Sri lanka’s National calendar sparkles sith numerous colourful festivals and fiestas year round. The inborn flair of the Sri Lankan people for celebration and pageantry enrich their diverse and deep-rooted cultural heritage in a wondrous way. Almost every month is marked by a festivity or celebration and whether these are held to bring blessings, rain, good harvests or just good times, visitors are assured of fascinating insights and delightful experiences.
The festivals of four world religions are celebrated in Sri Lanka. For Buddhists(who make up the majority), the full moon (poya) day of each month, still called by their traditional Sinhala names, have special significance, as they marked important events in the life of the Budha, the founder of Buddhism. The main poya days. Duruthu, Navam, Wesak, Poson and Esala-are celebrated with colourful traditional rituals and sometimes with glittering pageants known as perahera. A traditional period-pageant with a religious-cultural core, peraheras parade the streets, usually at night The centre-piece of the pageant is a relic casket or other sacred object, often carried by a richly decorated elephant; it also includes troupes of skilled traditional dancers, drummers, musicians, acrobats, torch and standard bearers, chieftains and officials in rich medieval costumes. Aperahera is thus not only an important religious ritual, but also a showcase of traditional culture and art
SRI PADA Pilgrim Season This great annual pilgrim trek by Buddhists, celebrates the Buddha’s visit to Sri Pada (2237m.), the peak venerated ever since as enshrining Buddha’s foot-print. The pilgrim season extends from December to April and draws thousands of Buddhists from all over Sri Lanka, who climb the peak through picturesque forested paths via Hatton or Ratnapura. The trek lasts from midnight to early dawn, taking in the unforgettable spectacle of sunrise over the sacred peak. Traditional rituals are conducted at the temple on the summit. Hindus, Christians and Muslims also venerate and visit the peak for their own religious reasons
THAI PONGAL The Hindu festival of Thai Pongal, usually celebrated on January 14, is a charming harvest fiesta of simple rural life-style. Rice cooked in milk and the fruits of the earth are offered to the gods in thanksgiving and to ensure future success in agriculture. Home are spring-cleaned and decorated, farm animals bathed and rested and visitors welcomed with festive food.
DURUTHU The Duruthu poya is the full-moon festival(which usually occurs in January), which commemorates a visit by the Buddha to Kelaniya, in pre-Christian times. The historic Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare (temple). 10 km. north of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, holds a grand perahera to celebrate this anniversary.
NATIONAL DAY(Feb 4) All Sri Lankans join together to celebrate the anniversary of its independence from British rule on February 4, 1984, achieved peacefully and remembered with fervent patriotism. The hoisting of the national flag, military parades, pageants and religious services are included in the celebrations. In addition to major festivals, numerous others of much charm and colour are celebrated in rural communities, many close to tourist resorts, such as the Dalada perahera held in bentota in December, in which more than 20 elephants and numerous traditional dance and drum troupes participate. This abundance of fiestas gives an year-round air of celebration to this land of resplendent festivals. Navam The Navam full moon (which usually falls in February) remembers the appointment of the Buddha’s two chief disciples in the per- Christian era. The main celebration of this event is a colourful perahera held by the Gangaramaya a beautiful lake-side temple in Colombo.
THE SRI LANKA NEW YEAR Year The Sri Lanka New Year is celebrated annually between the 12th and 15th of April by the Sinhala and Tamil communities, binding the two main ethnic groups in a shared heritage of ancient customs and traditions. Originally a harvest thanksgiving, this great national festival marks the transit of the sun from pisces (Meena Rasi) to Aries (Mesha Rasi) in the zodiac. Customs and traditions are meticulously observed, Activities such as lighting of domestic hearths, cooking and eating the first meal, business transactions and commencing occupational work in the new year are at astrologically auspicious times to ensure good fortune Homes are spruced up, everyone wears new clothes in the prescribed lucky colour and freshly-harvested grain is used to prepare milk-rice (kiri – bath in Sinhala and parl choru in Tamil) in new pots; and for delicious traditional sweetmeats. Traditional games such as elle, gudu and pora-pol and raban (bass drum) playing and swing-riding add to the merry-making and open house hospitality prevails.
WESAK The Wesak full moon (usually in may), is the most important Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka. It celebrates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha. A festival of great piety and sanctity which foucuses on the virtue of compassion to all living creatures, its is also one of much colour and gaiety, with streets, homes and public places places decorated with beautiful hand-made paper lanterns and glittering with illuminations. Mass observance of sil (Buddhist precepts) and wayside stalls (dansala) to dispense free food and drink to passers – by, are features of this festival.
POSON This full-moon festival (usually falls in June) celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C.,a festival of great historical and religious significance, celebrated island-wide by Buddhists. The main centres of celebration are Mihintale, the ancient monastic complex where the royal missionary monk Mahinda preached the first sermon to the king, and at Anurdhapura, the ancient capital, to which large crowds of pilgrims converge. Mass religious obervaces, illuminations and pageants are part of the celebrations. Are mihintale, the ancient monastic complex where the royal missionary monk Mahinda preached the first sermon to the king and at Anuradhapura, the ancient capital, to which large crowds of pilgrims converge. Mass religious observances, illuminations and pageants are part of the celebrations.
ESALA In Sri Lanka, Esala (which falls in july / August), is traditionally the season of fiestas. For Buddhists, the Esala full moon is a major poya, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first sermon, which set out, in the pre-Christan era, the basic teachings of Buddhism. Many celebrations mark this event all over the island, however other age-old ficstas also take place during this traditional festival season.
KANDY ESALA PERAHERA The main Esala festival takes place in kandy, the medieval hill capital. The glittering Kandy Esala Perahera, often called Asia’s grandest traditional pageant, parades the streets for ten nights by moon and torch light, in the lake-side mountain citadel. While the roots of Esala festivals go deep into Sri Lanka’s early civilization, Kandy’s Esala perahera in its present form dates from 1775. It is held annually to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha and to obtain the blessings and help of the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka, on the country and its people. The pageant is made up of five magnificent processions, one each From the deistic temples of Natha, Vishnu kataragama and Pattini and the grandes from the Dalada Maligawa, the shrine of the Sacred Tooth Relic Massed Kandyan (highland) dancers, drummers, musician, minstrels, acrobats, chieftains, officials, whip-crackers, torch and standard bearers, all in colourful medieval costumes and scores of richly decorated elephants parade Kandy’s streets for ten nights in an unforgettable spectacle of oriental splendour. The pageant centre-piece is a majestic, richly caparisoned, tusked elephant, bearing a replica of the relic casket Large crowds of visitors and devotees, bazaars overflowing with fruits, handicrafts, sweetmeats and souvenirs give Kandy a carnival atmosphere at this time. The climax of the festival is the final night (Esala full moon), when the pageant is at its grandest. It ends with the day-time perahera the next morning and the water-cutting ceremony in the Mahaweli river, a ritual symbolising the triumph of good over evil and to ensure rain in season and other blessings.
OTHER ESALA PERAHERAS ESALA PERAHERAS, lesser in scale but of much interest and colour are held in July/August/September by the Bellanwila and Kotte Raja Maha Vihares (temples) and at Nawagamuwa (all near Colombo), at Hanguranketa, Gadaladeniya, Embekke, Lankatilleke, Badulla and Mahiyangane, around kandy and hill-country centres, A unique feature of the Mahiyangane Esala perhera (usually held in September), is the participation of Veddah tribes, Sri Lanka’s aborigines.
THE KATARAGAMA FESTIVAL A traditional Esala festival is held to honour and obtain the blessings of the powerful war-god Skanda(Kataragama), venerated by Hindus and Buddhists and his consort eastern jungle shrine of kataragama in July/August. A grand perahera with highland and low-country dancers, drummers, chieftains and officials in traditional dress and caparisoned elephants parade the streets for several nights. The festival climax is on the final night, ending with the day-time perahera and water-cutting ceremony on the Menik Ganga (river), symbolizing the victory of good over evil forces. Fire-walking (treading beds of red-hot fire-coals) and other extreme penance performed for redemption of vows and as demonstrations of faith and Kavadi dancers(who carry small decorated arches) are features of this festival which draws thousands of Pilgrims.
VEL Colombo’s streets take on a carnival air for the Hindu festival of Vel chariot carrying the weapons of God skanda, commemorating and ancient victory over evil forces, proceeds from the Hindu temple (kovil) on Sea Street in Colombo, to another in a southern suburb. The chariot route is decorated in the traditional way with whole banana trees and palm leaves. The procession includes Kavadi (arch-dancers) and devotees who perform extreme forms of penance. Bazaars along the route sell fruits, sugar-cane, handicrafts and souvenirs.
MUNNESWARAM UDAPPUWA AND NALLUR FESTIVALS A number of other festivals take place in provincial towns during this season. They include celebrations at the Munneswaram temple, shrine of the Hindu God Siva and at Udappuwa, a sea-side shrine-complex of three deities, both near Chilaw, on the north-western coast. Fire-walking, extreme forms of penance and traditional rituals are part of the celebrations. The Nallur temple, a leading Hindu shrine near Jaffna, capital of the northern province, holds a major and extremely colourful festival for more than three weeks in July/August, concluding with a chariot festival and water-cutting ceremony, drawing thousands of devotees who flock to participate in the colourful traditional rituals.
DEVINUWARA (Dondra) Festival Deep on the south coast at Devinuwara (Dondra) another colourful festival is held at the ancient shrine of good vishun. A grand perahera with all the traditional features and many varieties of low-country folk dances and traditional rituals draw large crowds of pilgrims. A well-patronised fair where southern handicrafts such as hand-madelace and basket-ware and regional delicacies like buffalo curd (resembling yoghurt), palm treacle and sweetmeats such as kalu-dodol are sold, are part of the festivities.
DEEPAVALI the Hindu ‘festival of light’ falls usually in November and celebrates the triumph of .good over evil and light over darkness, symbolized in an ancient battle between God Siva and evil demons. Hindu temples hold traditional religious services (pooja), homes and domestic celebrations include wearing new clothes and preparation of festive vegetarian food.
RAMAZAN is celebrated in Sri Lanka by the Muslim community to mark the and of the annual period of fasting. Communal prayers in mosques and public places, recitations of the Koran, distribution of alms to the needy as well as celebrations with family and friends, rich festive food, new clothes and gifts anre part of the celebrations. Two other festivals, Haj(the feast of the sacrifice) and Milad-un-Nabi (Prophet Mohammed’s birthday) are also celebrated by muslims in Sri Lanka with religious observances and domestic festivities.
CHRISTMAS DEC.25 Christmas is celebrated in traditional fashion by Christians in Sri Lanka. The festive season begins in mid-December, with Christmas sales, illuminations and decorations in shops and streets. Midnight church services, carol-singing (often with Sinhala and Tamil lyrics), Christmas cards and trees, Santa Claus, presents, seasonal food, gifts for the needy and celebrations with family and friends ensure good cheerand happy times for all. Tourist hotels celebrate Christmas and New Year in traditional style, with seasonal décor, music, special menus, enjoyable entertainment, dances and balls, Important Roman Catholic festivals are held at the pilgrim shrines of Madhu (in the north-central region) in July, at St. Anne’s in Talawila (near Puttalam in the north-western province), in March and July and at Duwa, near Negombo, where a passion-play takes place at Easter. These events draw large crowds of pilgrims and feature devotional processions, healing services and vigils, as well as rural fairs.
VARIABLE FESTIVAL DATES Festival dates which vary from year to year (depending on astrological, solar and lunar phases and other factors), are available as soon as released and well in time for travel arrangements from local and overseas information outlets of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board and from travel agents.