It is a public holiday in Sri Lanka, and covers a five-day period, with the main celebration falling on the final day. The date is based on the Hindu lunar calendar and occurs during the first month of the hindu year. However, Deepavali falls during October or November on the Western solar calendar.
While 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people are Buddhists, about 13 percent are Hindus, by whom Deepavali is widely regarded as the most important festival of the year. The majority ethnic group, the Sinhalese, is Buddhist, and most of the Hindus belong to the Tamil ethnicity. Tamils originally hail from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but they have been a major component of Sri Lanka’s population since the 3rd Century B.C. They have so co-mingled, in fact, with the Sinhalese that the ethnic lines are blurred, which makes the religious lines all the more important in identifying one’s heritage.
The legend behind Deepavali is recorded in the Hindu holy writings, and goes back to ancient times in India. Sri Lanka, however, figures prominently in the accounts, which tell of Lord Rama’s defeat of Ravana, the “demon king.” Hindu temples will hold special services on this day, and Hindus of all walks of life will meditate and celebrate what they consider “the triumph of light over darkness” that happened on this day so long ago. In Sri Lanka, Deepavali rituals and observances are much like those of the Tamil of Tamil Nadu. The goddess of wealth, called “Lakshmi,” is worshiped, while the people don brand new clothing and exchange gifts and well-wishes with family and friends.
Some of the sights and activities that locals and tourists in Sri Lanka can enjoy during Deepavali include the following:
- See the glowing houses of the celebrants. Deepavali means “the Festival of Lights,” and is a time marked by homes and other buildings being lit up with traditional clay lamps. These lamps are supposed to ward off the evil of darkness, at least symbolically. They stand for a future of prosperity and hope. Just walking through a town or village to see the lights is a major attraction that visitors often enjoy. Additionally, the skies will be lit up as well, for setting off firecrackers and fireworks is another traditions that Hindu Sri Lankans are fond of.
- Partake of the abundant local cuisine. Deepavali is not only a “festival” but a “feast,” during which foods of all kinds are consumed as an integral part of the celebrations. Look for such traditional dishes as wattalapam, a Malay pudding made from eggs, coconut milk, cashews, cinnamon, and nutmeg; whole wheat Rotis, which are much like a Sri Lankan tortilla; string hoppers, which are steamed rice noodle “cakes;” puttu, which is steamed rice cylinders infused with coconut meat; rice and curry, an all-time favourite; and local fruits not found in Western lands, such as Jackfruit.
rice flour pressed into noodle form and then steamed. Be prepared to eat off of a lotus or banana leaf, for that is the way of the Sri Lankan Tamil.
- Shop with the locals in the lead up to Deepavali. The pre-season is a huge shopping time, when Hindus buy up hordes of new clothes and gift items to use during the celebrations. While you can go to major malls, the most interesting experience will be to peruse the numerous small shops and street-stalls. Gold jewelry is an especially popular item just before Deepavali, so you may be able to find a good deal on gold necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
- Visit Kandaswamy Kovil, one of the most revered Hindu temples of Sri Lanka, which is located in the northern town of Nallur. It was first built in A.D. 948 but most recently rebuilt in 1749. It has a five-story tower with ornate carvings, which displays the South Indian Dravidian style of architecture. It has many shrines, a garden, a “holy pond,” and other points of interest.