Sri Lanka may be a small island but there’s nothing it loves more than a big celebration. And with many different religious and ethnicities, it seems like Sri Lanka is always celebrating something. The majority of the population is Buddhist, with approximately 70 per cent of the population following Buddhism, while there are also sizeable Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities.
Many of the festivals revolve around the Buddhist lunar calendar and each one has a different significance to the locals. One of the benefits of having a local leader is they have lived these festivals firsthand all their lives and can provide real insight into the traditions and activities that take place.
Here’s a summary of what to expect throughout the year in Sri Lanka.
Every month, on the full moon, Sri Lanka celebrates a public holiday. These are Buddhist celebrations and each one marks an important moment in Buddhism, either related to Sri Lankan Buddhism or the religion generally. Different celebrations take place all over the country depending on the Poya, but these are some of the biggest:
Duruthu Poya day
Duruthu Poya marks the Buddha's first visit to Sri Lanka and is celebrated in January.
The Buddhist festival of lights takes place on the May full moon and is a celebration of Buddha. It’s the day he was supposedly born, the day he found enlightenment, and the day he died – in different years, obviously. Paper lanterns are hung outside homes and businesses and floating lanterns are placed on lakes, culminating in a beautiful celebration. The Buddhist temples are especially busy during Vesak Poya.
After Vesak Poya, Poson Poya is the most important Buddhist holiday in Sri Lanka. It celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, brought to the island by a monk named Mahinda. Pilgrims travel to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital, because this is where Mahinda supposedly converted King Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism.
Other festivals in Sri Lanka
A three-day festival marking the end of winter solstice, celebrated by the Tamil community. The traditional ‘pongal’ dish is prepared and dedicated to the Sun god, Surya. It’s made using rice, which is boiled in milk and cane sugar, sometimes with extra ingredients like cashews and cardamom.
Celebrated on 4 February every year, Sri Lanka’s National Day celebrates the country’s independence from the British Empire. The whole country celebrates with performances and parades, as well as a speech from the president.
Maha Shivaratri Day
This Hindu festival is held in February or March, depending on the year, and marks the Great Night of Shiva – when the Lord Shiva performed the heavenly dance of creation. It’s celebrated with all night vigils, chanting and the making of offerings to Shiva.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s
This celebration marks the beginning of the new Lunar year. As with most celebrations in Sri Lanka, the island is full of colour, and the locals get together to share food, play games and take part in rituals of good will. One of the most entertaining games is ‘lissana gaha nageema’, in which locals attempt to climb a greasy pole to claim the money or flag on top.