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frestivals in sri lanka

Special events and festivals mostly give a specific colour to a culture and are also very interesting for tourists to see, because they show an important facet of the country in the way they celebrate their religious and traditional events. In this description a brief outline is given regarding the various colourful events being celebrated among the different religious and ethnic groups of the Sri Lanka population. When you are lucky to be able to plan your holidays to coincide with one of these special events it will definitely give an extra dimension to your visit to Sri Lanka.


Poya day   

Every full moon is called ‘Poya day’ in Sri Lanka and is a public holiday. Government services, banks, many shops, schools and businesses are closed on Poya day. The sale of alcohol and meat on Poya days is not allowed, so the stores where they sell alcohol are also closed, as well as the bars in hotels and restaurants; alcoholic beverages are not served on Poya days, nor is it allowed to take alcohol outside and consume it in public.

On Poya days Buddhist people usually go to temple to worship and meditate. Each Poya day has its own name. The most important Poya days are Vesak and Poson.

Vesak Poya day

wesak lanterns wesak thorana wesak in sri lanka 

On Vesak Poya day the birth,    enlightenment and passing away of  Gautama Lord Buddha is annually  celebrated at full moon in May. It is  the most important holy day for  Buddhists, but is mostly celebrated  during the entire week, following  Vesak Poya day. Many activities take  place during Vesak, spiritual ones, as  well as alms giving. The spiritual ones   take place in the temples, which are  overcrowded with devotees on that  day to bring flowers, light oil lamps, worship and do meditation. They are dressed in white to express purity. Some people stay the entire day in the temple. The other spiritual event is the gathering around a huge electrically lit installation (sometimes 20 m high), called Pandol or Torana. It symbolizes one of the 550 past life stories of Lord Buddha. During the night mostly Buddhist verses are being recited, accompanied by drums. People decorate their houses and businesses with colourful, fancy lanterns and in the big cities huge installations of lanterns are constructed to show the public, signifying the light of Lord Buddha. The best place to see all these beautiful installations is on the east shore of Lake Beira at Slave Island in Colombo, where the great competition of the most beautiful lanterns is being held. Food stalls are being set up by devotees all over the country to provide free food and drinks in so called Dansalas (alms halls), an expression to enjoy the art of giving.


Poson Poya day

posaon on sri lanka mahindagamanaya kaluthara bodhiya

Every year in June, Buddhist people commemorate the official introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka on Poson Poya day, a very important day in the history of the country. The son of Asoka, the emperor of India, Arahat Mahinda, came to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC and converted King Devanampiyatissa to Buddhism. The event took place in Mihintale, close to Anuradhapura, in the Cultural Triangle. At that place the main celebrations take place. Many people climb on top of the rock where Mahinda held his first teachings. The many temples around the rock and in Anuradhura are full of devotees on that day, but the festival is celebrated all over Sri Lanka. The Vesak lanterns are kept until this festival is finished. Also Dansals are taking place on Poson Poya day.


The Esala Perahera in Kandy

esela perahara kandy perahara kandian dancer at kandy perahara 

Without any doubt, the Esala Perahera in Kandy is the most colourful and spectacular festival in Sri Lanka. It takes place every year in July or August, dependant on the lunar calendar. However it is not connected to Poya Days, but its history goes back to the fourth century AD, when a canine tooth of Lord Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India. Although the Esala Perahera lasts 11 days in total, the final nightly parade is the most interesting for visitors.  A replica of the tooth is carried on top of a lavishly dressed Maligawa tusk elephant in a magnificent procession though the streets of Kandy. Thousands of Kandyan dancers, drummers, flag carriers, acrobats and a large number of richly dressed elephants form the parade. During the successive five days of the processions, the parades become progressively more impressive, but the Maha Perahera or the ‘Great Parade’ is the most spectacular one and it attracts thousands of visitors from all over Sri Lanka and abroad.


Singhalese and Tamil New Year

new year new year food table new year dramz 

According to the Singhalese and Tamil calendar the New Year starts around the 13th of April. It is not a religious festival, but it is grotesquely celebrated all over the country for at least one week, but sometimes longer. Therefore April is considered to be the festival month. The auspicious time is determined by astrological determinations and goes along with several traditional rituals. Remarkable is that there is a period between leaving the old year and entering the new year of roughly twelve hours and fourty eight minutes, called the ‘neutral time’; it has to do with the sun crossing the ‘House of Pisces” into the ‘House of Aries’. During that period one is not suppose to take any food and drinks and refrain from material matters, but be associated with spiritual matters and traditional games. When the crossing has completed, the New Year starts. Crackers welcome the New Year, milk rice (kiribath) is eaten, the house has been cleaned, new clothes have been bought and gifts are being exchanged. Traveling through the country, you can enjoy watching crowds of people involved in outdoor traditional games. In popular tourist resorts, like Nuwara Eliya, it is difficult to find accommodation and prices for accommodation can be very high.


Thai Pongal

thai pongal frestival thai pongal frestival thai pongal 

This family-oriented festival is celebrated by Hindu’s in India and Sri Lanka. It is a festival to thank the God Suriya for the good harvest. In Sri Lanka it means the end of the rice harvest, the staple food in Sri Lanka. It is the period that the sun has reached its lowest point and has now entered Makar (Capricorn), moving northbound. Officially that is on the 21st of December, but the festival is scheduled mid January (from 13 to 16), because that marks the end of the harvest period. Pongal actually means ‘boiling over’ of milk. On the first day early morning the family starts by boiling milk in a clay pot. Rice, jaggery and syrup of crushed sugar cane is added. This rice pudding is first offered to the Sun God. The rest is taken during the festival meal later on the day. Families usually decorate their houses with mango and banana leaves. In the front yard of their houses the families make kolams, drawings from rice flour. The ants and other insects can eat the ‘drawing’, which will bless the house. A lump of cow dung is put in the centre, decorated with the flower of a pumpkin. On the second day the oxen are being washed and decorated with straw garlands around their necks. Thai Pongal is celebrated among the Tamil community and thus concentrated in the Northern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka, as well as within the Tamil communities in Colombo.



deepawali deepawali deepawali 

This is the most important Tamil festival; it is a mainly family based festival. It is also called ‘Festival of Light’ and dedicated to the God of Wealth. During the festival houses are lighted with clay-based oil lamps which burn day and night. The symbolic behind this is to overcome evil by light. The festival also marks the financial New Year for business people. Fire crackers are burst to drive away bad spirits and fireworks are let off illuminating the sky. Many traditions, such as dancing and traditional games may have disappeared, but the big festive meals have remained. People buy new cloths and exchange gifts. On the last day of the festival sisters usually invite their brothers to their homes. Deepavali festival is celebrated in Tamil concentrated areas in Sri Lanka.



 ramazan ramazan ramazan in sri lanka 

Ramazan is the fasting month of Muslims, being done in the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. Between sunrise and sunset not a morsel of food or drink will be taken during a period of 30 days. Muslims are supposed to spend their day with a lot of Quar’an reading (the holy book for Muslims) and meditation, if not at work. They enjoy a big breakfast around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and breaking of the fasting is announced by the mosques, as well as on the radio and TV. Breaking fasting is a happy moment of the day and starts with eating dates and a bowl of gruel/soup, made from rice (kanji), together with some small snacks. Kanji is mostly obtained from the local mosque. Well-to-do families donate money by turn to prepare the kanji for the villagers. Later on the night sometimes a light dinner is taken and the children enjoy sweets. The moment of breaking the fasting with a prayer is a spiritual and solemn moment, which gives it a spiritual dimension. Many times guests are invited to join the breaking of fasting, also non Muslim friends and traveling tourists, these are nice moments to share this main event with Muslim people. At the end of the holy month of Ramazan they celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, also called ‘Sugarfeast’. At dawn, they bathe, get their best or new clothes on, eat something sweet and go to the mosque for the Eid prayer. In a separate service there is also an Eid prayer for females, one of rare times ladies visit the mosque for prayers. People visit relatives and friends and special dishes are being prepared. In between a lot of sweet products are taken during the visits. In Sri Lanka the festival usually lasts 3 days.


Christmas and New Year

x'mas cristmas tree chrch 

The best place in Sri Lanka to celebrate Christmas is in Negombo, close to Colombo Airport. This seaside resort and its neighbouring communities up to Chilaw are mainly Christian (Roman Catholic or Reformed). The town is fancy decorated already weeks before the festival and in the night from the 24th on the 25th of December the night masses starts at most of the churches at midnight, although there are also services on the 25th of December. You can also find several churches in Colombo, Nuwara Eliya, Galle and Matara. In the Northern and Eastern provinces are a number of Christian communities as well; especially Mannar has a large Roman Catholic community. In Colombo there are some churches who conduct the services in English. Although people all over the world celebrate the same event, the birth of Jesus, the ceremonies, songs and atmospheres may differ. In Sri Lanka they have a complete different repertoire of Christmas songs and they have no organs. In the Christmas period many malls and department stores decorate their shop windows and the interiors. Christmas itself is usually celebrated as a family festival with a nice lunch or dinner with guests.


Perahera, a cultural festival

 kandy perahara Gatabaruwa Perahara poson perahara

Perahera is another word for procession. It is an annual cultural festival in Sri Lanka, also celebrated on the main Poya days, especially those, dedicated to Lord Buddha and powerful Gods who reside in specific areas, for example:

Dondra Perahara


Vishnu God

Gatabaruwa Perahara


Rajjuma Bandara God

Kandy Essala Perahara 


in honour of the Tooth Relic (of the Buddha)

Poson Perahara


to celebrate the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

The performance takes place in a long colourful procession on the streets of a particular place and consists of dancers, acrobats, drummers, torch bearers and several dressed-up elephants.

After the harvesting period some Peraharas are also being organized or to ask for rain because of a severe drought.


A lot of symbolic is shown in a Perahara, referring to many things in nature, such as:

whip crackers


thunder as it is coming now



thunder as it is going to rain

torch bearers


to express lightening



symbolizing dark clouds

Perahara’s are held with the help of the devotees, whereas in the past the kings played an important role in the organization of Perahera’s; this role has now been taken over by Buddhist organizations, temples and community centres.