18 Cultural and Religious Festivals to Experience in Sri Lanka

1.  Kandy Esala Perahera – The festival of the sacred tooth relic

Image of Ceremonial elephants head during Esala Perahera
Ceremonial elephants head during Esala Perahera | Source:  Thomas Wyness/Shutterstock.com

The Kandy Esala Perahera celebration, held in the nation’s second largest city, is by far the most grand and colourful display of religion and culture in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Spanning over 10 days, this incredible Buddhist event is a melting pot of rituals and individual ceremonies that combine to form an intense, rich festival characterised by peraheras or parades. These parades, which are carried out to commemorate the Sacred Tooth Relic, are made up of long procession of traditional dancers, singers, whip-crackers, acrobats and elephants, all decoratively dressed in coloured cloth. This event really is a sight to behold.

Image of The Kandy Esala procession In Kandy
The Kandy Esala procession In Kandy | Source:  SamanWeeratunga/Shutterstock.com
Image of Udekki Players perform at the Esala Perahara in Kandy
Udekki Players perform at the Esala Perahara in Kandy | Source:  Thomas Wyness/Shutterstock.com
Image of Thammattam Players perform at the Esala Perahera Sri Lanka.
Thammattam Players perform at the Esala Perahera Sri Lanka. | Source: Thomas Wyness/Dreamstime.com
Image of Kandy Esala Perahera religious festival
Kandy Esala Perahera religious festival | Source:  SamanWeeratunga/Shutterstock.com
Image of The Kandy Esala procession In Kandy
The Kandy Esala procession In Kandy | Source:  SamanWeeratunga/Shutterstock.com
Image of The esala perahera at kandy in sri lanka
“.the most important buddhist festival in the world .it’s a very long holy parade of elephants, dancers and drummers.9/8/11 | Source: Danilo Mongiello/Dreamstime.com”

2. Vesak – The Buddhist Festival of Lights

Image of Burning candles in Thai buddhist temple sri lanka
Burning candles in Thai buddhist temple sri lanka | Source: Amstockphoto/Dreamstime.com

If there is one way to truly get a glimpse of life and culture in Sri Lanka it is to witness and take part in the Vesak Festival. Also known as Buddha Purnima or Buddha Day, Vesak festival is one of the biggest annual celebrations held in Sri Lanka. The two day affair commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha and is a momentous occasion for Buddhists worldwide. It is celebrated through a variety of rituals and activities entrenched in Sri Lankan culture. Vesak is a festival not to be missed.

Image of Buddhist Vesak Lantern art sri lanka
Buddhist Vesak Lantern art sri lanka | Source: Lalith Herath /Dreamstime.com

3. Sinhala Hindu New Year

Image of New year celebration
New year celebration | Source:  Dinesh Gamage/Shutterstock.com

You could be forgiven for thinking that New Years was on the 1st of January. In Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia, it is actually celebrated in mid April. Known as the Sinhala and Hindu New Years, Sri Lankans across the country come together to celebrate the occasion with festivities, family and copious amounts of delicious Sri Lankan food. It is a truly magical time to visit Sri Lanka to witness for yourself, this rich culture.

Image of Traditional Sinhala And Tamil New Year Sweets
Traditional Sinhala And Tamil New Year Sweets | Source:  SamanWeeratunga/Shutterstock.com
Image of Traditional Sri Lankan Sinhala And Tamil New Year Sweets
Traditional Sri Lankan Sinhala And Tamil New Year Sweets | Source:  SamanWeeratunga/Shutterstock.com
Image of Children Playing on Onchila During Sinhala and Tamil New Year Celebrations
Children Playing on Onchila During Sinhala and Tamil New Year Celebrations | Source: Maithreebhanu/Dreamstime.com

4. Kataragama Perahera Festival

Image of Kataragama Perahera religious festival
Kataragama Perahera religious festival | Source:  Shi_Kaiming/Shutterstock.com

The Kataragama festival is an extraordinary event of colour, energy and ritual and that takes place annually in the Sri Lankan town of Kataragama. Part and parcel of the much larger Esala Perahera in Kandy is it carried out to honour the god of war, Skanda. Made up of a series of peraheras, the festival is distinguished by processions of drummers, singers, dancers, whip-crackers, more dancers and elephants. It is also renown for its fire walking ceremonies. The Kataragama festival truly is a sight to behold and an experience not to be missed.

Image of Yak Beraya players perform at the Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka
Yak Beraya players perform at the Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka | Source: Thomas Wyness/Dreamstime.com
Image of Peacock statues main courtyard wall at the Kataragama
Peacock statues main courtyard wall at the Kataragama | Source:  Thomas Wyness/Shutterstock.com
Image of Peacock dancer performs at the Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka
peacock dancer performs at the Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka | Source: Thomas Wyness/Dreamstime.com
Image of Dressed ceremonial elephant Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka
Dressed ceremonial elephant Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka | Source: Thomas Wyness /Dreamstime.com
Image of Fire Ball Dancers perform during the Kataragama Festival
Fire Ball Dancers perform during the Kataragama Festival | Source:  Thomas Wyness/Shutterstock.com
Image of Band of female musicians including a drummer perform Kataragama Festival
The Kataragama Festival is a predominantly Hindu festival. | Source:  Thomas Wyness/Shutterstock.com
Image of dancers perform at the Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka
dancers perform at the Kataragama Festival in Sri Lanka | Source: Thomas Wyness/Dreamstime.com

5. Nallur Festival

Image of Hindu Kovil festival in Jaffna held on their New Year sri lanka
Hindu Kovil festival in Jaffna held on their New Year sri lanka | Source: Mahinthan5/Dreamstime.com

A jaw dropping festival of colour and vibrant energy, the Nallur festival in Sri Lanka is an absolute must see. Running over a period of 25 days, this celebration is characterised by chariot processions, dancing, drumming and the practice of self-mortification. Each day has its own rituals and traditions building to a climax on the 24th day when the Ther festival takes place. Things are then wrapped up on the final day with the Holy Wedding otherwise known as Thirukalyanam. Witnessing even just one day of this wonderful event will leave you enchanted by the peoples of Sri Lanka and their beauty of their rich culture.

Image of Indian temple stand sri lanka
Indian temple stand sri lanka | Source: Prashantdixit /Dreamstime.com

6. Poson

It is a festival of light, love, peace and a beautiful demonstration of all that the peoples of Sri Lanka hold dear. Second in importance only to Vesak, the Poson festival is an occasion where Buddhists across the small island nation join together in unity to honour the Lord Buddha and to commemorate the day that Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka. Characterised by many religious activities such as sil observations, processions, illuminations, dansal and pandals, Poson festival is a must see event.

7. Nawam Perahera

Image of Elephant who came to participate for Navam Perahera Sri Lanka
Elephant who came to participate for Navam Perahera Sri Lanka | Source: Chanishka Colombage/Dreamstime.com

One of the most impressive and culturally significant events, Nawam perahera, held in Sri Lanka’s capital city, is a must see. Characterised by a procession of whip crackers, fire dancers, flag bearers, hundreds of stunningly dressed elephants, musicians and traditional dancers, the Gangaramaya Nawam Perahera is a stunning display of Sri Lankan culture and tradition. Held over a period of two days, the festival pays homage to the Triple Gem which is comprised of Buddha, Dhamma (his teachings) and Sangha (his devotees). As such, it holds a very special place in the predominantly Buddhist country. It is an event not to be missed. 

8. Independence Day

Image of Independence Day parade rehearsal in Colombo
Independence Day parade rehearsal in Colombo | Source:  123451/Shutterstock.com

The Sri Lankan Independence Day is a celebration of great importance to the peoples of Sri Lanka. Held on the 4th of February, it marks day the island nation gained internal political independence from British rule in 1948. The event is celebrated throughout the country in grandiose style with flag raising ceremonies, dances, parades and performances. Not only is it a commemoration of the struggles the country has faced but also an amazing display of culture and national pride making it a fantastic event for travellers to witness. 

Image of Independence Day parade rehearsal in Colombo
Independence Day parade rehearsal in Colombo | Source:  123451/Shutterstock.com
Image of Presidential Secretariat Office in Colombo
Presidential Secretariat Office in Colombo | Source:  123451/Shutterstock.com
Image of Independence Day parade rehearsal in Colombo
Independence Day parade rehearsal in Colombo | Source:  123451/Shutterstock.com

9. Kelaniya Duruthu Perahera

Image of Chamara Dancers perform a dance Esala Perahera sri lanka
Chamara Dancers perform a dance Esala Perahera sri lanka | Source:  Thomas Wyness/Dreamstime.com

Duruthu perahera is a colourful and vibrant event that not only marks the beginning of the Buddhist calendar, but also the day that Buddha visited the Kelaniya Raja Maya Viharaya temple in Colombo. As such, it is hugely significant for Buddhists across the country. Celebrated through a passionate and fiery parade as well as several other rituals and traditions, Duruthu perahera is a wonderful example of the rich Sri Lankan culture. For anyone wanting to know more about this wonderful nation, witnessing an event like this is the way to do it.

Image of one of the sri lanka monster face
one of the sri lanka monster face | Source: Sandima Dewapriya /Dreamstime.com

10. Christmas

Image of Christmas Cribat beach of Beruwala in Sri Lanka
Christmas Cribat beach of Beruwala in Sri Lanka | Source: Ernestoche /Dreamstime.com

It may be a primarily Buddhist country but Christmas in Sri Lanka is every bit as grand and jolly as in any other part of the world. Introduced to the island nation by its previous European rulers hundreds of years ago, the event remains to this day, an entrenched part of the culture. Celebrated through midnight mass, sermons, gift giving, great food and family time with an added touch of unique Sri Lankan flare, Christmas is a great time to visit Sri Lanka. It is sure to be an unforgettable experience.

Image of A little shop in the tropes of Sri Lanka
A little shop in the tropes of Sri Lanka | Source: GinaKoch /Dreamstime.com
Image of Christmas tree and Christmas decorations
Christmas tree and Christmas decorations | Source:  Jaroslaw Pawlak/Shutterstock.com

11. Vel Festivals

Image of Hindu devotees and visitors at Thaipusam celebration
Hindu devotees and visitors at Thaipusam celebration sri lanka | Source: Shariff Che’ Lah/Dreamstime.com

Celebrating the triumph of good over evil by the Hindu god of war, the Vel festival is a magnificent show of Sri Lankan culture and tradition. It is considered one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent Hindu festivals and hold a special place in the hearts of locals. Held annually, the Vel festival is characterised by chariot parades, the smashing of coconuts, the tinkling of bells, dancing, music and the practice of mortifying oneself – all of which are amazing spectacle. Witnessing a Vel festival should be on the bucket list of every traveller.

Image of Indian devotee with Kavadi bearing for Thaipusam celebration
Indian devotee with Kavadi bearing for Thaipusam celebration | Source:  Photobank/Shutterstock.com
Image of Pooram Festival
Pooram Festival | Source:  AJP/Shutterstock.com
Image of Devotee's leg at Thaipusam event celebrating Lord Murugan
Devotee’s leg at Thaipusam event celebrating Lord Murugan | Source:  szefei/Shutterstock.com
Image of Chitirai Purnima, is a unique Tamil festival
Chitirai Purnima, is a unique Tamil festival | Source:  clarence choy/Shutterstock.com

12. Deepavali

Image of Woman hands with henna holding lit candle
Woman hands with henna holding lit candle | Source:  Pikoso.kz/Shutterstock.com

Home to thousands of Hindus, the small island nation of Sri Lanka is a fantastic place to view and take part in the auspicious Deepavali celebrations. The festival is a time for families to come together, exchange gifts, eat amazing food and practice charitable acts for the poor. As one of the most important occasions in the Hindu religion, Deepavali, or Diwali, is celebrated here with grandiose style. From stunning fireworks displays that take place across the country to the magnificent Hindu temples in the nation’s major cities, Sri Lanka offers an authentic and unforgettable Diwali experience.

Image of flower shops at Little during Deepavali day
flower shops at Little during Deepavali day | Source:  Sam’s Studio/Shutterstock.com
Image of Deepavali the festival of lights
Deepavali the festival of lights | Source:  AjayTvm/Shutterstock.com
Image of Traditional diya lamp lit on colorful rangoli
Traditional diya lamp lit on colorful rangoli | Source:  phive/Shutterstock.com
Image of Indian girl in traditional sari dress praying in a hindu temple.
Indian girl in traditional sari dress praying in a hindu temple. | Source: Szefei/Dreamstime.com

13. Ramadan and Eid

Although only 7 per cent of the country’s population is Muslim, Sri Lanka is an absolutely amazing place to witness and take part in Ramadan celebrations. From the stunning mosques located around the country to the various events and festivities organised in different cities, this island nation offers a true Ramadan experience. Travellers have the option of indulging in an Iftar breakfast, which offers everything one would typically find on a Muslim table during Ramadan, as well as the option of visiting the likes of the Red Mosque and the Abrar mosque, to name a few.

14. Maha Shivaratri

Image of Hindus perform Puja to lord Shiva stone statue
Hindus perform Puja to lord Shiva stone statue | Source:  reddees/Shutterstock.com

The Mahashivaratri Festival or ‘The Night of Shiva’ is celebrated with devotion and religious fervor throughout Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. As the name implies, it is an event devoted to paying homage to the Hindu god Shiva, who is considered a supreme god by Hindus. Numerous customs and traditions are involved in the celebrations of this festival and they are dutifully followed by devotees. This includes observation of fasting as well as poojas. Lasting for two days Mahashivaratri is seeped in tradition and is an event not to miss.

Image of Maha siva ratri day in keesara gutta
Maha siva ratri day in keesara gutta | Source:  reddees/Shutterstock.com
Image of Shivarathri festival
Shivarathri festival | Source: Pius Lee/Dreamstime.com

15. New Year’s Eve

Image of Colorful fireworks on the beach
Colorful fireworks on the beach | Source:  Ilya Sviridenko/Shutterstock.com

It may come as a surprise to some but Sri Lanka is a top destination for New Year’s festivities. From idyllic beaches to raging New Years Eve parties, this small island nation has it all and is the perfect place for a memorable celebration. The capital city of Colombo boasts several high end parties while the city of Hikkaduwa offers sandy white beaches and fireworks displays so you can relax during the day and celebrate at night. With so many options on ways to celebrate, the night is sure to be one to remember.

Image of Fireworks light up the sky with dazzling display
Fireworks light up the sky with dazzling display | Source:  Dana.S/Shutterstock.com
Image of firework
firework | Source:  yotin Pakthongchai/Shutterstock.com

16. Thai Pongal

Image of Dancers celebrating festival Mattu Pongal sri lanka
Dancers celebrating festival Mattu Pongal sri lanka | Source: Garth Grimmer/Dreamstime.com

A festival of freedom, peace, unity and compassion, Thai Pongal in Sri Lanka to see. Celebrated throughout India and Sri Lanka as well as in communities around the world, this spectacular festival is hugely significant to the Tamil people and is indeed the most important festival held by this minority. Running over a period of four days, the festival is marked by numerous activities and rituals that take place on each day of the celebrations. These are destined to bring families, friends and neighbours together as well as enable Tamils to pay their respects to The God of the Sun. It is an eye-opening event of faith and community.

Image of Decorative floral patterns known as Rangoli Pongal festival
Decorative floral patterns known as Rangoli Pongal festival | Source:  fotosunny/Shutterstock.com
Image of Ven pongal with chutney and sambar sri lanka
Ven pongal with chutney and sambar sri lanka | Source: Jayk67/Dreamstime.com
Image of Pongal chutney sri lanka
Pongal chutney sri lanka | Source: Alexander Mychko/Dreamstime.com

17. Good Friday

Image of Candle burning in the middle of a crown of thorns at easter sri lanka
Candle burning in the middle of a crown of thorns at easter sri lanka | Source: Photowitch/Dreamstime.com

If there is one thing Sri Lankan’s know how to do, it is how to celebrate. Good Friday festivities are no different despite Christianity being a minority group. In Sri Lanka, Good Friday, which commemorates the suffering, passion and death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is celebrated with tradition and a touch of Sri Lankan panache. These traditions include fasting, attending Good Friday prayers, observing the way of the cross and visiting churches. It is an occasion locals look forward to with much anticipation and a great event to witness in Sri Lanka. 

Image of Good Friday Easter Day Cross sri lanka
Good Friday Easter Day Cross sri lanka | Source: Davidgn/Dreamstime.com

18. Galle Literary Festival

The Galle Literary festival in Sri Lanka in a renown literary event held annually in the town of Galle in Sri Lanka’s Southern province. The biggest of its kind to take place in Southeast Asia, the festival boast many internationally acclaimed and well-known writers associated with the event. Not only is the event for writers and novelists it also include artists of many different fields such as painters, poets, dancers, photographers, architects and cinematographers. Anyone who is interested in artistic works will be right at home here among some of the best creatives of our time.