Vesak Festival in Colombo

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About a week after I returned to Sri Lanka from my month in Vietnam (posts to come soon – promise!), the Vesak poya (full moon) festival was celebrated by Buddhists in Colombo and around the country. Vesak is a holiday that is celebrated annually by Buddhists to honour the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. We also get two holidays off work, which is always fun (you probably get tired of hearing about all my holidays… Sri Lanka apparently has the most in the world!).

During Vesak, Buddhist parts of the country become adorned with lanterns and alit with string lights (just like back home at Christmas!). It’s a beautiful sight to witness, especially at night when the decorations give a festive feel to every public space and little side street. In Colombo, the government sponsors massive installations to celebrate the festival. There are pandals, which are huge murals lit up with many bright and moving lights to depict scenes like Buddha’s enlightenment, and there are displays of giant lanterns, which also depict scenes from Buddha’s life story and sometimes even include movement!

Three nights during the festival, I explored the decorations. On Vesak day (the full moon day), I walked along a road where some of the giant, handmade lanterns are. It was breathtaking to see the craftsmanship that goes into these works of art but I found the waves of people a little overwhelming so I didn’t stay for too long (it reminded me of the crowds during pilgrimage at Adam’s Peak in February…).

The next night, I went with friends to Gangaramaya Temple, the Buddhist hub of Colombo. We followed the evening crowds to Beira Lake, which was completely decorated with lights (some even creating the Buddhist flag) and even a lit-up boat taking worshippers to Seema Malaka, the meditation centre on the lake. We got to see even larger and more beautiful lanterns but the crowds, again, were a little much and it was still thirty degrees Celsius at ten o’clock at night so we didn’t try to get into the temple that evening.

On the weekend, though, I took a staff member visiting from Canada again to Gangaramaya temple and we were late enough in the festival that the crowds had somewhat dissipated so we were able to not only explore more of the lanterns but we were also able to get into the temple, which was fun to do with so many people out and about. It was a late night but worth it for the views!

Those who follow me on Instagram (@katherinelmacg) have seen some photos and I recommend you check out a few of my Instagram posts from last week to see videos of the lanterns in motion. For more of a taste of what the festival looks like in Colombo, here are some photos:

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This is a good example of the simple lanterns and string lights found around the city. Notice also the Buddhist flags and the lotus flower lights, showing that this is a Buddhist festival.

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Buddhist flag strung up over a street

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An installation of a lotus flower at a roundabout (it lit up after dark)

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These lotus flowers and stupa created with string lights were outside a government department tasked with preservation of cultural sites like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa

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This tree is filled with so many lanterns, making it a breathtaking sight to take in!

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Some of the very large crowd on the way to Gangaramaya Temple (it took us over an hour to navigate our way there on Thursday then on Saturday it only took about fifteen minutes!)

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This is one of the moving lanterns. To stand in front of it was extraordinary!

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It was so hard to capture good photos of moving lanterns!

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I’m quite fond of the Buddhist-kitsch aesthetic of this lantern (also moving)

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This one, though smaller than some of the showstoppers, was one of my favourites

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The lights in this lantern, like many others, would change colour with the music!

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Another stunning medium-sized lantern

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This lantern was MASSIVE! This moving section was the bottom level and there were THREE levels above it! 

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Some of the spectacle around Beira Lake

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Seema Malaka, the meditation centre designed by Geoffrey Bawa, was all decorated for the festivities

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My favourite site of the entire festival was this giant flashing pandal and the boat that took people across the lake to Seema Malaka! So bright!