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11 Festivals Not to Miss in Sri Lanka

Charlotte Boswell

With four major religions, diverse culture and no less than 25 public holidays, the teardrop island of Sri Lanka is a land of vibrant festivals and colourful celebrations. Sri Lankan festivities don’t only showcase the culture and religions of the country, but also its intriguing history and beautiful traditions. Here is our list of Sri Lanka’s most exciting and intriguing festivals.

1. Vel Festival

Vel is Sri Lanka’s most important Hindu festival which reflects the religious and cultural heritage of Hinduism. The main celebrations take part in Colombo which attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the island. Dedicated to the war god Skandha, the festivities commemorate the victory over evil forces and worships his trident, the vel. During the main procession in Colombo which starts in Pettah and ends in Bambalapitiya, Skandha’s vel is placed in a dazzling gold chariot which is pulled by hundreds of devotees dressed simply in white with their faces smeared in holy ash. Accompanying the main event is hundreds of musicians, dancers, acrobats and elephants who snake through the various parts of the city. Together with the aroma of burning incense and jasmine flowers, the sound of drums, bells and chants and colourful performers parading the streets, the Vel festival is a spectacular and mesmerising sight.

When: July or August

Where: Colombo

Vel Festival Lights Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Charlene Chen

2. Nallur Festival

Running for 25 days, the enormous and spectacular Nallur Festival held in Jaffna rivals the grand celebrations of those at the Kandy Esala Perahera. The remarkable Kandaswamy Temple becomes the focus of the festival where thousands of followers congregate. Men dress in white sarongs, and women wear their best saris which transforms the temple complex into a sea of vibrant colours. Throughout Nallur there are many parades featuring juggernaut floats, performers and glistening thrones being carried around town. The 24th day of Nallur marks the Ther festivities whereby a huge chariot is pulled by hundreds of sarong-clad men and becomes the biggest night of the holiday. The following day, entranced devotees display self-mutilation by driving skewers through their bodies and make their way to the temple to the beat of drums and stopping periodically to dance. The enthusiasts who perform these self-mortifications believe that god will protect them from any pain.

When: August to September

Where: Jaffna

Nallur Festival Jaffna Temple Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Eleleleven

3. Sinhala and Tamil New Year

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year takes place at the beginning of the Lunar year, typically April, where the whole island comes alive with colourful festivities and a vibrant spirit. In the run up to the New Year celebrations, Sri Lankans will prepare by cleaning and decorating their houses, making traditional sweets and desserts and spending time with loved ones. During the actual day, locals will adorn their best outfits and take part in numerous activities such as blessing their children with herbal oils, sharing the first home-cooked feast of the year with family, setting off fireworks and playing games in the street. Sri Lankan New Year is an exciting time to be visiting the teardrop island, however, like many other holidays, many businesses close so families are able to celebrate together.

When: April

Where: across the island

Sinhala Tamil New Year Sri Lanka Festival

Photo credit: Amila Tennakoon

4. Vesak Poya

Observed and celebrated by Buddhists, this important religious and cultural festival begins on the full moon of the lunar month of Vesak, which is May on the Gregorian calendar. This week-long celebration, known as the Festival of Light, commemorates the Buddha’s birth, attainment of enlightenment and his passing into nirvana. During Vesak, the whole island and especially Colombo, becomes a kaleidoscope of coloured lights and lanterns, whilst devotees hand out food and drinks to passers-by and spend the days in their local temple practising religious activities such as praying and fasting. Amid the festivities, the highlight is the colourful lanterns and lights outside ever Buddhist home, temple and shop, it truly is a mesmerising sight. If in Sri Lanka in May, Vesak Poya is a wonderful and vibrant festival for visitors to experience, however the sale of alcohol and fresh meat is usually prohibited during the week period. 

When: May

Where: across the island, but Colombo’s celebrations are on a grand scale

Vesak Poya Festival Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Christiane Birr

5. Maha Shivarathri 

Commemorating the marriage of Shiva to Parvati, Maha Shivarathri is the most important celebration for Shaivites, who make up the majority of Sri Lanka’s Hindus. The make up of the festival includes prayers, all-night vigils and parties around homes and temples all over the island. At the beginning of each day, worshipers take a purification bath and after, carry water pots to their local temple in order to bathe Shiva statues in milk and honey and cover them in red vermillion to symbolise purifying the soul. Devotees will also fast all day during Maha Shivarathri. Meditation rituals are also an important part of the festival and some temples such as the Sri Kailshwarar in Colombo celebrate with music and dance performances, creating a vibrant and mesmerising commemoration. 

When: March

Where: across the island

Maha Shiva Festival Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Eleleleven

6. Kandy Esala Perahera

The Kandy Esala Perahera is a week-long festival which is considered one of the oldest and most extravagant of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist celebrations. This grand holiday observed in the month of Esala (July or August), is also known as the Festival of the Tooth and pays homage to the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, which is enshrined in the city’s revered temple. During this period, thousands of Sri Lankan’s flock to the central city of Kandy to watch and take part in the extravaganza. Throughout the festival, some 5,000 dancers, drummers, fire jugglers, musicians perform during various celebrations and processions who are all lavishly dressed wearing elaborate traditional costumes. Even elephants take part in the parade and are adorned with flamboyant garments and gems.With spectacular goings-on every day during the festival, the experience is unmissable if you are in Sri Lanka during this time. 

When: July or August

Where: Kandy

Kandy Esala Perahera Festival Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Indi Samarajive

7. Kataragama Festival

Held in the remote southern town of Kataragama, one of the holiest places on the island, this festival is of significant religious importance in Sri Lanka. Celebrated as the same time as Kandy’s Esala Perahera, Kataragama’s version may not be as famous, but it is still on the same grandeur and vibrant scale. Although the festivities at Kataragama during July or August are predominantly celebrated by Hindus, other groups from major Sri Lankan faiths such as Muslims and Veddas also attend. The pilgrims are there to fulfil their vows and seek divine guidance from Lord Kataragama and often indulge in rituals such as acts of self-mutilation such as skin piercing. As the festivities begin, locals and visitors can enjoy the energy and excitement of elephant parades, musicians, dancers, fire eaters and jugglers and acrobats who all perform to the rhythm of the chants and drums. 

When: July & August

Where: Kataragama

Kataragama Festival Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Amila Tennakoon

8. Pada Yatra Pilgrimage

Prior to the Kataragama Festival, thousands of devotees take part in the two-month Pada Yatra pilgrimage, otherwise known as The Long Walk to Kataragama. This traditional and challenging foot-pilgrim begins at the Jaffna Peninsula in the north, and the journey follows south down the beautiful east coast of Sri Lanka, through the spectacular Yala National Park and on to the holy Kataragama shrine in the jungle. The oldest annual pilgrimage in Sri Lanka, traditionally was made up of village worshipers, however now those taking part represent a fuller spectrum of society and religious groups. Sri Lankans from all different backgrounds join together to complete the incredible spiritual journey along diverse and beautiful landscapes in order to reach he sanctified Kataragama. 

When: June to July

Where: Kataragama

Pada Yatra Pilgrimage Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Arian Zwegers

9. Thai Pongal

Thai Pongal has been celebrated for over 1,000 years and is one of the most cherished of Tamil holidays. It starts on the first day of Thai on the traditional Tamil calendar, which usually falls in mid-January, and marks the start of the sun’s six-month journey northbound. This important harvest festival focuses on honouring the sun god ‘Surya’ as well as cattle, both which play an integral role in bringing a good harvest. Traditionally in India the festival runs over four days, however Sri Lankan’s tend to keep the festivities limited to two days. During the first day of Thai Pongal, families decorate their homes with banana leaves and colourful kolam patterns made with rice flour and boil rice in milk along with spices, nuts and raisins to share with locals. On the second day, the cattle that help farmers in their rice fields are honoured by being bathed, painted with coloured dyes and given beautiful garlands that hang around their neck and horns. 

When: January 

Where: across the country

Thai Pongal Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Lace + Bobble

10. Poson Poya

Holding both historic and religious significance, Poson Poya is an annual Buddhist festival which is celebrated island-wide in order to commemorate the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC.  Although festivities happen all over Sri Lanka, Mihintale provides the grandest affair. The Mihintale rock outcrop is believed to be the place where Buddhism was first introduced in Sri Lanka after a meeting between the Buddhist monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa took place. During the holiday, thousands of white-clothed pilgrims ascend the 1843 steps to the mountain peak temple to pray. Other activities during Poson Poya include lighting lanterns, cooking feasts and sharing with others and Buddhism teachings. There are also exciting celebrations in nearby Anuradhapura where the famous temples come alive with traditions festivities.

When: June

Where: Anuradhapura & Mihintale

Poson Poya Festival Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Mahesh Kularatne

11. Deepavali

The festival of lights is one of the most significant celebrations in the Hindu calendar and is observed by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The name Deepavali is the name given in Southern India and is known more commonly in the north and other areas of the world as Diwali. The festival celebrates Lord Rama’s defeat of Ravana which signifies the defeat of light over darkness, good over evil and hope over despair. During the festivities, thousands of flickering oil lamps outside houses and temples symbolise the victory and invite the blessings of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Traditionally families come together wearing new clothes whilst sharing a meal and exchanging gifts and other celebrations include spectacular firework displays, making homemade sweets and visiting local shrines and temples.

When: October

Where: across the island

Deepvali in Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Amila Tennakoon

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