The devotional calendar of Sri Lankan Buddhism is lunar, not solar. The Enlightened One’s birth, enlightenment and passing away are celebrated on Vesak poya, the May full moon. Poson poya, the full moon of June, commemorates the arrival of the first Buddhist missionaries to the island.
Navam poya, which falls on 3 February in 2015, is another day of celebration. Tradition holds that the Buddha appointed his first two disciples on this day. Buddhists mostly mark Navam with quiet religious observances, but this poya is also the occasion for a spectacular torchlight procession that winds its way through the streets of Colombo along a route less than five minutes’ walk from the Residence, Uga Escapes’ soon to be-opened luxury retreat on Park Street.
Originating at nearby Gangarama Vihare, one of the city’s principal Buddhist shrines, the Navam perahera is enormous, taking several hours to complete its route around the southern reach of the Beira Lake. The glittering procession involves caparisoned elephants, costumed dancers and drummers, circus-style performers and other elements in a wild profusion of colour and spectacle,. Notable Colombo citizens may often be seen walking in its train.
Although entirely traditional in its rituals and elements, the Colombo Navam Perahera is in fact a very modern festival. Instituted in 1979, it has quickly become one of the leading annual cultural events of the city and is watched by tens of thousands of people every year.