Duruthu Perahera, January
Maha Sivarathri, March
Aurudu (New Year), April
Vesak Poya, May
Kandy Esala Perahera, August
At the peak of the tourist season when crowds are at their largest, many popular towns have special events such as the respected literary festival at Galle.
Held on the poya (full moon) day at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara in Colombo, and second in importance only to the huge Kandy perahera (procession), this festival celebrates the first of Buddha’s three visits to Sri Lanka.
Held in mid-January, this Hindu winter-harvest festival honours the sun god Surya. It is important to Tamils in Sri Lanka and South India. Look for the special sweet dish, pongal, which is made with rice, nuts and spices.
Galle Literary Festival
An annual event held in mid-January, this five-day festival (www.galleliteraryfestival.com) brings together renowned Asian and Western writers. It is well regarded and attracts big names. A parallel fringe festival covers current issues and other creative pursuits.
The tourist crowds continue strong, with wintering Europeans baking themselves silly on the beaches. This is a busy month for Sri Lankans, with an important national holiday.
Sri Lanka gained independence on 4 February 1948 and this day is commemorated every year with festivals, parades, fireworks, sporting events and more across the nation. In Colombo, motorcades shuffle politicians from one event to the next.
First celebrated in 1979, Navam Perahera is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest and most flamboyant peraheras. Held on the February poya, it starts from the Gangaramaya Temple and travels around Viharamahadevi Park and Beira Lake in Colombo.
This is an important month for many of Sri Lanka’s Buddhists. You’ll see them observing Maha Sivarathri in the Ancient Cities areas and the portions of the west coast where they are in the majority.
In late February or early March the Hindu festival of Maha Sivarathri commemorates the marriage of Shiva to Parvati with all-night vigils and more. It’s the most important day for Shaivites, who comprise the majority of Sri Lanka’s Hindus.
Although Christians comprise only 6% of Sri Lanka’s population, secularised versions of Christian holidays are popular. Don’t be surprised when you see an Easter bunny at the mall.
Aurudu (New Year)
New Year’s Eve (13 April) and New Year’s Day (14 April) are nonreligious holidays. There is a period of a few hours between the old and new year called the ‘neutral period’ (Nonagathe); all activities are meant to cease. Over the days before and after, buses and trains are jammed as people go to their home villages.
The Yala monsoon blows in for five months, bringing huge rains from the Indian Ocean that drench the Hill Country and the beach towns in the southwest.
This two-day holiday commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. Amid the festivities, the high point is the lighting of paper lanterns and displays of coloured lights outside every Buddhist home, shop and temple. Night-time Colombo is a riot of colours.
Muslims make up a small percentage of Sri Lanka’s population, but their prominence in commercial enterprises means that Muslim holidays are conspicuously observed. Islamic holidays move with the lunar calendar; in coming years, the annual Muslim fast takes place between the following dates: 15 May to 14 June 2018; 5 May to 4 June 2019.
Sri Lanka’s Buddhists barely have a chance to catch their breath after Vesak before another major religious event occurs – and they’ll want to catch their breath…
The Poson poya day celebrates the bringing of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda. In Anuradhapura there are festivities in the famous temples, while in nearby Mihintale thousands of white-clad pilgrims ascend the lung-busting 1843 steps to the topmost temple.
Id ul-Fitr is the traditional end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and this important holiday sees Muslims travelling to their home villages. Islamic holidays move with the lunar calendar; in coming years, Id ul-Fitr falls on the following dates: 14 June 2018 and 4 June 2019.
Light-bulb vendors do a huge business as Buddhists gear up for Esala Perahera, which begins at the end of the month. Light displays are an integral part of the Kandy festivities.
This festival is held in Colombo and Jaffna. In Colombo the gilded chariot of Murugan (Skanda), the god of war, is ceremonially hauled from Pettah to Bambalapitiya. In Jaffna the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil has a 25-day festival.
Another important Hindu festival is held at Kataragama, where devotees put themselves through a whole gamut of ritual masochism. It commemorates the triumph of the six-faced, 12-armed war god Skanda over demons here.
This day celebrates Buddha's first sermon as well as the arrival of the tooth relic in Sri Lanka. This latter milestone is why the ceremonies in Kandy – home of the relic – are especially vibrant and intense.
The Kandy Esala Perahera is important, but smaller versions are held across Sri Lanka. Many celebrations feature dancers and other performers such as stilt-walkers who practise all year.
Kandy Esala Perahera
The Kandy Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka’s most spectacular and prominent festival, is the climax of 10 days and nights of celebrations during the month of Esala. This great procession honours the sacred tooth relic of Kandy and starts in late July.
Jaffna’s Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is the focus of an enormous and spectacular Hindu festival over 25 days in July and August, which climaxes on day 24 with parades of juggernaut floats and gruesome displays of self-mutilation by entranced devotees.
The main tourist season comes to an end as the northern hemisphere summer ends. It's a good time to enjoy a less-crowded Sri Lanka. On the east coast the waves are also abating.
A three-day Islamic festival and part of the Haj or the pilgrimage to Mecca. It recalls Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Islamic holidays move with the lunar calendar; in coming years, Eid ul-Adha falls on the following dates: 1 September 2017, 21 August 2018, 11 August 2019.
This is a month of meteorological mystery as it falls between the two great monsoon seasons. Rains and squalls can occur any place, any time. These are the final days of peak east-coast surfing.
The Hindu festival of lights takes place in late October or early November. Thousands of flickering oil lamps celebrate the triumph of good over evil and the return of Rama after his period of exile.
The second-to-last month of the year is a time of waiting: waiting for the tourist throngs, waiting for Christmas, waiting for the coming monsoon rains in the dry North and East.
European Film Festival
Sri Lanka’s nascent film industry gets its chance to show off during this festival (www.europeanfilmfestsrilanka.com) held at various venues in Colombo. It’s usually held in October.
Sri Lanka's second annual monsoon season, the Maha, brings huge rains to the northeast part of the island. This is not the time to plan a Jaffna beach holiday.
The pilgrimage season, when pilgrims of all faiths (and the odd tourist) climb Adam’s Peak near Ella, starts in December and lasts until mid-April. The trek begins shortly after midnight so that everyone can be in place for sunrise.
This full-moon day commemorates Sangamitta, who in 288 BC brought a cutting from the sacred Bodhi Tree in India to Anuradhapura. The resulting tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi, is considered the oldest living, human-planted tree in the world. The ceremonies attract thousands in their finest.
Outside of Sri Lanka’s Christian communities – mostly around Colombo – this day has become a popular secularised holiday. Ersatz versions of Western Christmas traditions can be found everywhere, from bone-thin Santas in strange masks to garish artificial trees.
Every poya (full moon) day is a holiday. Poya causes buses, trains and accommodation to fill up, especially if it falls on a Friday or Monday. No alcohol is supposed to be sold on poya days and many establishments close. Some hotels discreetly provide cold beer ‘under the table’.
Note that the official full-moon day for poya does not always coincide with the same designated full-moon day in Western calendars. Because of the religious time used to calculate the exact moment of full moon, the poya day may be a day earlier or later than that shown on regular lunar calendars.