In here we show you top 10 most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka embodies the essence of vibrant festivities, where people passionately celebrate various facets of life. To sustain this year-round enthusiasm, it’s worth noting that the Sri Lankan calendar boasts an impressive count of 25 public holidays.
Below, you will discover the most prominent festivals in Sri Lanka that deserve your attention:
Table of Contents
- 10. Thai Pongal
- 09. Nallur Festival
- 08. Duruthu Perahera
- 07. Deepavali Festival
- 06. Vel Festival
- 05. Kataragama Festival
- 04. Kandy Esala Poya Perahera Festival
- 03. Poson Festival
- 02. Vesak Festival
- 01. Sinhala and Tamil New Year Festival
10. Thai Pongal
Date: Mid of January
Where: Throughout the island
One of the most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka is Thai Pongal. Celebrated primarily by the Tamil community, Thai Pongal is a harvest festival that holds significant importance in the Tamil calendar. It takes place on the first day of the tenth month, Thai, and is a time to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest.
Rice, being the staple food in Sri Lanka, plays a central role in Thai Pongal celebrations. The festival marks the beginning of the harvesting season, and farmers celebrate the abundance of their fields. It is a joyous occasion that brings together families and communities to participate in various traditions and festivities.
Thai Pongal spans four days, each with its own unique customs and rituals. The first day, known as Bhogi Pandigai, is dedicated to cleansing and purification. People clean their houses thoroughly and discard old and unwanted belongings. In preparation for the festival, colorful Kolams or Rangolis, intricate geometric patterns, are drawn in front of the houses using rice paste or powder. These vibrant designs symbolize prosperity and welcome the deities into the homes.
The second day is Thai Pongal itself, which is the most important day of the festival. People wake up early in the morning and prepare a special dish called Pongal. It is a sweet dish made of newly harvested rice, cooked in milk and jaggery, along with ingredients like cardamom, cashews, and raisins. The dish is traditionally prepared outdoors in clay pots, and as the rice boils and overflows, it is considered an auspicious sign of prosperity.
During Thai Pongal, families come together to offer prayers and thanks to the Sun God, Surya, for his blessings on the harvest. They gather around a decorated Pongal pot and perform a ritual known as “Pongal Vazhthu.” This involves boiling the freshly harvested rice and allowing it to overflow from the pot while chanting prayers and expressing gratitude. It is a joyful and festive moment that signifies abundance and good fortune.
The third day is known as Mattu Pongal, dedicated to honoring cattle. Cattle play a crucial role in agriculture, and farmers decorate their cattle with garlands and paint their horns in vibrant colors. Special ceremonies are conducted to pay respect to these animals for their contribution to farming and the overall prosperity of the community.
The fourth and final day is called Kaanum Pongal, which is a day of leisure and relaxation. Families visit relatives and friends, exchange gifts, and enjoy various activities together. It is a time to bond and strengthen relationships.
Throughout the four days of Thai Pongal, people indulge in a variety of delicious traditional sweets and savories. These include dishes like vadai, murukku, payasam, and sugarcane, which are shared among family members, friends, and neighbors. The festival creates a vibrant atmosphere filled with joy, togetherness, and the celebration of the harvest.
Thai Pongal is not only a celebration of the agricultural abundance but also a significant cultural event that highlights the deep-rooted traditions and values of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. It brings people together, promotes unity, and showcases the rich cultural heritage of the country
09. Nallur Festival
Date: Full moon in January
One of the most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka is the Nallur Festival. It is a grand occasion that takes place in the town of Nallur, near Jaffna, and is celebrated as a tribute to Lord Murugan, also known as Skanda or Subramanya. The Nallur Festival is a significant religious and cultural event for the Tamil community and attracts devotees from all over the country.
The Nallur Festival spans an impressive 25 days, making it one of the longest festivals in Sri Lanka. It is a time of immense devotion, vibrant processions, and spiritual ceremonies. The focal point of the festival is the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Murugan.
During the festival, the temple premises are adorned with colorful decorations and illuminated with lights. Devotees gather in large numbers, dressed in traditional attire, to participate in the festivities. The main highlight of the Nallur Festival is the procession of the deity of Lord Murugan.
The deity is seated on a magnificent silver throne and carried through the streets in a massive chariot. Devotees, with great fervor and devotion, chant “Aro Hara,” which is an invocation to Lord Murugan. The chariot procession is a mesmerizing sight as it moves through the town, accompanied by the rhythmic beats of traditional drums and music. The procession is a way to showcase the devotion of the people and to seek the blessings of Lord Murugan.
In addition to the grand chariot procession, the Nallur Festival features various special ceremonies and poojas (religious rituals). These ceremonies take place within the temple premises and are conducted by a team of skilled priests. The rituals are performed according to the ancient scriptures and traditions, aiming to invoke the blessings of Lord Murugan and seek spiritual purification.
The Nallur Festival is not only a religious event but also a cultural extravaganza. It provides a platform for showcasing traditional music, dance, and art forms. Cultural performances, such as Bharatanatyam (classical dance), Tamil folk dances, and music concerts, are held during the festival. These performances add a vibrant and celebratory atmosphere to the event and offer visitors a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the Tamil community.
The Nallur Festival serves as a significant occasion for the Tamil community to come together, strengthen their faith, and celebrate their cultural identity. It fosters a sense of unity, devotion, and spiritual awakening among the devotees. The festival also attracts tourists from different parts of the world who are eager to witness the grandeur and spiritual aura of the Nallur Festival.
08. Duruthu Perahera
Date: Full moon in January
One of the most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka is the Duruthu Perahera, also known as the Kelani Perahera. This grand temple procession is held annually to commemorate Lord Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka, which took place approximately 2500 years ago. The Duruthu Perahera takes place during the month of Duruthu (January) before the full moon and is held at the Kelaniya temple in Colombo.
The Duruthu Perahera spans three days, with the grandest procession known as the Randoli Perahera taking place on the final day. The procession is a vibrant display of cultural and religious fervor, featuring a multitude of participants, including drummers, dancers, elephants, and acrobats.
The first day of the Duruthu Perahera is referred to as the Uda Maluwe Perahera, which is a relatively smaller procession compared to the grand finale. However, even on this day, the atmosphere is filled with excitement and devotion as participants showcase their skills and pay homage to Lord Buddha.
The Randoli Perahera, held on the last day, is the main highlight of the Duruthu Perahera. The procession is a magnificent spectacle that captivates the audience with its grandeur and cultural significance. The streets come alive with the rhythmic beats of drums, the enchanting melodies of traditional music, and the mesmerizing performances of dancers adorned in elaborate costumes.
One of the most striking elements of the Duruthu Perahera is the presence of beautifully decorated elephants. These majestic creatures, adorned with vibrant garments and ornate accessories, carry sacred relics and statues of Lord Buddha during the procession. The sight of these adorned elephants, accompanied by devotees and religious dignitaries, creates an aura of reverence and awe.
The Duruthu Perahera also showcases various traditional art forms, including traditional dances and acrobatic performances. Dancers adorned in colorful costumes gracefully move to the rhythms of traditional music, adding an element of grace and beauty to the procession. Acrobats display their skills and agility, captivating the spectators with their daring stunts and performances.
The festival draws a large number of locals and tourists alike, who come to witness the splendor of the Duruthu Perahera. The procession not only showcases Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage but also serves as a significant religious event for Buddhists in the country. It provides an opportunity for devotees to express their faith, seek blessings, and engage in acts of merit.
The Duruthu Perahera is a time when the community comes together to celebrate their shared history and cultural traditions. It promotes a sense of unity, harmony, and spiritual devotion among the participants and spectators. The festival serves as a reminder of Sri Lanka’s deep-rooted Buddhist heritage and acts as a symbol of national and cultural pride.
07. Deepavali Festival
Date: October or November
Where: Throughout the island
One of the most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka is Deepavali, also known as Diwali or the Festival of Lights. Deepavali holds immense significance for the Hindu community in Sri Lanka and is celebrated with great splendor and enthusiasm. While it is a public holiday, it is predominantly observed by the Sri Lankan Tamil community.
Deepavali is a festival that symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. It commemorates the epic tale of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after defeating the demon king Ravana. The festival is a time for people to illuminate their homes and surroundings, spreading joy and dispelling negativity.
The lighting of lamps, or diyas, is a central element of Deepavali. Homes are adorned with rows of oil lamps, creating a beautiful and radiant atmosphere. The illumination signifies the triumph of light, knowledge, and righteousness. The lighting of lamps is believed to invite the blessings of the deities, particularly the Goddess Lakshmi, who is associated with wealth and prosperity.
Deepavali is also marked by bursting firecrackers, adding to the festive spirit and creating a spectacle of lights and sounds. The vibrant colors and loud explosions symbolize the celebration and joyous nature of the festival. People of all ages participate in this tradition, creating an atmosphere of excitement and merriment.
The festival is a time for family and friends to come together, exchange gifts, and share joyous moments. People visit each other’s homes, offer prayers at Hindu temples, and seek blessings from the deities. It is customary to wear new clothes on Deepavali, signifying a fresh start and the importance of personal grooming and cleanliness.
Another significant aspect of Deepavali is the preparation and sharing of delicious meals and sweets. Families prepare a variety of traditional dishes, snacks, and desserts, which are shared with neighbors, relatives, and friends. This tradition fosters a sense of unity, generosity, and goodwill among the community.
Deepavali is not only a religious festival but also a time for cultural performances and artistic expressions. Traditional dances, music, and theatrical performances are showcased during the celebrations. These cultural displays add vibrancy and a sense of cultural identity to the festival.
06. Vel Festival
Date: July or August
One of the most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka is the Vel Festival. Rooted in the Hindu tradition, the Vel Festival is a vibrant celebration that showcases the triumph of good over evil through the veneration of the divine trident, or vel, of the Hindu war god Skanda, also known as Kartikeya and Murugan.
The Vel Festival has a rich history that dates back to 1874, and it holds great significance for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The festival typically takes place in the Pettah district of Colombo, starting from the Sea Street Temple and culminating at the temple in Wellawatta or Bambalapitiya.
The festival is characterized by a lively and colorful parade that fills the streets with excitement and devotion. Drummers and dancers, clad in vibrant costumes, move to the rhythmic beats of traditional music, creating an energetic and captivating atmosphere. The sound of chants and bells fills the air as devotees express their reverence and seek the blessings of the deity.
One of the notable aspects of the Vel Festival is the presence of adorned elephants. These majestic creatures, adorned with vibrant fabrics, intricate ornaments, and elaborate headdresses, form an integral part of the procession. The elephants, accompanied by their mahouts, add grandeur and magnificence to the festival, captivating the spectators with their regal presence.
As the procession moves through the streets, devotees carry replicas of the divine vel, symbolizing the power and protection of the deity. The vel is believed to be a powerful weapon that embodies the strength and courage of Skanda. The procession is a visual spectacle, drawing locals and tourists alike, who are captivated by the colorful displays, rhythmic movements, and spiritual ambiance.
The Vel Festival is not only a religious event but also an opportunity for the community to come together and celebrate their cultural heritage. It serves as a platform to showcase traditional music, dance, and artistic expressions. The festival provides a stage for local performers to demonstrate their skills and preserve the cultural traditions of the Tamil community.
Attending the Vel Festival is a fascinating experience for visitors, offering them a glimpse into Sri Lanka’s diverse religious and cultural tapestry. The festival is a celebration of devotion, unity, and the triumph of good over evil. It serves as a reminder of the rich religious traditions that have shaped the cultural fabric of the country.
05. Kataragama Festival
Date: July or August
Where: Kataragama town
One of the famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka is the Kataragama Festival, also known as the Kataragama Perehera. This festival takes place during the months of July and August, coinciding with the new moon in the Esala month. The Kataragama Festival is a significant event that draws thousands of devotees, both Hindus and Buddhists, many of whom embark on a pilgrimage to the sacred site of Kataragama.
The festival showcases a vibrant and enthusiastic atmosphere as devotees from various parts of the country, including those who make the pilgrimage on foot from distant regions like Jaffna, come together to celebrate. The devotion and festive spirit are palpable throughout the two-week-long Perahera (procession).
The Kataragama Festival features grand processions filled with musicians, lavishly adorned elephants, dancers, acrobats, and fire-eaters. These processions, accompanied by traditional music and drumming, create a captivating spectacle. The participants showcase their talents and skills, mesmerizing the spectators with their vibrant costumes and energetic performances.
A notable aspect of the Kataragama Festival is the act of walking on fire, a practice carried out by some devotees as a demonstration of their faith and devotion. This act is seen as a way to transcend physical limitations and connect with the divine. It is believed that the blessings of the deity, particularly Skanda, the son of Shiva, protect the devotees during this awe-inspiring act.
Devotees also offer garlands of red flowers to Skanda as a symbol of their devotion and gratitude. The red flowers hold significance in Hindu religious rituals and are believed to carry auspicious qualities. The act of offering these garlands is a form of devotion and a way to seek blessings and protection.
The Kataragama Festival is not only a religious event but also an opportunity for cultural exchange and unity. People from different backgrounds and faiths come together to witness and participate in the festivities, creating a sense of harmony and shared celebration. The festival serves as a platform to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka and the religious traditions that have shaped the country’s identity.
04. Kandy Esala Poya Perahera Festival
Date: Full moon of either July or August
The Kandy Esala Poya Perahera Festival, also known as the Festival of the Tooth, is a famous cultural event held in July and August in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka. This historical procession is an annual tribute to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which is enshrined at the Sri Dalada Maligawa, also known as the Temple of the Tooth.
The origins of this festival can be traced back to ancient times, believed to have begun in the 3rd century BC as a ritual to request rainfall from the gods. However, the Dalada Perahera, specifically dedicated to the veneration of the Sacred Tooth Relic, originated in the 4th century AD when the relic was brought to Sri Lanka from India.
The Kandy Esala Perahera spans ten days and features a series of vibrant and captivating events. The highlight of the festival is the grand procession that winds its way through the streets of Kandy. The procession showcases a magnificent display of cultural performances, including musicians, dancers, singers, acrobats, and other entertainers.
A significant aspect of the procession is the presence of caparisoned tuskers and elephants. These majestic creatures, adorned with elaborate garments and decorative ornaments, add grandeur and splendor to the spectacle. The procession is led by the majestic tusker carrying the casket that houses the Sacred Tooth Relic. The ornately decorated elephants and their skilled mahouts contribute to the awe-inspiring atmosphere of the festival.
Throughout the procession, the air is filled with the rhythmic beats of traditional drums and the melodious tunes of traditional music. Devotees and spectators gather along the route to witness the procession, offering their prayers and paying their respects to the Sacred Tooth Relic.
The Kandy Esala Poya Perahera Festival is not only a religious event but also a celebration of Sri Lankan culture and heritage. It provides a platform for showcasing traditional music, dance forms, and artistic expressions unique to the region. The festival brings together people from diverse backgrounds, fostering a sense of unity and pride in their cultural identity.
Attending the Kandy Esala Perahera is an unforgettable experience for both locals and tourists. The visual splendor, the enchanting music, and the fervent atmosphere leave a lasting impression on all who witness it. The festival serves as a reminder of the deep-rooted religious traditions and cultural richness of Sri Lanka.
03. Poson Festival
Where: Anuradhapura and Mihintale
The Poson Festival, also known as Poson Poya, is a famous cultural festival in Sri Lanka celebrated by Buddhists. This annual festival commemorates a significant event in Sri Lankan history—the arrival of Buddhism on the island in the 3rd century BC. Considered the most important Poya holiday of the year, Poson Festival holds great religious and cultural significance for Sri Lankan Buddhists.
Poson Festival takes place on the full moon day of Poson, which usually falls in June. It is the second most important Buddhist holiday in Sri Lanka, with Vesak being the most significant. On this day, temples across the island are adorned with vibrant decorations and filled with devotees and pilgrims who come to partake in religious ceremonies and pay homage to the teachings of the Buddha.
Devotees actively engage in religious activities during the Poson Festival. Many visit temples to offer flowers, light oil lamps, and perform meritorious deeds as acts of devotion. Some devotees may observe sil (precepts), engaging in practices such as abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and consuming intoxicants. Others participate in meditation sessions or engage in charitable activities, promoting kindness and compassion towards others.
Reading and reciting Buddhist scriptures, known as paritta, play a significant role during the Poson Festival. Devotees gather at temples or in their homes to read sacred texts and listen to sermons delivered by Buddhist monks. These teachings often revolve around the life, teachings, and enlightenment of the Buddha, providing spiritual guidance and inspiration to the faithful.
The Poson Festival is also an occasion for cultural celebrations. Throughout the festival, various cultural events and activities take place, showcasing Sri Lankan traditions and customs. Traditional music and dance performances, as well as cultural processions, add vibrancy and color to the festivities. Local communities organize dansalas, which are free food stalls, where devotees and visitors are provided with meals and refreshments as acts of generosity and kindness.
The Poson Festival serves as a time for reflection, renewal, and spiritual growth. It reinforces the values of compassion, peace, and harmony among individuals and communities. The festival provides an opportunity for Buddhists to deepen their understanding of Buddhist teachings and strengthen their spiritual connections.
02. Vesak Festival
Date: Full moon of May
Where: Celebrated throughout Sri Lanka but on a larger scale in Colombo
The Vesak Festival, also known as Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima, or Buddha Day, is one of the most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka celebrated by Buddhists. This annual festival commemorates significant events in the life of Gautama Buddha, including his birth, enlightenment, and death. Vesak is observed by Buddhists following the Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism, and Navayana traditions.
Vesak is a joyous occasion that brings together devotees and communities to honor and pay homage to the Buddha. The festival typically falls on the full moon day in the month of Vesak, which usually occurs in May. During this time, people dress in white attire as a symbol of purity and gather at temples and monasteries for religious activities.
One of the traditions associated with Vesak is the offering of kheer, a traditional rice pudding. According to legend, a woman named Sujata offered kheer to Gautama Buddha on his birthday, and since then, it has become a customary practice during the festival. Devotees prepare and distribute kheer to monks, fellow worshippers, and those in need as acts of generosity and compassion.
The dharmacakra, also known as the dharma wheel, is a significant symbol associated with Vesak. It represents the teachings and principles of the Buddha, symbolizing the Eightfold Path, which leads to the cessation of suffering. The dharma wheel is often prominently displayed in temples, homes, and decorations during the festival.
Throughout Vesak, devotees engage in various religious activities. These include participating in meditation sessions, listening to sermons and discourses by Buddhist monks, and offering prayers and floral tributes at temples. Many devotees also engage in acts of merit-making, such as releasing captive animals and birds as a symbol of liberation and compassion.
In addition to its religious significance, Vesak is also a time for cultural celebrations. Streets and homes are adorned with colorful decorations and intricate lanterns, creating a festive atmosphere. Cultural processions known as “pandols” are organized, featuring beautifully crafted floats depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. These processions are accompanied by traditional music, dance performances, and fireworks, adding to the vibrancy of the festivities.
Vesak is not only celebrated in Sri Lanka but also observed by Buddhists worldwide. It is a time for reflection, gratitude, and deepening one’s understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. The festival serves as a reminder of the importance of compassion, mindfulness, and the pursuit of inner peace.
01. Sinhala and Tamil New Year Festival
Date: 13th or 14th April
Where: Throughout Sri Lanka
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year Festival, also known as Aluth Awurudu, is a famous cultural festival celebrated in Sri Lanka. It takes place in the month of Bak (April) when the sun moves from the House of Pisces to the House of Aries according to the Sinhalese calendar. This festival holds great significance for both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the country.
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is a time for family-focused celebrations and cultural traditions. It is a season when people working in cities often return to their hometowns or villages to celebrate the new year with their extended families. The festival brings together loved ones to enjoy the festive spirit and strengthen family bonds.
One of the highlights of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is the music and games that are part of the celebrations. Traditional music, such as the playing of the Raban, a drum, by women in the community, fills the air with lively rhythms. This music adds a joyful and festive atmosphere to the festivities.
Fun games and activities also play an important role in the new year celebrations. These games are enjoyed by people of all ages and bring a sense of excitement and camaraderie. Traditional games such as tug-of-war, pillow fights, and climbing a greased pole are popular during this time. These games not only provide entertainment but also promote teamwork and friendly competition among participants.
Both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities have their unique rituals and customs associated with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. One of the key traditions is the preparation of special festive foods. Kiribath, a rice preparation cooked in milk, is a staple dish during this time. Kavum, an oil cake, and Kokis, a sweetmeat snack, are also commonly prepared and enjoyed. These traditional foods symbolize prosperity and abundance for the coming year.
The date of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is determined through astrological calculations. It is considered an auspicious time when people engage in religious activities and seek blessings for the year ahead. Many families visit temples to offer prayers and participate in religious ceremonies conducted by Buddhist and Hindu priests.
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year Festival is a significant cultural event that reflects the rich traditions and values of Sri Lankan society. It brings communities together, promotes cultural heritage, and reinforces the importance of family and togetherness. The festival is a time for joy, celebration, and renewal as Sri Lankans welcome the new year with hope, happiness, and unity.
In conclusion, Sri Lanka is rich in cultural festivals that reflect the diverse traditions and heritage of its people. From religious celebrations to harvest festivals, these events bring communities together, foster unity, and provide a glimpse into the vibrant tapestry of Sri Lankan culture.
Thai Pongal, Nallur Festival, Duruthu Perahera, Deepavali, Vel Festival, Kataragama Festival, Kandy Esala Poya Perahera, Poson Festival, Vesak Festival, and the Sinhala and Tamil New Year Festival are among the most famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka. Each festival has its unique customs, rituals, and significance, creating an atmosphere of excitement, devotion, and celebration.
These festivals not only showcase religious and cultural practices but also provide opportunities for people to strengthen family bonds, foster community spirit, and deepen their spiritual connection. From vibrant processions and traditional music to elaborate decorations and delicious food, these festivals offer a sensory feast for locals and visitors alike.
Moreover, Sri Lankan festivals highlight the values of compassion, unity, generosity, and gratitude. They promote the preservation of cultural traditions and reinforce the importance of communal harmony and understanding.
Attending these festivals allows one to immerse oneself in the rich tapestry of Sri Lankan culture, witness breathtaking performances, experience traditional customs, and gain a deeper understanding of the beliefs and values that shape the nation.
Whether it’s lighting lamps during Deepavali, witnessing the grandeur of Peraheras, or joining in the joyous celebrations of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, these cultural festivals in Sri Lanka are unforgettable experiences that leave a lasting impression on both locals and visitors.
In essence, the famous cultural festivals in Sri Lanka serve as a testament to the country’s cultural diversity, religious harmony, and deep-rooted traditions. They exemplify the spirit of unity, devotion, and celebration that is ingrained in the fabric of Sri Lankan society, making these festivals an integral part of the country’s cultural identity.