The birthday of Siddhartha Gautama, is also known as Vesak or Visakah Puja, although its most common name is simply Buddha’s Birthday.
This annual event is the most important holiday for Buddhists across the world, particularly the branch of Mahayana Buddhism. Held on the first full moon day within May (except for leap years) this year’s observation falls on 6 May 2014. Next year Buddha’s Birthday falls on 25 May 2015.
Buddha’s Birthday is also traditionally known as Vesak, Visakha Puja (in Thailand) and Lễ Phật đản (in Vietnam). Vesak is the most widely celebrated Buddhist festival as it marks the birth, enlightenment Nirvana and death of Buddha.
The annual holiday of Buddha’s Birthday is observed by Buddhists across the world, although the more high-profile celebrations are to be found across South and South East Asia. Countries such as Nepal, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Pakistan and Indonesia, Pakistan and India mark the occasion with great fervour.
In Sri Lanka the annual holiday is also known as the Buddhist Festival of Light, where colourful bamboo-framed lanterns are displayed in homes across the country. There are joyous light displays on the streets and in particular Bhauddoloka Mawatha – the main street in the capital city of Colombo – puts on a magnificent light display. Residents across Sri Lanka also celebrate with prayers, processions and street performances.
In Malaysia Vesak is celebrated before dawn at various Buddhist temples with prayers, chanting and offerings. It’s said that good karma can be achieved for all those that release caged animals – as a symbolic gesture, frogs, birds and tortoises are released from cages from the temple steps.
Buddhists in Vietnam also observe the day, with residents of the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, really going to town. Pagodas are lavishly decorated, particularly the graceful Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda. Temples are adorned with huge coils of burning incense and these revered buildings also sport cheerfully colourful lanterns, whilst monks hold processions through major cities such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Nang.
In Singapore crowds gather at Buddhist temples to celebrate Vesak, where local monks chant holy sutras. Caged birds are released as a mark of respect to living creatures and in the evening there are candlelit processions through the streets.
Onto Thailand where local Buddhists devotees celebrate Vesak by gathering at temples to take in the monks’ sermons, give donations and offer prayers. Thai people also increase their chances of positive karma by performing good deeds.
And in India, Vesak celebrations are at their most lively in Mumbai, where the temples bedeck their rafters with incense coils and this is where devotees spend the day worshipping. Followers also decorate their houses, give up eating meat and undertake charitable acts such as buying caged birds specifically to set free.