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A Quick Guide to Vesak in Colombo, Sri Lanka for Non-Buddhists

By December 8, 2018May 28th, 202119 Comments

Happy Vesak Day! Buddhist festivals often have a soundtrack. There’s always music wafting through the air, offering an other-worldly ambiance to accompany you through the experience. No matter where I turned on the hot, humid night, there was a murmur of chanting and a gentle music, which pulsed along with twinkling strings of lights that lined the streets.

The Vesak rituals are celebrated throughout Buddhist countries, with one of the biggest being in the capital city of Sri Lanka. It’s not something many tourists experience, but guests and non-Buddhists are more than welcome to participate.

Just a reminder – I am by no means an expert, but simply want to offer my personal experience. Yours can be completely different, and of course even more different than Buddhists who live in Sri Lanka. As always, do your research before participating in any cultural or religious festival to make sure you are respectful and there as a humble observer.

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What Does Vesak Mean?

Very basically, the Vesak festival (or Vesākha Day) celebrates Buddha’s birthday! It’s important to Buddhists all over the world. The event happens once a year with the dates varying due to location, but usually in April and May. Some of the most famous gatherings happen in Sri Lanka and India, where there are the biggest Buddhist populations. While these ceremonies have been happening for centuries, it was only officially recognized in 1950 by the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

Countries that celebrate Vesak include Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Philippines, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam! Some festivities include giant parades, flower arrangements, dancing, and lantern releases. You can say Happy Vesak Day to Buddhists and even Hindus who often participate in all the fun.

What Happens at Vesak?

As an outsider, it took a second to get my bearings during Vesak. I first tried a tuk-tuk from the hotel to drive around, but the crowd was too thick. The front desk had pointed out the local newspaper which had a map of where the main displays would be, so I hopped out of the tuk-tuk and started in by foot. There were loads of people, wearing white. The mood was calm and celebratory, with lots of wandering about or standing in line for offerings and receiving gifts.

Where to See Vesak Lanterns

Even before I hit the main event, it was fun to walk from road-to-road lined by paper lanterns. Businesses and residences alike take part in this luminaries-like tradition that brings good luck. Paper lanterns with dangling tissues brush passersby, boasting lots of white and primary colors. You’re sure to see these in most parts of downtown Colombo during Vesak.

Alongside the strings of colorful lanterns are installations of spinning, blinking lights on display. They almost look like giant dioramas and are mostly made of sturdy paper or cardboard. Neighborhoods, clubs, and families will compete against each other for the most beautiful display and will be awarded prizes and ribbons for the best creativity. Before making it to the ‘main stage’, there are streets lined with these boxed in displays you can walk past and inspect to find the most beautiful. I enjoyed the ones that were white with intricate cut-outs, like lace.

Where to See Giant Pandals at Vesak

The real draw to Vesak is the massive stage-like effigies of Buddha’s life. They’re called pandals, or throanas. They almost look like illuminated cartoon timelines that spin and blink along with the pulsing music in Sri Lankan pumped though street speakers. It reminded me of Feria in Spain, where temporary lit displays offer a carnival-like feel to the celebrations. In Colombo, there are several of these pandals, and most hotels are happy to point out their locations. Some are busier than others. The giant Buddha story installations are also surrounded by the paper lanterns, strings of fairy lights, big Buddha statues and food carts.

Nearby these large stages are vendors – but, none of them are charging for their wares during this happy Vesak day and evening. Children and adults were clutching small ice-cream cones from one stall, while others received holy water and oil from a massive decorated truck. A big tradition in Buddhism is paying it forward, giving back and not being attached to the material, as so giving food and gifts away is totally free during this time of year.

Have a Happy Vesak Day! Etiquette

I personally erred on the side of caution as a guest to the event. I did not take any photos of people close-up without permission and did my best not to disturb any ceremonies happening on the street or in temples. No one was using smartphones or taking photos really – mostly everyone was just enjoying the moment. Also, I didn’t take any offerings or food – I’m sure you can, but as a non-practitioner of Buddhism I didn’t think it was appropriate. That’s not to say I didn’t overall feel welcome to observe and attend the festivities though. No one really gave me a second look and I felt safe to move about the throngs of people.

happy vesak day selfie eileen cotter wright cololmbo sri lanka

Vesak Attire

Most practicing Buddhists will be wearing white during the festival. You are welcome to wear white skirts, pants, shirts, and tops as well. Due to the heat, many people on the streets will be wearing tank tops or shorter dresses. However, if you plan to go into a temple, legs must be fully covered as well as shoulders – for both men and women. Shoes also need to be removed. Many if not all temples will have sheets for both sexes that tie around your waist to mimic a long short or cover-up if you forget to cover up. I find it easier to dress for code without complication. If staying in the streets though, feel free to wear whatever you’d like.

If you’re serious about experiencing everything Vesak has to offer, you could hire a local guide that can translate. I wasn’t sure what all the music meant, the symbolism and where I should go to see the best installations. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth taking an enjoyable walk for several hours, even without a guide. Have a Happy Vesak Day!

Have you gone to any celebrations while traveling? Do you like festivals when you are in a new place? How about spiritual or religious ones?

happy vesak day in colombo sri lanka

Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Instagram @Pure_Wander.

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