Major festivals in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's colourful festivals will transport you to a rich world of culture and rituals unique to the island
By Time Out editors |

Sri Lanka’s festivals offer visitors the chance to experience the diverse cultures that shape the island's identity. The festivals are an integral part of life here, from the Buddhist festival of Kandy Esala Perahera – one of the country’s grandest traditional festivals – to the Catholic Madhu Church Festival, and from the Hindu Vel festival to the series of events marking Ramdan; the country’s major religions are all represented here.

If you happen to be visiting Sri Lanka when any one of these spectacular festivals is due to take place, make sure to leave some space in your itinerary to witness something a little out of the ordinary.

Pilgrimage to Sri Pada
dhannush de costa
Things to do, Festivals


January marks many significant festivals including the Feast of St Sebastian’s Cathedral, Mannar, Thai Pongal, Duruthu Maha Perahera and Pilgrimage to Sri Pada.

Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya
©BT Image
Things to do, Festivals

Resplendent Duruthu Perahera

Every January, the streets of Kelaniya resound with the cracking of whips, rhythmic sounds of traditional Sri Lankan drumming and the reverent cries of sadhu, sadhu as the Duruthu Perahera takes to the streets. It is proceeded by two smaller processions Udamaluwe Perahera and the Dathu Perahera respectively held on January 17 and January 18. On January 19, the spectacular Maha Perahera or Randoli Perahera will leave the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. Throngs of devotees and spectators eagerly line the streets and anticipates the first thunder-like crack of the whip that heralds the oncoming perahera. Then the shimmering fireballs interrupt the gathering darkness. As the hewisi bands serenade the devotees, standard bearers carry the provincial flags of Sri Lanka. Following them, the Peramuna Rala, a Kanyan chieftan perched atop a caparisoned elephant makes his way through the streets. In his wake troupes of dancers perform traditional Sri Lankan dances. In between different segments of the procession, richly adorned elephants elegantly step in tune to the music. The dazzling display pays homage to the Buddha, and is accompanied by the pageants for the Gods Vishnu, Vibhishana and Kataragama the guardian deities of the temple. A reverent silence spreads over the gathered crowds as the majestic temple tusker comes into view. Borne on its howdah, is the beautifully adorned casket of the sacred relics of the Buddha. As the gentle elephant passes, the devotees raise claspe

Things to do, Festivals

Thai Pongal 'The Festival of Harvest'

Celebrated by millions of Hindus across the world, Thai Pongal reinforces the custom of thanksgiving to the sun god. ON the festival day, even before the break of dawn, Hindus spruce up and decorate their abodes with fresh banana leaves and garlands of mango leaves or Mavillai Thoranam. A makeshift hearth is arranged in front of the house to prepare the ‘Pongal’, a delectable dish prepared using a range of lavish ingredients including red/white raw rice, milk, jaggery, mung dhal, cashew, raisins, and ghee. Signifying prosperity and fortune, two freshly cut sugarcane plants are also positioned on either side of the hearth. The floor is adorned with vibrant murals a unique traditional art called Kolam. As the rising sun signals the dawn of the auspicious hour, from the oldest of the family to the youngest, all gather around the makeshift hearth to witness the milk bubbling from the pot. The delightful sight of creamy milk overflowing the pot heralds good fortune drawing heartwarming cries of ‘pongalo pongal’, meaning ‘overflowing’ abundance. Afterwards, the delicious pongal rice is cooked and the first portion dedicated to the Sun God is kept within the Kolam as an offering of great reverence. Families visit temples to pay homage to the divinity and to seek their blessings in order to thrive in the forth-coming cultivation season as well. Pongal rice and sweetmeats are shared among relatives as a way of strengthening relationships and inculcating new bonds.

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