Sri Lanka //

Festivals and public holidays

It’s sometimes claimed that Sri Lanka has more festivals than any other country in the world, and with four major religions on the island and no fewer than 25 public holidays, things can seem to grind to a halt with disconcerting frequency.

Virtually all the festivals are religious in nature and follow the lunar calendar, with every full moon signalling the start of a new month (an extra month is added every two or three years to keep the solar and lunar calendars in alignment). As a result, most festival dates vary somewhat from year to year, apart from a couple (such as Thai Pongol and Sinhalese New Year). Muslim festivals also follow a lunar calendar but without the corrective months which are inserted into the Buddhist lunar calendar, meaning that the dates of these festivals gradually move backwards at the rate of about eleven days per year, completing one annual cycle roughly every 32 years.

Buddhist festivals revolve around the days of the full moon – or poya days – which are official public holidays as well as having special religious significance (the Buddha urged his disciples to undertake special spiritual practices on each poya day, and according to traditional belief he himself was born, attained enlightenment and died on the poya day in the lunar month of Vesak). On poya days, Sri Lankan Buddhists traditionally make offerings at their local temple and perform other religious observances, while the less pious section of the population marks the occasion with riotous behaviour and widespread drunkenness. The island’s most important Buddhist festivals are traditionally celebrated with enormous peraheras, or parades, with scores of fabulously accoutred elephants accompanied by drummers and dancers. People often travel on poya days, so transport and accommodation tend to be busy; there’s also (in theory) a ban on the sale of alcohol, although tourist hotels and guesthouses will usually serve you.

Sri Lanka’s main Hindu festivals rival the island’s Buddhist celebrations in colour – in addition to the ones listed below, there are numerous other local temple festivals across the Jaffna peninsula. Sri Lanka’s Muslim festivals are more modest affairs, generally involving only the Muslim community itself, with special prayers at the mosque. The three main celebrations (all of which are public holidays) are the Milad un-Nabi (Jan 25, 2013; Jan 13, 2014; Jan 3, 2015), celebrating the Prophet’s birthday; Id ul-Fitr (Aug 8, 2013; July 28, 2014; July 10, 2015), marking the end of Ramadan; and Id ul-Allah (Oct 15, 2013; Oct 4, 2014; Sept 24, 2015), marking the beginning of pilgrimages to Mecca.

A festival calendar

Public holidays in the listings below are marked “(P)”.

January

Duruthu Poya

(P) Marks the first of the Buddha’s three legendary visits to Sri Lanka, and celebrated with a spectacular perahera (parade) at the Raja Maha Vihara in the Colombo suburb of Kelaniya. The Duruthu poya also marks the beginning of the three-month pilgrimage season to Adam’s Peak.

Thai Pongol

(Jan 14/15) (P) Hindu festival, honouring the sun god Surya, Indra (the bringer of rains) and the cow, in no particular order. It’s marked by ceremonies at Hindu temples, after which the first grains of the new paddy harvest are ceremonially cooked in milk in a special pot – the direction in which the liquid spills when it boils over is thought to indicate good or bad luck in the coming year.

Galle Literary Festival

(late Jan/early Feb). Eminent local and international wordsmiths and culture vultures descend on Galle.

February

Navam Poya

(P) Commemorates the Buddha’s announcement, at the age of 80, of his own impending death, celebrated with a major perahera at the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo. Although this dates only from 1979, it has become one of the island’s biggest festivals, featuring a procession of some fifty elephants.

Independence Day

(P) Celebrates Sri Lanka’s independence on February 4, 1948, with parades, dances and games.

Maha Sivarathri

(Feb/March) (P) Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva, during which devotees perform a one-day fast and an all-night vigil.

March

Medin Poya

(P) Marks the Buddha’s first visit to his father’s palace following his enlightenment.

Good Friday

(March/April) (P) An Easter Passion play is performed on the island of Duwa, near Negombo.

Galle/Jaffna Music Festival

Three-day music festival held in Galle and Jaffna on alternate years and featuring an impressive line-up of local and international folk musicians, dancers and other performers.

April

Bak Poya

(P) Celebrates the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese and Tamil New Year

(P) Coinciding with the start of the southwest monsoon and the end of the harvest season, the Buddhist and Hindu New Year is a family festival during which presents are exchanged and the traditional kiribath (rice cooked with milk and cut into diamond shapes) is prepared. Businesses close, rituals are performed, new clothes are worn and horoscopes are cast. April 13 is New Year’s Eve; April 14 is New Year’s Day.

May

Labour Day

(May 1) (P) The traditional May Day bank holiday.

Vesak Poya

(P) The most important of the Buddhist poyas, this is a threefold celebration commemorating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, all of which are traditionally thought to have happened on the day of the Vesak Poya. In addition, the last of the Buddha’s three alleged visits to Sri Lanka is claimed to have been on a Vesak poya day. Lamps are lit in front of houses, and pandals (platforms decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha) are erected throughout the country. Buses and cars are decorated with streamers, and free food (from rice and curry to Vesak sweetmeats) is distributed in roadside booths (dansal). Meanwhile, devout Buddhists visit temples, meditate and fast. The day after the Vesak Poya is also a public holiday. Vesak also marks the end of the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage season. The sale of alcohol, meat and fish in public restaurants is prohibited for a six-day period around the poya day, though hotels and guesthouses may be able to circumvent this when serving their own guests.

June

Poson Poya

(P) Second only in importance to Vesak, Poson Poya commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, marked by mass pilgrimages to Anuradhapura, while thousands of white-robed pilgrims climb to the summit of Mihintale.

July

Esala Poya

(P) Celebrates the Buddha’s first sermon and the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka. The lunar month of Esala is the season of festivals, most notably the great Esala Perahera in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s most extravagant festival. There are also festivals at Kataragama, Dondra and Bellanwila (a southern Colombo suburb) and a big seven-day celebration at Unawatuna, during which thousands descend on the village and beach.

Kataragama Festival

Festival at Kataragama during which Hindu devotees fire-walk and indulge in various forms of ritual self-mutilation, piercing their skin with hooks and weights, and driving skewers through their cheeks and tongues.

Hikkaduwa Beach Festival

(July/Aug) Three-day beach bash with international DJs.

Vel

(July/Aug) Colombo’s most important Hindu festival, dedicated to Skanda/Kataragama and featuring two exuberant processions during which the god’s chariot and vel (spear) are carried across the city from the Pettah to temples in Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya.

August

Nikini Poya

(P) Marks the retreat of the Bhikkhus following the Buddha’s death, commemorated by a period of fasting and of retreat for the monastic communities.

September

Binara Poya

(P) Commemorates the Buddha’s journey to heaven to preach to his mother and other deities.

Dussehra

(Sept/Oct) Also known as Durga Puja, this Hindu festival honours Durga and also commemorates the day of Rama’s victory over Ravana.

October

Vap Poya

(P) Marks the Buddha’s return to earth and the end of the Buddhist period of fasting.

Deepavali

(late Oct/early Nov) (P) The Hindu Festival of Lights (equivalent to North India’s Diwali), commemorating the return from exile of Rama, hero of the Ramayana (holy scripture), with the lighting of lamps in Tamil households, symbolic of the triumph of good over evil, and the wearing of new clothes.

World Spice Food Festival

(late Oct/early Nov) Ten days of culinary events at assorted venues around Colombo.

November

Il Poya

(P) Commemorates the Buddha’s ordination of sixty disciples.

December

Unduvap Poya

(P) Celebrates the arrival of the Bo tree sapling in Anuradhapura, brought by Ashoka’s daughter, Sangamitta.

Christmas

(25 Dec) (P)

Christian New Year’s Eve

(31 Dec)

January

Duruthu Poya

(P) Marks the first of the Buddha’s three legendary visits to Sri Lanka, and celebrated with a spectacular perahera (parade) at the Raja Maha Vihara in the Colombo suburb of Kelaniya. The Duruthu poya also marks the beginning of the three-month pilgrimage season to Adam’s Peak.

Thai Pongol

(Jan 14/15) (P) Hindu festival, honouring the sun god Surya, Indra (the bringer of rains) and the cow, in no particular order. It’s marked by ceremonies at Hindu temples, after which the first grains of the new paddy harvest are ceremonially cooked in milk in a special pot – the direction in which the liquid spills when it boils over is thought to indicate good or bad luck in the coming year.

Galle Literary Festival

(late Jan/early Feb). Eminent local and international wordsmiths and culture vultures descend on Galle.

February

Navam Poya

(P) Commemorates the Buddha’s announcement, at the age of 80, of his own impending death, celebrated with a major perahera at the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo. Although this dates only from 1979, it has become one of the island’s biggest festivals, featuring a procession of some fifty elephants.

Independence Day

(P) Celebrates Sri Lanka’s independence on February 4, 1948, with parades, dances and games.

Maha Sivarathri

(Feb/March) (P) Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva, during which devotees perform a one-day fast and an all-night vigil.

March

Medin Poya

(P) Marks the Buddha’s first visit to his father’s palace following his enlightenment.

Good Friday

(March/April) (P) An Easter Passion play is performed on the island of Duwa, near Negombo.

Galle/Jaffna Music Festival

Three-day music festival held in Galle and Jaffna on alternate years and featuring an impressive line-up of local and international folk musicians, dancers and other performers.

April

Bak Poya

(P) Celebrates the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese and Tamil New Year

(P) Coinciding with the start of the southwest monsoon and the end of the harvest season, the Buddhist and Hindu New Year is a family festival during which presents are exchanged and the traditional kiribath (rice cooked with milk and cut into diamond shapes) is prepared. Businesses close, rituals are performed, new clothes are worn and horoscopes are cast. April 13 is New Year’s Eve; April 14 is New Year’s Day.

May

Labour Day

(May 1) (P) The traditional May Day bank holiday.

Vesak Poya

(P) The most important of the Buddhist poyas, this is a threefold celebration commemorating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, all of which are traditionally thought to have happened on the day of the Vesak Poya. In addition, the last of the Buddha’s three alleged visits to Sri Lanka is claimed to have been on a Vesak poya day. Lamps are lit in front of houses, and pandals (platforms decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha) are erected throughout the country. Buses and cars are decorated with streamers, and free food (from rice and curry to Vesak sweetmeats) is distributed in roadside booths (dansal). Meanwhile, devout Buddhists visit temples, meditate and fast. The day after the Vesak Poya is also a public holiday. Vesak also marks the end of the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage season. The sale of alcohol, meat and fish in public restaurants is prohibited for a six-day period around the poya day, though hotels and guesthouses may be able to circumvent this when serving their own guests.

June

Poson Poya

(P) Second only in importance to Vesak, Poson Poya commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, marked by mass pilgrimages to Anuradhapura, while thousands of white-robed pilgrims climb to the summit of Mihintale.

July

Esala Poya

(P) Celebrates the Buddha’s first sermon and the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka. The lunar month of Esala is the season of festivals, most notably the great Esala Perahera in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s most extravagant festival. There are also festivals at Kataragama, Dondra and Bellanwila (a southern Colombo suburb) and a big seven-day celebration at Unawatuna, during which thousands descend on the village and beach.

Kataragama Festival

Festival at Kataragama during which Hindu devotees fire-walk and indulge in various forms of ritual self-mutilation, piercing their skin with hooks and weights, and driving skewers through their cheeks and tongues.

Hikkaduwa Beach Festival

(July/Aug) Three-day beach bash with international DJs.

Vel

(July/Aug) Colombo’s most important Hindu festival, dedicated to Skanda/Kataragama and featuring two exuberant processions during which the god’s chariot and vel (spear) are carried across the city from the Pettah to temples in Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya.

August

Nikini Poya

(P) Marks the retreat of the Bhikkhus following the Buddha’s death, commemorated by a period of fasting and of retreat for the monastic communities.

September

Binara Poya

(P) Commemorates the Buddha’s journey to heaven to preach to his mother and other deities.

Dussehra

(Sept/Oct) Also known as Durga Puja, this Hindu festival honours Durga and also commemorates the day of Rama’s victory over Ravana.

October

Vap Poya

(P) Marks the Buddha’s return to earth and the end of the Buddhist period of fasting.

Deepavali

(late Oct/early Nov) (P) The Hindu Festival of Lights (equivalent to North India’s Diwali), commemorating the return from exile of Rama, hero of the Ramayana (holy scripture), with the lighting of lamps in Tamil households, symbolic of the triumph of good over evil, and the wearing of new clothes.

World Spice Food Festival

(late Oct/early Nov) Ten days of culinary events at assorted venues around Colombo.

November

Il Poya

(P) Commemorates the Buddha’s ordination of sixty disciples.

December

Unduvap Poya

(P) Celebrates the arrival of the Bo tree sapling in Anuradhapura, brought by Ashoka’s daughter, Sangamitta.

Christmas

(25 Dec) (P)

Christian New Year’s Eve

(31 Dec)