I had been in Colombo, Sri Lanka for several months working for a multinational when I noticed a unique holiday celebrated here every month: the Poya day. This is the most significant religious holiday for the Sinhala Buddhists of the country. All Poya days are public holidays and shops are banned from selling meat or alcohol on these days. Yet, initially, I was confused as to why there was a Poya holiday every single month.
Colorful Buddhist flags hung on the sacred Bodhi tree
Sinhala Buddhists, like majority of the Asian Buddhists, have adopted the lunar calendar for their religious activities. Each Poya falls on a full moon, not necessarily on the same day as in the Gregorian calendar. The Sinhala word ‘Poya’ is derived from the Sanskrit term uposatha, which means “fast day.” (Buddhists don’t actually fast on Poya days.) In pre-Buddhist India, various ascetics ceased seeking worldly pleasures on full moon days and instead engaged in religious activities such as fasting. The Buddha, in a way, adopted this practice and preached his most important sermons on full moon days. When Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in 247 BC, the Poya tradition also followed.
A row of beautiful Buddha statues at the temple
The practicing Sinhala Buddhists observe 12 Poya days a year, each full moon marking an occasion important to Buddhist doctrine or to Sri Lankan Buddhism. Monks on this day review the Disciplinary Code and confess any shortcomings in their conduct to fellow monks. The lay Buddhists observe the day in a more intriguing manner.
A Sri Lankan co-worker of mine, a devout Buddhist, was kind enough to invite me so I could witness how his family observed this day. The November full moon is called the Il (pronounced “ill”) Poya, which commemorates the Buddha commissioning 60 disciples to spread his teachings. My co-worker and his family picked me up from my apartment and we went to the temple their family has been attending for two generations. Usually, Buddhist temples are quiet and mostly empty. On Poya days the sandy temple grounds are overtaken by a sea of white-clad crowds, mostly in their elderly years. We bought some purple and white lotuses sold at a stall by the entrance to the temple. These are offered to the Buddha and signify the impermanence of being.
Lighting up oil lamps is a Buddhist worshipping ritual
The lay Buddhists on Poya days are instructed to strictly observe the Five Precepts of Buddhism: refrain from killing, refrain from stealing, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from lying and refrain from drugs and alcohol. If they prefer, they can follow the more elaborate Eight Precepts, which includes abstaining from mid-day solid foods, dancing, singing and avoiding high seats.
Coral-white stupa and serene Buddha statues on tranquil temple grounds
At the temple, I watched as my co-worker and his family offered the lotuses to a coral white Buddha statue and chanted in Pali, the liturgical language of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Many other chants chorused throughout the small temple as devotees prostrated themselves in front of the Buddha or the sacred Bodhi tree. I stood behind the crowd and absorbed this spectacular display of devotion, a sense of serenity washing over me.