Vesak is a major Buddhist festival that is celebrated on two days of the Buddhist month of Vesakha.
|2020||7 May||Thu||Vesak Full Moon Poya Day|
|8 May||Fri||Day following Vesak Full Moon Poya Day|
|2021||26 May||Wed||Vesak Full Moon Poya Day|
|27 May||Thu||Day following Vesak Full Moon Poya Day|
Many other nations that observe Vesak, however, only keep the first full moon day. It has long been a Buddhist holy day, but in 1950, the World Fellowship of Buddhists met in Sri Lanka to officially declare it such.
Sometimes Vesak is called Buddha’s Birthday, and other times, it is called simply Buddha Day. The latter is probably more accurate since the day celebrates everything about Buddha, including his birth, enlightenment (called nirvana), and his death, rather than just his birth.
Since Buddhism assimilated into many cultures as it spread around the world from its beginning point in India, there are differences in how it is kept and in how Vesak is kept from country to country. We will look below primarily at traditions specific to Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, the coming of Vesak means all liquor stores and slaughter houses will be closed by government order, and no one is allowed to sell or buy alcoholic beverages or fresh meat. Although there are two main days of Vesak, the week following the first full moon is scene to much of the celebrating. The most obvious sign that Vesak has arrived are the bright digital light designs, called thoranas, that are put up in Colombo, Kandy, and other Sri Lankan cities. These displays tell a story from the famed Jataka Tales in visual form. A second major sign is the presence of colorful lanterns positioned along streets and near homes. You will also notice numerous stalls set up along roadways where free food and drink are given away, and you may hear singing groups as they go about town singing Buddhist religious songs called bhakti gee.
Buddhist worshipers will be seen going to local temples all over Sri Lanka, and some will travel to distant parts of the island to go to special temples where they offer flowers and incense. They also don white clothing and light lamps during the ceremonies. The monks will give special teaching sessions, devotees will remain at the temple all day to re-dedicate themselves to Buddha’s teachings and recite Buddhist verses. You will also notice the flag of Buddhism flying over each temple.
Some things for the Sri Lankan tourist to do during the days of Vesak include the following:
- Don’t miss the lights display in Colombo. People flood into the capital city from all over Sri Lanka to witness the massive, glittering thorana light displays. They also come because the lanterns, made of coloured paper and set on bamboo frames, are extremely numerous and well done. This stems largely from the fact that Colombo has a Vesak lantern contest with prizes given out. The sight is dazzling to say the least.
- Visit the Raja Maha Vihara Temple in the town of Kelaniya, less than 10 miles from Colombo. According to Buddhist tradition, Buddha himself visited and hallowed this temple during his final visit to Sri Lanka before his death. He is thought to have taught from a throne in the temple that was bedecked with gem stones. There is a statute of Buddha inside the temple, along with a number of paintings depicting various scenes from Buddha’s life and in the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Those paintings are also much treasured in Sri Lanka because they were painted by a local artist named Solias Mendis.
- Tour the National Museum of Kandy, located in the city of Kandy, which is on a lake in the very heart of the island. The museum contains thousands of artifacts from 18th, 19th, and 20th Century Sri Lanka, a period during which Kandy was (at times) the center of a powerful kingdom. The museum is part of the Royal Palace and is adjacent to the famous Temple of the Tooth, so there is much to explore at this location.
Should you be in Sri Lanka during Vesak, you will find it a colourful and festive time of year. It is the perfect time to learn about Sri Lankan culture and history and to learn of a land very different from your own.