Four Sri Lankan Festivals That You Should Experience
Festivals in Sri Lanka are a spectacle; the streets are bursting at the seams with a kaleidoscope of colour, sound, taste and smell. The regular hustle and bustle of city life is transformed into an amalgamation of celebration and religious devotion, giving you a completely unique Sri Lankan experience. Being a multicultural and multi-ethnic country, Sri Lanka observes many cultural festivals and religious holidays, so it is definitely a land of celebrations.
Vesak is one of the most important dates in the Buddhist calendar, the day commemorates the birth of Siddhartha Gautama; his enlightenment, when he became the Buddha; and when he attained Nirvana. The festival takes place on the full moon in the month of May and is celebrated across the island. However, it is most elaborately celebrated in the city of Colombo.
Hundreds of devotees flood the temples in a sea of white, the air is thick with the smell of incense while the hushed tones of chanting prayers can be heard in the background. This is the spiritual part of the festival. The celebratory aspect of the festival can be experienced on the streets. Ornate lanterns are lit as homage to Buddha who illuminated the world with his teachings. Colourful pandals are dotted around the Beira Lake depicting various tales of the Buddha. Dansal which give out free food and drink are scattered along the roadside, with kids waving the striped Buddhist flag to attract passers-by, and Bakthi Gee singers travel through the city on floats, serenading Colombo with songs— it is truly a treat for the senses.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil Festival is proudly recognised as Sri Lanka’s longest holy festival and is a 25-day long festival dedicated to the Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of War. The iconic Nallur Hindu temple is found in Jaffna, and has roots that date back to the 13th century BC.
The festivities begin with the hoisting of the Holy Flag, which is made from the cloth given by a family member belonging to the Sengunthar Kaikolar Mudaliyar—traditionally a family of weavers. Thereafter, the whole of Jaffna bursts with life and colour. Devotees dressed in vibrant sarees and sarongs participate in the spectacle which takes place inside the kovil grounds by day and spills onto the dusty streets of Jaffna by evening. Images of the god Murugan are put on display and transported in floats fashioned after different holy animals like peacocks, cobras and swans.
The final event is the Chariot Festival in which the statue of Murugan is placed on a chariot and taken around Jaffna. The streets are full of action; drummers take the centre stage as they lead the procession with their loud beating mimicking a throbbing pulse, as the Kavadi dancers follow. The final day is certainly the most exciting, so be sure to make it on that day.
The Kandy Esala Perahera is one of the most famous events in Sri Lanka. The procession takes place in July or August in the city of Kandy. The Esala Perahera is hosted by the Sri Dalada Maligawa in the cultural capital, Kandy, is Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist temple that dates back to the 16th century and houses the Sacred Tooth Relic.
A cacophony of ceremony and sound fill this otherwise quiet city and bring it to life. The sharp blowing of a conch shell; the rhythmic banging of drums; the crack of whips hitting the tarred roads; jingling of bell-lined bangles on dancers and the occasional trumpet of an elephant. The excitement during the Esala Perahera is palpable, people are packed together and press against each other to catch a glimpse of the tooth relic being paraded around the city, while young kids gasp at the fire dancers and other acts taking place. If you are travelling with children, try and pre-book a few seats in the viewing galleries so that you do not miss out on one of the oldest and grandest cultural traditions on the island.
Thai Pongal is a two-day-long harvest festival dedicated to Surya, the Hindu sun god, that takes place in January. You can observe this cherished Hindu holiday across the island, but the celebrations in Jaffna and Colombo are even more wonderful.
This 1,000-year-old festival begins in mid-January, on the first day of Thai and the festival not only celebrates Surya, but also cattle as they are a vital part of farming life. On the first day of Thai Pongal, houses are decorated with banana leaves and colourful kolam patterns on the floor using rice and other spices. The next day the cattle that help the farmers are bathed, painted and given thick garlands made out of white jasmine before they are paraded around the town in celebration. This cultural festival is an explosion of sound and colour and there is a feeling of jubilation as the procession makes its way around the town.
Cultural festivals are integral to the Sri Lankan way of life and the island is always full of energy and celebration. Here festivals are not confined to one site and often spill out into the street inviting everyone to join and enjoy the festivities. These four festivals are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are quintessentially Sri Lankan and should not be missed.