Also known as Buddha’s Birthday, Buddha Purnima and Buddha Day, is originally a Buddhist holiday celebrated as a religious and cultural festival once a year. It has now become a sort of Christmas type affair where seemingly everyone gets involved. The date of Vesak in Sri Lanka depends upon the Asian lunisolar calendar and is usually celebrated in the Vaisakha month. This often means it falls somewhere in the Gregorian Calendar month of May. Vesak is celebrated all throughout the South East of Asia and last for around a week. The dates do change from country to country so make sure you check before you book anything. During that week the sale of Alcohol is meant to be prohibited but we came across a few heavily intoxicated locals. During the week of Vesak it becomes increasingly hard to get things done. In Vesak week I was attempting to apply for my India visa in Colombo meanwhile trying to rent a tuk tuk. Read about how to rent a tuk tuk in Sri Lanka here. It wasn’t impossible to get these things done just a bit more inconvenient than it should have been.
The festival is to commemorate the birth of Buddha, the day he gained enlightenment (nirvāna) and the day he died (Parinirvāna). Buddism is over 2500 years old making it the oldest religion to date which makes Vesak a pretty big deal. In the week leading up to Vesak there is an air of excitement as people being to start hanging lights and paper lanterns called Vesak Kuudu all over the place(see picture below). These are to represent the light of Buddha, the Sangha and Dharma. Bunting is hung across streets and great big neon lit pandals and Buddha’s are set up all throughout the city by the government, donors, welfare groups and other religious societies. We were told that each one of these pandals illustrates a story from one of the 550 life stories of Buddha.
As a rule of thumb if a street is decorated like the photo above there will be some sort of free food/drink along the way.
My experience celebrating Vesak in Colombo.
What I found really impressive was the amount of free food and drink being given away. All over Colombo you will find stalls set up. They vary in size from being a small work bench handing out tea to great big marquees serving as 100 seater restaurants. These are all provided by different groups of people, the more elaborate food stands are often connected to a large government or commercial building.
Colombo has a huge influx of visitors during the Vesak week making it a lot harder to travel around. The buses do run till very late in the night but are totally jam-packed. We found that being foreign during vesak week will you get extra special treatment, people will be constantly calling you over to come and cut to the front of the lines. Most of the time we politely decline and join the back. There was one food tent that we didn’t really get the choice. One side was a 50 meter long queue and the other was apparently a VIP entrance. Whilst we were waiting like everyone else a very proud man who was over seeing the operation and had been doing so for over 25 years worth of Vesak’ insisted we entered through the VIP entrance. They made us feel extremely welcomed and it felt like the were genuinely interested in getting us involved. Overall I had a lot of fun and would really recommend trying to work it into your itinerary if you have time.