Vesak is regarded as a religious as well as a cultural festival in Sri Lanka. Vesak Day is one of the biggest days of the year in the Buddhist calendar and celebrated by Buddhists all over the world. Vesak is an annual celebration of three great events (Themangula) of the Lord Buddha’s life (Birth, Enlightenment and Passing away). In Sri Lanka this holy day falls on the full-moon of the lunar month of Vesak (May). These celebrations usually continue for about a week.
On Vesak day, Buddhists gather in temples before dawn breaks, to observe the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag amidst chanting of verses in praise of the holy triple gem - The Buddha, the Dhamma (Lord Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (His disciples). Devotees bring offerings of flowers, candles and joss-sticks to be placed at the feet of the Gautama Buddha. In Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for the celebration of Vesak and all liquor shops and abattoirs are closed required by the government decree during these two days.
Devout Buddhists undertake to lead a good life according to the teachings by the Gautama Buddha, while making daily affirmations to observe the five precepts. However on special days, notably the day of the new moon and full moon, devotes clothed in simple white dress, listen to Dhamma sermons preached by monks while they observe the eight precepts for the practice of morality, simplicity and humility. Buddhists are reminded to live in harmony with people of other faiths as well, respecting beliefs of other people as the Gautama Buddha has taught.
Devotees give alms on this day as a sign of sharing joy and peace with others while Buddhist houses are beautifully decorated with lanterns and lights and so are public places. Various cultural events to bring happiness to everyone on that day are organized as well.
Celebrating Vesak also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate such as the aged, the handicapped and the sick. On this day, Buddhists will distribute gifts to charities. Vesak is also a time for great joy and happiness, expressed not by pandering to personal needs but by involving themselves in useful activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating striking scenes from the life of the Buddha for public to enjoy viewing. Buddhists also provide refreshments and vegetarian food to followers who visit temples to pay homage to the Enlightened One.
Celebrations in Sri Lanka span over two weeks that include various religious and alms-giving activities. Colorfully and Beautifully lit Vesak Pandals Called Toranas are erected in various locations in the cities sponsored by donors, religious societies and welfare groups. Each Pandal (Torana) illustrates a story from the 550 Jathaka Katha (stories of the life of the Lord Buddha). Colorful lanterns called ‘Vesak Koodu’ are hung along streets and in front of homes. They signify the light of the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha.
Food stalls set up by Buddhist devotees called Dansalas provide free food and drink to passersby. Groups of people from various community organizations, businesses and government departments sing Bhakthi Gee or Buddhist devotional songs. During the Vesak season, the main cities including Colombo are transformed into a wonderful and extravagantly decorated celebration with beautiful Vesak lanterns, Toranas and other attractions, enlivened with many Dansalas (Stalls of free food and drink available to everyone). Among many festivals in Colombo, the Buddha Rashmi Vesak Festival held by the Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo is amazingly colorful and attractive, bringing tens of thousands of people from all faiths flocking to view its beautiful, extravagant and creative lanterns and sights throughout the celebration.