Sri Lanka enjoys a host of public-holiday festivals and events during the year, most of which are based on Buddhist festivals, which revolve around the days of the full moon poya days.
On these occasions, Sri Lankan Buddhists traditionally make offerings at their local temple, and the most important festivals are celebrated with spectacular peraheras, or parades, with scores of fabulously dressed elephants accompanied by drummers and dancers.
The government also includes holidays for Islam, Hinduism and Christianity religions in the country’s list of public holidays every year.
People often travel on poya days, so transport, public places such as beaches, bathing places and accommodation tends to be busy—plus there is a ban on the sale of alcohol, although tourist hotels and guest houses will usually serve for foreign tourists.
Here is a list of the years major festivals and events, courtesy of the Trip To Sri Lanka website:
Duruthu Poya Marks the first of the Buddha’s three legendary visits to Sri Lanka, celebrated with a spectacular perahera at the Raja Maha Vihara in the Colombo suburb of Kelaniya. The Duruthu poya also marks the beginning of the three-month pilgrimage season to Adam’s Peak.
Significance of Duruthu Pasalosvaka Poya
Thai Pongol Hindu festival, honoring the sun god Surya, Indra (the bringer of rains), and the cow, in no particular order. It’s marked by ceremonies at Hindu temples, after which the first grains of the new paddy harvest are ceremonially cooked in milk in a special pot-the direction in which the liquid spills is thought to indicate good or bad luck in the coming year.
Navam Poya Commemorates the Buddha’s announcement, at the age of 80, of his own impending death, celebrated with a major perahera at the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo. Although this dates only from 1979, it has already become one of the island’s biggest festivals, featuring a procession of some fifty elephants.
Independence Day/ National Day primarily celebrates Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule on 4 February 1948, but is a day to remember Sri Lanka’s struggle for independence from various regimes. This is usually celebrated in Galle Face Green with parades, dances and games.
Maha Sivarathri (Feb/March) Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva, during which devotees perform a one-day fast and an all-night vigil.
Medin Poya Marks the Buddha’s first visit to his father’s palace following his enlightenment.
Bak Poya Celebrates the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka.
Sinhala and Hindu New Year (April 13-14) Coinciding with the start of the southwest monsoon and the end of the harvest season, the Buddhist and Hindu new year is a family festival during which presents are exchanged and the traditional kiribath (rice cooked with milk and cut into diamond shapes) is prepared.
Businesses close, rituals are performed based on Auspicious times (Avurudu Nakath) prepared by Astrologers, new clothes are worn and horoscopes are cast. Usually April 13 is the New Year’s Eve and April 14 is New Year’s Day.
Good Friday An Easter Passion play is performed on the island of Duwa, near Negombo.
May day or International Workers Day/ Labour day (1 May) The traditional May Day bank holiday. Main political parties hold rallies in Colombo and other parts of the island on this day.
Vesak Poya The most important of the Buddhist poyas, this is a three-fold celebration commemorating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, all three of which have happened on the day of the vesak poya.
In addition, the last of the Buddha’s three visits to Sri Lanka is claimed to have been on a Vesak poya day. Vesak gives prominence to “Amisa Pooja” (Vesak decorations, Dansala, Pandals) and “Prathipatthi Pooja” (Religious activities) by way of observing both rituals and precepts. Lamps are lit in front of houses, and platforms decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha (pandals) are erected throughout the country. Buses and cars are decorated with streamers, and free food (from rice and curry to Vesak sweetmeats) is distributed in roadside booths (dansala).
Meanwhile, devout Buddhists visit temples, meditate and fast. The day after the Vesak poya is also a public holiday.
Vesak also marks the end of the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage season.
Poson Poya Second only in importance to Vesak, poson poya commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, marked by mass pilgrimages to Anuradhapura, while thousands of white-robed pilgrims climb to the summit off Mihintale.
Id-Ul-Fitr (Ramazan Festival Day) – This is a Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan
Esala Poya Celebrates the Buddha’s first sermon and the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka. The lunar month of Esala is the season of festivals, marked by elephant peraheras at Kataragama, Dondra, Bellanwila (a southern Colombo suburb) and, most flamboyantly, the great Esala Perahera in Kandy (late July to early Aug), Sri Lanka’s most extravagant festival.
Esala Perahara Kataragama (late July/early August) Festival at Kataragama (held at the same time as the Esala perahera) during which devotees fire-walk and indulge in various forms of ritual self-mutilation, piercing their skin with hooks and weights, and driving skewers through their cheeks and tongues.
Nikini Poya Marks the retreat of the Bhikkhus following the Buddha’s death, commemorated by a period of fasting and of retreat for the monastic communities.
Vel (July/August) Colombo’s most important Hindu festival, dedicated to Skanda/ Kataragama and featuring two exuberant processions during which the god’s chariot and vel (spear) are carried across the city from the Pettah to temples in Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya.
During the Vel, the gilded chariot of Murugan (Skanda), the Hindu war god, is ceremonially hauled from the Kathiresan kovil to a kovil at Bambalapitiya.
Nallur Festival Held at the Nallur Temple in Jaffna in honour of Skanda, this is the biggest and longest festival in Sri Lanka, a mammoth 26-day affair, ending on Nikini poya.
Binara Poya Commemorates the Buddha’s journey to heaven to preach to his mother and other deities.
Id-Ul-Alha (Hajjhi Festival Day), is a Muslim festival marking the beginning of pilgrimages to Mecca.
Dussehra (Sep/ Oct) Also known as Durga Puja, this Hindu festival honours Durga and also commemorates the day of Rama’s victory over Ravana.
Vap Poya Marks the Buddha’s return to earth and the end of the Buddhist period of fasting.
Deepavali (late Oct/ early Nov) The Hindu Festival of Lights (equivalent to north India’s Diwali), commemorating the return from exile of Rama, hero of the Ramayana, with the lighting of lamps in Tamil households, symbolic of the triumph of good over evil, and the wearing of new clothes.
II Poya Commemorates the Buddha’s ordination of sixty disciples.
Unduvap Poya Celebrates the arrival of the Bo tree sapling in Anuradhapura, brought by Ashoka’s daughter, Sangamitta.
Milad-Un-Nabi (Holy Prophet’s Birthday)
Christmas (25 December)
Christian New Year’s Eve (31 December}.
Official Public Holidays in Sri Lanka
January 12 Duruthu Full Moon Poya Day
January 14 Tamil Thai Pongal Day
February 04 National Day
February 10 Navam Full Moon Poya Day
February 24 Mahasivarathri Day
March 12 Madin Full Moon Poya Day
April 10 Bak Full Moon Poya Day
April 13 Day prior to New Year Day
April 14 Sinhala & Tamil New Year Day
April 14 Good Friday
May 01 May Day
May 10 Vesak Full Moon Poya Day
May 11 Day Following Vesak Poya Day
June 8 Poson Full Moon Poya Day
June 26 Id-Ul-Fitr (Ramazan Festival Day)
July 8 Esala Full Moon Poya Day
August 7 Nikini Full Moon Poya Day
September 1 Id-Ul-Alha (Hadji Festival Day)
September 5 Binara Full Moon Poya Day
October 5 Vap Full Moon Poya Day
October 18 Deepavali Festival Day
November 3 Ill Full Moon Poya Day
December 1 Milad-Un-Nabi (Holy Prophet’s Birthday)
December 3 Unduvap Full Moon Poya Day
December 25 Christmas Day