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A Guide To Vesak in Sri Lanka

A Guide To Vesak in Sri Lanka

  • by Neville Epa

To start, what is Vesak? Vesak is a Buddhist holiday that commemorates the three most important milestones in Gautama Buddha’s life; his birth, enlightenment and parinirvana (nirvana after death). It is an important day for Buddhist’s all over the world (aside from Sri Lanka, it is also celebrated in India, Bhutan, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and more) and is generally celebrated in May during a full moon.

So, what can you expect during Vesak?

Well, every country celebrates differently, but one thing that they all have in common is that the day is marked with kindness - so even if you are visiting during this time, you can expect to feel the warmth of the people even more so during the festivities.

In Sri Lanka, all the temples will be adorned with flags and an abundance of flowers. Visitors will come by and lay floral gifts, incense sticks and candles by prominent statues. In some temples, you may hear chants being sung before dawn. You may also find small basins of water by a Buddha statue decorated with flowers - this allows people to pour water over the statue which signifies the cleansing of bad karma.

Many people also take this day to celebrate kindness - you will find that most partake in meritorious deeds and make a special effort to give back during this day out of pure kindness as opposed to fulfilling one’s own desires. People are also encouraged to refrain from harm of any kind, and therefore are encouraged to eat vegetarian food for this day.

How is Vesak celebrated?

Like most festivals, Vesak is looked forward to by many all over the country. One of the most striking features of Vesak is the lights that come along with it. Aside from temples and public places, homes are also illuminated with colorful lanterns, lights and oil lamps. Families often get together and make lanterns together to hang up during Vesak - it has become a tradition and a fun part of the festival for children and adults alike.

When you walk down the streets during Vesak, you will find that the cities come alive with intricate pandols which are large board-like structures that are lit up by hundreds of blinking lights. The pandols are decorated with illustrations of folk tales or Jataka Katha, telling stories of Buddha and sometimes, you even have a narration over a PA system which invites a large crowd in to witness the creation.

The Vesak walk or drive is always a fun activity to do with friends and family - aside from the pandols, you will also find the most intricate, creative lanterns that have been produced by the talented people of the island. In recent years, there have been private and public competitions organized to judge the best of the creations - one of the most significant features is the innovative use of natural materials such as twigs and leaves.

Another popular sight that you will find all over the island is dansals (alms-giving stalls). This is considered to be one of the biggest services during the holiday. The roadside stalls offer anything from snacks, to soft drinks, to ice cream to rice and curry - all free of charge to the people that come to visit. The food and drink is all prepared using the money and dry rations from donations that have been provided by devotees.

The decorations, the lights, the dansals - it is not to be missed during the Vesak holiday. If you are in Colombo, your best options to see the lights would be the Galle Road stretch and Sir James Pieris Mawatha, around the Beira Lake.


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