country you can attend the military parades, flag-hoisting ceremonies, firework displays, cannon fire shows, and cultural performances.