Vesāk Festival, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Buddhist Festivals

Electric thoranas light up the Buddha’s stories during Vesāk

Vesāk (or Wesāk) is celebrated as a religious and cultural festival in Sri Lanka for a number of days. Also known as Buddha Purnima and informally called ‘Buddha’s Birthday’, Vesāk is a holy day observed traditionally by all Buddhists and commemorates the birth, enlightenment (nibbāna), and death (parinibbāna) of the Buddha.

The exact date of Vesāk varies according to the various lunar calendars used in different traditions. In Theravāda communities including Sri Lanka, it falls on Vesāk poya, the full moon day in the lunar month of Vesāk usually in the month of May.

The Festival of Light

Sri Lankan Buddhist lanterns

Vesāk lanterns celebrate Buddha’s Birthday

During this week-long festival in Sri Lanka, the selling of alcohol and fresh meat is usually prohibited. Celebrations include religious and alms-giving activities and electrically lit structures called thoranas are erected mainly in the larger cities in Sri Lanka. Each thorana illustrates a story from the Jataka Katha or the Past Life Stories of the Buddha.

In addition, colourful lanterns called Vesāk koodu are hung along streets and in front of homes. They signify the light of the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. Food stalls set up by Buddhist devotees called dansälas provide free food and drinks to passersby while others sing devotional songs. Masses of people from outlying towns and villages around the larger cities, visit the elaborate thoranas which recite their stories throughout the night. They wander around the cities for many nights, gazing at the handmade Vesāk lanterns hanging at every home, eating at the roadside dansälas and experiencing the festival.

Illuminating joy and helping others

Celebrating Vesāk also means making a special effort to bring happiness to the less fortunate. Buddhists will distribute gifts to various charitable homes throughout Sri Lanka. It is a time for great joy and happiness, expressed by concentrating on activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public viewing. The more devout Buddhists also provide refreshments and vegetarian food to followers who visit the temple to pay homage to the Enlightened One.