Must-visit places for Wesak celebrations

Buddhist monks congregate in Thailand during Wesak celebrations. Pic: DMS

THOUSANDS of Buddhists across Asia will commemorate Wesak Day this weekend, an annual celebration of the birth, enlightenment (nirvana) and death of Buddha. It is celebrated on the one day of the full moon in the month of May.

Also known as Buddha’s Day or Buddha’s Birthday, Wesak celebrates the Buddhist principles that go with Buddha’s path to enlightenment.

During Buddha’s journey as a young man of 30, he experienced this enlightenment underneath a Bodhi tree, and thereon began the journey towards some of the religion’s most important philosophies.

Most Buddhists spend the sacred holiday reflecting, visiting monasteries and attending sermons. Meat is eschewed, but vegetarian feasts are usually shared with family.

The one thing that’s easy to love about Wesak Day is the scent of the burning of thousands of incense sticks, sending out sweet sandalwood wafts onto the streets.

Here are the many different ways Asia celebrates Wesak.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Buddhists offer prayers at a Buddhist temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Pic: AP

When is it
May 21

Where to go
Colombo, Galle, Anuradhapura

What to expect
One of the rituals practiced in Sri Lanka is the veneration of the Bodhi tree. Buddhists believe that the sacred tree are inhabited by spirits and can help people in exchange for offerings.

Deities usually demonstrate their devotion for the tree by bathing it with scented water, the burning of incense, and by circling the tree once or thrice while reciting prayers.

This has been a practice in Sri Lanka from the time a sapling from the original tree Buddha sat under was brought into the city of Anuradhapura. The tree has survived over 2,200 years, and is well-guarded in the area.

Since the sapling was rooted in Sri Lanka, the Bodhi tree has become a necessary feature of any Buddhist temple on the island.

Also a tradition during Wesak is the dansala phenomenon, the act of providing free food and drink, or an “open house” where food is served for all. During the celebration, you’ll find many dansals set up to serve favorites like bread, yellow rice, string-hoppers, tea and watalappam, a unique Sri Lankan coconut custard.

It’s also difficult to miss the brightly lit pandols (shown in the video above) and colorful lanterns that erect all over the country during the Wesak period.


Devotees gather for Wesak celebrations in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace. Pic: Naturally Nepal

When is it
May 21

Where to go

What to expect
Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has deities flocking from the world over. The site has been developed as a Buddhist pilgrimage center, but the archaeological remains associated with the birth of Buddha have been preserved and are a central feature for visitors.

On Wesak, also known as Baisakh Purnima in Nepal, kindness and generosity are valued virtues, with devotees visiting monasteries, meditating, and listening to sermons from monks and nuns. In the spirit of Wesak, caged birds are set free and meat is refrained from. Kheer, a sweet rice pudding, is also popularly consumed on this day.

Unfortunately, many sites in Kathmandu including the two great stupas – Swayambhunath and Boudhanath – were damaged in the earthquake last year.


Thai Buddhist monks performing prayers beneath a large tree during Wesak. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

When is it
May 20

Where to go
Bangkok, Chiang Mai

What to expect
Thailand holds the largest Buddhist population outside of China, and Wesak aka Visakha Bucha is a widely celebrated holiday in the country. One of the most important rituals is the donning of white by devotees, and the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag in temples.

In the mornings, deities head to the temple to give alms to monks in the form of food. Flowers are offered, incense sticks are burned, and many sermons are given. As the sun beings to set, candlelight processions towards large temples commence.

Small Buddha statues are also placed in water basins, where worshipers pour water over them to symbolize the washing off of bad karma.

On Wesak, devotees are to observe the religion’s five basic precepts, as well as an additional three: not to eat anything before mid-day, not to wear bright colors, jewelry, and perfume, and not to use a soft chair or bed.


Buddhist monks gather for the commemoration of Wesak at Borobudur. Pic: AP

When is it
May 22

Where to go
Borobudur Temple Compounds (Magelang)

What to expect
In Indonesia, celebrations are focused in Borobudur where thousands of monks congregate to meditate in the stunning site of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Borobudur Temple Compounds. The compounds have been labeled as one of the most remarkable Buddhist monuments in the world.

On the day itself, the monks circle the temple in a ritual called “Pradaksina”, and is a sign of worship to the temple. At night, a 15,000-strong candlelit procession culminates at Borobudur and marks the end of celebrations.

But perhaps the most enchanting sight is the release of over 1,000 lanterns into the night sky. This magical tradition alone is worth the trek there, and unsurprisingly, is also a photographer’s dream.