Vesak temple hopping ~ Buddha’s birthday ~ Sri Lanka

Vesak is the religious and cultural festival which celebrates Buddha’s birthday. It is always celebrated on the the first full moon, in the month of May!

Ben is on a business trip in Vancouver, Canada. I however, am here in Sri Lanka and am feeling the excitement building in the community around me, for Vesak day. Even though theoretically Vesak day is a day.. this has the feeling, and proves to be quite a few days of preparation and ongoing festivities and celebration…

Sri Lanka is in the news for hosting a UN international gathering of Buddhist leaders and heads of states from the Asia Pacific region, all gathered here, to celebrate Vesak.

Over 400 delegates from 100 countries have come to participate in this event, which is being hosted for the first time in Sri Lanka (previously in Thailand and Viet Nam).  Celebrations include an International Buddhist Symposium in Colombo, with discussions on important themes such as inter religious understanding, Buddhist teachings for social justice and sustainable world peace.

Buddha was born in Nepal in 567 BC. Gautama Buddha, or Prince Siddhartha Gautama at birth, he was the son of a tribal leader. As an adult, he founded a sect of wandering ascetics who eventually evolved into a community of adherents to a set of philosophic beliefs, which some refer to as a “religion” of Buddhism. Others think of Buddhism not so much as a religion but as a set of philosophical beliefs. The distinction between calling Buddhism a religion or not hinges on the fact that Buddhism, unlike Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc, does not have a god or set of gods, at the core of its teachings.
Today, over 488 million people ~ or roughly 9% of the world’s population ~ practice Buddhism, nearly 99% of which are located in the Asia-Pacific region.
From Thailand to South Korea, Myanmar, China, Nepal, Tibet and Malaysia ~ every country has its own traditions, each symbolizing various aspects of Buddha’s life or teachings.
Most of the festivities for Vesak, revolve around Buddhist temples, where people light incense and leave offerings of flowers and pay respect to Buddha. Full moon, known as “Poya” is the time when most Buddhists visit temples , but for Vesak day, the celebrations are on a larger more encompassing scale.
There are “dansalas” ~ which is the giving of food and drinks in the streets, free to everyone and “Bakhti Gee”, devotional music.

Trays full of juice are filled one after the other at various points along the street, trying to keep up with the steady demand of people stopping by for their free refreshment for Vesak.

Tuk tuks and motorbikes all screech to a halt for free drinks.

Everyone is in a joyous mood. If you look carefully at the beautiful girl at the back of the bike you will see how long her jet black hair is. In rural areas such as where we live, this is the norm for girls and young women.

Most people wear white to go to temple.

Shrines in front of temples and alongside the road are adorned with paper lanterns in anticipation of Vesak.

In Sri Lanka, people decorate their homes and the streets, with Vesak “koodu” ~ handmade paper lanterns and Vesak “pandols” ~ lights.


Our tuk tuk driver (and nearby neighbor) Cody, arrives at our house with a lantern, which he hangs in the front for me.

I also get a gift of some fresh coconuts, which are cut open for the delicious coconut water “juice” inside.

With his wife watching approvingly Cody proudly hangs up a paper lantern outside the front of our house.

Cody (tuk tuk driver and neighbor of ours), does not want me to be left out of the celebrations, and tells me that he will be back in the evening so that I can go to temple with him and his family.

Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, especially in the South, where we live. Westerners typically think of Buddhists as men in saffron colored robes. The men in saffron robes are Buddhist monks, much like priests or other religious leaders. Our neighbors are Buddhists. Tuk tuk drivers, shop owners, mothers and fathers, children… are of Buddhist religion (or culture) ~ everyday people, just like Christians, Jews and Muslims. Many Buddhists in Sri Lanka attend temple on Poya day once a month at full moon, but most go to temple for Vesak,( much like a majority of Jews will try to go to synagogue at least once a year perhaps for the Jewish New Year or Catholics attending Midnight Mass in Europe.)

Before Cody arrives in the evening, a short walk from the house takes me to the closest neighborhood Buddhist temple “Mihiriphena Temple.  Ben and I often walk here to enjoy the tranquility of the temple, the ancient murals on the walls and to chat with the resident Buddhist monks.

This evening the temple is getting readied for the festivities. Lights are being strung, the sandy ground is being vigorously swept with palm made brooms and there is a general air of festivity.

A festive entrance made from sticks and paper streamers. The sun is setting and the temple is bathed in a soft lavender and peach light and as well lit up by lights as the sky darkens.

As dusk recedes and the sky becomes a night sky, the lights of the temple go on for Vesak. Our temple is lit up like a pyramid against the charcoal sky. Small clay vessels are made and used everywhere in Sri Lanka at temples. Filled with coconut oil and wicks ~ lit for blessings, prayers and ceremony. For Vesak there are even more oil vessels than the usual amount that are set out for “Poya” once a month.

The sun is easing its way down on this tropical island, creating silhouettes of soaring palm trees above our neighborhood Buddhist temple “Mihiripena Temple” ~ what we consider as “our temple” .

The little green tuk tuk pulls up in front of my house and I am dressed in white and eager to celebrate Vesak with Cody and his family. His wife and daughter are in the back of the tuk tuk and I join them as we head off….. Cody has very little English and I have no Sinhalese so communication is pretty basic, but I have no need to know how far and where, I just am.

We drive and we drive, deeper and deeper into the countryside, the sky gets darker as there are very few lights other than those lighting the temples and lanterns lighting the houses. The full moon is hiding behind clouds for now. The air is fresh and there is a light rain which releases a heady pungent smell of dry earth as the first rains of the monsoon season hit the ground. It is all quite magical.

Cody is intent on taking me to a variety of temples, something I discover as we go… Small ones, medium size ones and a very large one which is the main destination as this one, he tells me is “best”. His family’s favorite one. At the smaller ones there are fewer people and his wife and daughter are waiting in the tuk tuk until I encourage them to come out and join me, which they do, laughingly. This temple hopping is definitely fun and festive.

A tiny temple with its peaked roof lined with strings of small lights, is our first stop.

It may be a small temple, but in contrast, there is a large Buddha sculpture inside.

There is no rush and the evening slowly unfolds from one temple to another.

The moon is full and the path towards this temple is flooded in moonlight and the soft glow from crimson and yellow lit lanterns.

A bright white stuppa soars into the night sky as the crowd makes it way around, stopping at various intervals to bow their heads in prayer with hands pressed together at chest level.

A rare moment, a devotee gets a moment alone with Buddha on Vesak.

The pungent floral musky smell of incense smoke fills the air.

Stupas are a unique Sri Lankan form of architectural creation. Stupas that were designed and constructed in Sri Lanka over two thousands years ago, are the largest brick structures known to the pre modern world. The construction of stupas were considered acts of great merit and the purpose of them was mainly to enshrine any relics of Buddha. Buddhist literature mentions six different types of stupas distinct according to their shape of the dome or the body of the base: bell shape, bubble shape, pot shape, lotus shape and shape of the Nelli fruit.

The string of blue lights behind this golden Buddha look like soft rain drops falling.



There is a steady flow of devotees… young and old, all come to pay their respects and to bring flowers to Buddha on this special day of the year.

Flower offerings create a thick floral carpet of fragrance and color at Buddha’s feet.

In addition to flowers, filtered clean water and or rice are the traditional items offered to Buddha. Every one asks Buddha for a good life.

This temple has a large hall of people that apparently have slept there the night before and have spent the day chanting.

Cody, his wife Ilanti and daughter Harshani and myself in front of the stupa

White is “de rigueur.”

Almost every house and building has at least 1 or 2 paper lanterns outside, many with lights inside.

After an evening of temple hopping, I arrive home saturated with the magic of Vesak.

The second night of Vesak has a different feel to it. This night is not about temple, it is all about the lights and lanterns. It seems everyone is out and about on the streets where there are small stalls set up with different decorative structures. There are prizes to be had for the most creative ones. The crowds go from one to another taking in the sights and sounds and enjoyment of Vesak celebration.

This structure, moves around in circles with accompanying music. It has a lotus flower shaped base and scenes of Buddha’s life on the central panels.

This creation is made almost entirely from dried palm leaves which are woven together and, or fringed.

Fittingly, my first painted sketch in Sri Lanka… from our local temple.

Happy Vesak 2017. So pleased to have been here in Sri Lanka to celebrate with my Buddhist neighbors!

66 thoughts on “Vesak temple hopping ~ Buddha’s birthday ~ Sri Lanka

  1. Shari Pratt

    Peta, this is a lovely celebration. Would that everyone believed in religious understanding, social justice and sustainable world peace. Your photos show such loveliness with the delicate lanterns lit up and the juice sharing is compassionate, the embodiment of how you described Buddhism. It’s fitting that Sri Lanka is hosting this gathering of Buddhist leaders.

    1. Peta kaplan

      Thanks Shari. Sri Lanka definitely has a special place in the community of Buddhist nations as this is where Theravada Buddhism originated and has thrived for centuries.

      Peta & Ben

    1. Peta kaplan

      A night of magic amd surprises. When we “go with the flow” and let things unfold, without excessive planning or control, the magic just happens.


  2. Peta kaplan

    Thanks Lynn. It is nice to experience a countrywide celebration, much like we might witness Christmas in the West…the overwhelming difference though, is that this celebration is not mired in commercial pursuit. It is a religious celebration amd that is that.


  3. Sharon Rosenzweig

    What kind neighbors you have, taking you under their wings that way. I’m curious if you saw any other westerners at the festivities, cuz it seems like you got a very inside view. What’s it like for you to be alone there without Ben? Is there anyone else who checks on you, who you can talk to? I think of you alone there at night, it seems magical, but radically isolated.

    1. Peta kaplan

      The neighbors that look out for me and are protective of me are fairly typical of many Sri Lankans wanting to make sure that things go well. Too much in a way, such as another tuk tuk driver we use who insisted in staying with me at the train station until the train arrived, even though I insisted I was a big girl and there was no need. Very sweet.

      I was the only Westerner at these temples. Just the way I like it!!

      I prefer being together with Ben obviously but am okay being alone. Except for tge removal of one large frog, one large spider…that part, I do NOT like! If I want company all I do is walk to the yoga shala or tuk tuk to beach.

      But no one “checks on me” thank goodness.

      (We do have a few really good friends, 2 from Australia, 1 from South Africa, 1 from America).

      Good questions Sharon, as always!

  4. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    Your neighbor, Cody and his family sound lovely and I enjoyed the virtual experience of temple hopping with you, Peta. The lanterns were so creative and amazing. Vesak sounds like a wonderful festival and a celebration of Buddha and life’s goodness that includes and involves the whole community.

    1. Peta kaplan

      Thanks Anita… Vesak is definitely the most important day of the year, followed by Sinhalese New Year, which was fairly recent.

      Most of the lanterns in town were covered with plastic as it is now the rainy season. Many of them are still hanging in the streets…remnants of the festivities.

      Not everyone is Buddhist. There are Catholics, Muslim amd Hindu in Sri Lanka, although the South where we live is predominantly Buddhist.


  5. Joanne Sisco

    It sounds absolutely magical! How wonderful that your neighbours embraced you into their family for this celebration.

    I’m surprised at the wearing of white though. Is it intended to be a colour showing respect? The reason I ask is because I attended a Buddhist funeral many years ago and the mourning family all wore white.

    1. Peta kaplan

      Joanne the reason Buddhists wear white on Vesak day is because white signifies purity and wearing white is recommended for prayers or paying respect. In that sense it is consistent with wearing white at Buddhist funerals, where white flags are also strung around the deceased’s home.


  6. Johanna Bradley

    What a time you had, Peta! How very special to be absorbed into the village’s celebrations.

    1. Peta Kapln

      Thanks Johanna.

      We do strive to “be absorbed” into the local fabric, whenever possible, whereever we are. This turns out to be easier in countries not overrun by tourists, such that the interaction between local and foreigner can be a genuinely authentic process of mutual discovery.

      One such opportunity came to us in Bali, when we were invited to a rare every 30 year celebration…


  7. Alison

    What a beautiful experience Peta, and your photos capture something of the feel of it. The lit up temples look so lovely. There’s nothing quite like being able to participate in local ceremonies. We were included in a major annual Buddhist ceremony on Bali and it was very moving.

    1. Peta kaplan

      Thanks Alison, especially for the compliment on the photos.

      The lights of Vesak were particularly visually striking against the name ght sky as in these parts there are no street lights and many areas are usually pitch dark.

      Yes, being included is a treat as it affords an unusual insight!


  8. Gilda Baxter

    Wonderful to be able to participate in such a special festival, particularly having your kind neighbor showing you so many beautiful temples. Such a shame that Ben was not there to share it with you. Does it feel lonely there without Ben? I am sure having nice and kind neighbors helps?

    1. Peta kaplan

      Not lonely no. I enjoy time alone, but of course I would rather he were here. One big difference of being here solo was that I do not drive a motorbike and as a result rely on tuk tuk drivers (whose phone numbers are in my speed dial) ~ which creates additional interaction with my neighbors.

      In this case I also had a friend visiting me here from Bali, after a few days of being solo and another about to deliver her baby here, and so did not accompany Ben on his travels as I often do.


  9. gabe

    What a great post Peta! Felt like we were there celebrating Vesak with you. The free juice along the side of the road (which reminded me so much of running marathons) and the rare moments of peaceful reflection at Buddha’s feet. It all created the sense of connection and community. Thanks for bringing us with you again. Really enjoyed.

    1. Peta kaplan

      Thanks so much Gabe!

      Now that you mention it, I knew the juice giving imagery was remindful of something…. the way the runners with their trays were hustling back and forth to keep up with demand.

      There definitely was a strong feeling of community during Vesak, which was fun to be a part of!


    1. Peta kaplan

      The painted sketch done in plein air, ie on the spot, is done using acrylic paints, which is a first for me. A lot more experimenting is needed. The head monks were fascinated watching the painting process on the grounds of their temple.


  10. judith westerfield

    Temple hopping!!!! Now that’s a tradition that should spread around the world. Much better than bar hopping.

    LOVED your pictures, your descriptions AND your painted sketch Peta. Hope there’s more sketches and paintings.

  11. Peta kaplan

    Haha you are right… “temple hopping”… a new trend!!

    Thanks Judith for the lovely compliments!

    I had to do everything around here while Ben was gone 🙂 now that he is back, I can hopefully have more time to experiment with acrylic paints.


    1. Peta Kaplan

      Clearly Dave hehe, ya missin all the fun!

      Cambodia (90%), Laos, Thailand (95%),Myanmar are other predominantly Buddhist countries we have spent extended time in. Viet Nam too, although that is only about 55% Buddhist.


  12. Cheryl

    You beautifully capture every moment of your life in Sri Lanka. I love glowing lanterns in the dark and celebrations. What wonderful way to end your post with that gorgeous shot of the moon! Stunning!

    1. Peta Kaplan

      Thanks Cheryl… it is true that the combination of a full moon, lanterns, amd festivity is hard to beat!

      Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.


    1. Peta Kaplan

      Thanks J.D.

      It really is fun to live in a place that has tranquil beautiful celebrations once every month at full moon. And then the big one, Vesak, where they go “all out” by adding all the lanterns, lights and city booth structures. I enjoyed the fact that so many, if not all the decorations are actually made by hand. The white gives an added peaceful dimension.


  13. Lexklein

    This will come out wrong, but what a good time to be home alone! Having a fascinating cultural event to attend, with friendly neighbors no less, is such a great way to feel immersed in local life. Not that you and Ben could not have done that together, of course, but I find that sometimes I am more open to new experiences when I am a tad lonely or even vulnerable. I like being alone sometimes, but I also like venturing out and meeting people, and find I do that more when I don’t have a trusty sidekick along, no matter who it is! Lovely post, Peta!

    1. Peta Kaplan

      Haha, Lex you are absolutely correct! Most likely if Ben were here we would have gone on our own to the 2 temples nearby. Cody might still have offered to take us, but we might not have wanted the “obligation” of a “plan”. I agree that, being solo has occasional advantages and this was a great example of one. Thanks for pointing that out!


  14. Pamela

    I LEARN SO MUCH FROM YOU, Peta. I read this post veraciously. I like to think of myself as “Buddhist” in some ways. Not as a religion, but as a philosophy. Along with others. The people you photograph here are so glorious. They seem happy, and happy to celebrate this special day. THANK YOU.

    1. Peta Kaplan

      Thank you Pamela! We too think of ourselves as Buddhist and have frequent discussions about whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy. Our interest is, like you, in the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism. Given that there are no deities in Buddhism, it seems less a religion than a way of life.

      We are not yet at a point where we can clearly distinguish what is core Buddhist philosophy versus teachings from our yoga practice, versus cultural practices we have observed in Buddhist majority countries during our Asian travels. And frankly we are bot sure the distinction is terribly important. We adopt those beliefs and practices which resonate with us, for example the non harming of living things which clearly is not practiced fervently by all Buddhists.

      Life here in the country is fairly simple and revolves around the full moon calendar. The country was in a civil war for 29 years which only ended 7 years ago, so there is an underlying strong feeling of relief which is perhaps what comes through.


  15. Sue Slaght

    Peta it must be amazing to be part of a community where you can take in such amazing festivals and feel right at home. I love seeing Sri Lanka through your eyes. You are definitely bringing it to my wanderlust radar!

  16. Peta Kaplan

    Sue, we start to feel at home more quickly than most foreigners in a new country, because we have done this so many times. Sometimes it feels as though home is wherever we are for more than a week. I recently read with great satisfaction an assessment of Sri Lanka’s tourism development activities, where I learned that Sri Lanka’s solid growth in tourism comes mostly from word of mouth and social media activities.

    In this sense I am thrilled that we are contributing to Sri Lanka’s image in our own small way.

    Glad to be bringing Sri Lanka onto your “wanderlust radar”!


  17. James Vance

    Peta, I hope that you are both well and had no issues with the mudslides or torrential rains. It’s a truly horrifying thought thinking of dying in a mudslide. ~James

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      James thank you so much for thinking of us at this challenging time in Sri Lanka. Our region has been the hardest hit however it is more inland than we are. We are starting to learn about specific individuals we know whose homes have been destroyed or whose relatives have perished. Sadly, flooding is one of the greatest challenges to the planet as a result of climate change and will continue to be a major threat to communities that are vulnerable.


  18. Judi Israel

    Thanks for the lovely explanation of Vesak. I traveled that day from Ella to Hapatule, quite in awe of the free drinks offered all along the way. While I understood it was a national, religious holiday I didn’t get the full meaning until reading your post.

    Yet again, another instance where your own experience has enriched mine. Thank you! After 30 spectacular days, I have finally left Sri Lanka. Enjoying Hong Kong with my daughter for a few days before heading home to Chicago on Friday.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Judi it is great that you were here in Sri Lanka during Vesak and got to experience it first hand. Am happy as well to hear that your trip overall was a great success and that you love Sri Lanka.

      Thanks for reading us and commenting. Sri Lanka deserves more than one visit, so hopefully you will be back again and we can get to meet you!


  19. jet eliot

    I found this post fascinating and enchanting, Peta. Thank you for the photos and descriptions of Vesak in Sri Lanka; your words were as mellow and loving as the ceremonies and temples, the lights and celebration.

  20. Caroline Helbig

    What a beautiful and informative post Peta. Sadly, I had never heard of Vesak before your post. Thank you for the great information about Vesak, Buddhism in general, and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. You are lucky to be able to experience this celebration while living in Sri Lanka.

    I hope you can join Ben if he comes back for business in Vancouver. It would be lovely to meet up with you guys.


    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Caroline. Yes it is astonishing how very ethnocentric we all are. Even though there are many more Buddhists than Christians in the world, Christmas of course is known world wide, in part probably due to the commercialization of this religious holiday. But few people know anything about Vesak. I was so pleased to be here to participate and experience this holiday with Sri Lankans.

      I hope to come to Vancouver too. Would be lovely to meet you too.


  21. Liesbet

    Peta, you are such a wealth of information about Sri Lanka and Buddhism. This post is informative, fun and well-written. I almost felt like I was celebrating Vesak with you. It is so nice that you made friends with your neighbors and that they like to involve you in all the celebrations and in their lives. The different lanterns are beautiful and creative!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Liesbet, we are learning about Buddhism and Sri Lanka as we go, and we are happy to share what we learn. We have a few loyal tuk tuk drivers who definitely “look out for us” and live close by. Wherever we live we wind up having an interesting cross section of people who punctuate our lives, some close friends and some people we encounter as we go about our day. We tend to be interactive with people we meet and naturally locals here are interested to talk with and meet foreigners. Sri Lankans are very hospitable and generally friendly and definitely want foreigners to like and enjoy their country. When we go for walks in our “neighborhood” we are inevitably invited in to people’s homes for tea or just to sit. Very different to our experience of being in the U.S. for the most part.


    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Agness. It WAS pretty awesome, especially to be there on such an auspicious occasion. There are many many beautiful temples in Sri Lanka, across this tropical island. You should definitely visit if you can!


  22. Laurel

    This is a beautiful post, Peta. I had to read it in three installments because of poor internet connection that wouldn’t allow me to load the photos — and I wanted to enjoy it all through your lens. You captured wonderful images of Buddha’s birthday celebration. One of these days, I’d like to spend time in a predominantly Buddhist culture.

    Oh, and your painting is lovely! Please do share more of your work.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Laurel.. so glad you enjoyed this post so much. Thanks for persisting.

      Our travels over the years provided inspiration for my paintings. After we were in India, I did a series of monkeys and goat paintings and in Paris was inspired by the large sculptures in the Tuilleries Gardens in front of the Louvre. And in Nicaragua it was all about the street dogs.

      Here are some early blog entries with some of my paintings, from a body of work of about 40 large oil paintings, from the series “Stray Dogs of Nicaragua.”


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