Holy Festivals of Sri Lanka

Posted by Crooked Compass

Sri Lanka's fascinating history and unique geographical position have allowed it to become a nation that is home to a wide range of religious beliefs and celebrations. Whilst the majority of the Sri Lankan population is made up of  Theravada Buddhists (70.9%) there are still large segments of the population that hold other religious beliefs; Hindu (12.6%), Muslim (mainly Sunni, 9.7%) and Roman Catholic (6.1%).  Whilst minority Hindu groups have fought for independence in previous decades, thanks to the efforts of the Norwegian government and support from the wider Sri Lankan population, a truce was negotiated in 2009 that has brought peace to the country.

Now almost a decade free from conflict, secrets of the wonderful culture of the Sri Lankan people is slowly emerging into Western society. Come with us as we explore some of Sri Lanka's most unusual Holy Festivals.

Young Sri Lankan Monks
Young Sri Lankan Monks

1. Duruthu Poya

Duruthu Poya is a very important date on the Buddhist Sri Lankan calendar as it marks the day of Gautama Buddha’s momentous first visit to Sri Lanka nearly 25 centuries ago. Duruthu Poya occurs annually when the first full moon of the year shines it light over the island nation, indicating to all Buddhist Sri Lankan's to cease business activities for the day and begin a full day of mediation and meritorious deeds.

Visiting Sri Lanka only nine months after achieving Enlightenment, the reasoning behind his historic visit was to end violence and restore peace between the two main tribes of Yakkhas and Nagas. As Buddha arrived in front of a gathering army of Yakkas, legends states he radiated a halo of rainbow-hued light from his body, scaring the locals into think he was an invader and encouraging their soldiers to take up arms. It was through his supreme supernatural powers that peace was brought to the island nation.

Sri Lanka holy festival
Buddha arrives in Sri Lanka on the full moon

2. Nullar Festival

The annual Nallur Festival takes place in the Jaffna District in northern Sri Lanka at the Nallur Kandaswamy temple. The festival lasts for 25 days, typically starting near the end of July and is devoted to the Hindu god of war Murugan (also known as Kartikeya). the annual ceremony begins with the Kodiyetram (flag hoisting ceremony), which is brought to the temple by a small chariot from a families home whose ancestors have taken care of it for centuries. People come to witness the various rituals and traditions that take place across the month long festival.

Each day, a different chariot is used to carry the statue of Murugan  around the temple. the chariots are often elaborate in decoration and magnificent in style, chariots include; a silver peacock, a silver swan, a cobra, a green peacock and a golden wonder which is formed out of bodies of gods and demons (known as the Kailasa Vahanam).

The Kailasa Vahanam

3. Vesak Poya - Festival of Lights

One of the most significant days to Buddhist Sri Lankan's is Vesak Poya, commemorating three important milestones in the life of Lord Buddha. Vesak Poya celebrates the birth, enlightenment and Parinirvana (Nirvana after death) of Lord Buddha.

During Vesak Poya, Buddhists across the nation fill the temples as they pay homage to this great event. Pilgrims young and old alike offer flowers, light lamps and burn incense as they engage in a full day of meditation. In the weeks leading up to Vesak Poya, electrically lit Vesak pandols called thoranas are erected island wide at public places, being mostly sponsored by donors, religious societies and welfare groups. Each pandol illustrates a story from the 550 Past Life Stories of the Buddha.

A Vesak Pandol

4. Kandy Esala Perahera 

Taking place in July and August every year is Kandy Esala Perahera, also known as the festival of the Tooth, an unusual festival that pays home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. The festival takes place in the ancient city of Kandy, which was once home to ancient palace of the Kindom Of Kandy. The festival involves a procession with many traditional local dances such as fire-dances & whip-dances. During the parade, it is common to see elephants adorned in lavish garments taking part as the carry the sacred relic around the city

The origins of the festival stem from the 4th century, when the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha was brought Sri Lanka from India by Princess Hemamala & Prince Dantha. The tooth itself was collected by Buddha's disciple, Khema, following Buddha's death and cremation in the 5th century BC - eight centuries before it was brought to Sri Lanka!

Kandy Esala Perahera
An elephant carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic

5. Tamil Thai Pongal Day

The Tamil are an ethnic group originating from southern India, before splitting up and migrating to the island of Sri Lanka in the 2nd century BC. Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly Hindu, with a small portion of the population being Roman Catholic (due to the Portuguese conquest of coast Sri Lanka in the 17th century). Tamils living in Sri Lanka today have held onto their proud heritage, celebrating Thai Pongal in the same style as their Indian ancestors. Tamil Thai Pongal is a two day Hindu festival that celebrates the start of the rice harvesting season in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, Rice is both a staple food and an inheritance in which deities figure prominently.

The festival is celebrated annually in January in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Pongal festival is celebrated to honour sun god Surya by the Hindus to thank him for blessing the harvest.  On the second day of the festival, the first harvested grains of the season are cooked with fresh milk in a clay pot. The milk rice is called “paal sooru” in Tamil, and traditions says if the pot boils over the brim it indicates an abundant harvest in the year to come.

Devotee's preparing a 'paal sooru'

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