Sri Lanka’s ancient city Anuradhapura is a must on any itinerary, but it is particularly special during a full moon Poya Day.

Two hundred kilometers from Colombo, at the tip of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, lies the sacred city of Anuradhapura. Many visitors to the teardrop-shaped island will trek north to see Sigiriya, the rock fortress, but far fewer will travel the extra kilometers to Anuradhapura. Those who do are treated to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former ancient capital. Imagine a 40-kilometer stretch of land dotted with magnificent monastic monuments dating back to the third century B.C. — a city of ruins, temples, monks, and wild monkeys.

Indeed, what gives this city its allure and intrigue is its historical legacy. It is the birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Because of this, the city is at its most spectacular when visited during one of Sri Lanka’s holy Poya Days. If you come to Anuradhapura on one of these holidays, you will witness a sacred tradition — one that brings the city and culture to life.

Luckily for tourists, there are 12 (sometimes 13) Poya Days every year, with one occurring each month on the Full Moon. Each Poya Day marks a different historical event in Buddhism, from Buddha’s birth to his first visit to Sri Lanka. For monks, the days are ones of confession, when they are expected to communally recite the rules of Monastic life, known as the Patimokkha. For the Buddhist layman, a Poya Day is a public holiday across the country.

Join Pilgrims in Prayer

Visit any of the monastic monuments in Anuradhapura during a Poya Day and you will come across crowds of the faithful. These individuals are drawn here by the city’s religious importance. They can be seen everywhere — removing their shoes and sitting on the ground as they are guided in prayer by monks over a loudspeaker, air thick with incense and the hum of meditation.  

When they’re not in prayer, they carry flowers, light candles, and tread barefoot, clad in pristine white garments that seem to never collect dust. Be prepared to stick out, but be graciously welcomed by the Sinhalese. If you’re particularly lucky someone may even take your hand, smile, and offer you a spot on the ground next to them.

Visit the Sri Maha Bodi Tree

One of the most popular spots for worship on Poya Days is near the 2,000-year-old Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree. Located in the sprawling Mahamevnāwa Park, the tree is regarded as the most sacred site in the city. The fig tree is said to have grown from a sampling from the Indian Bodhi tree under which Buddha himself attained Enlightenment. The sapling was brought to Anuradhapura in the 3rd Century B.C., by a woman named Sanghamitta, the daughter of the Indian emperor, Ashoka. The sapling was then planted by King Devanampiya Tissa, ruler of Anuradhapura at the time, an act that came to signal the beginning of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

To cope with the influx of pilgrims who visit, the tree is now guarded by a gold fence. Despite the barrier, it is still possible to glimpse the branches stretching skywards as you shuffle past, shoulder to shoulder with pilgrims.

View the Sacred Stupas

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A visit to Anuradhapura is not complete without marveling at some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful stupas. The word “stupa” is a Sanskrit word meaning “heap,” reflected in the structured dome-like shapes rising from the ground in bright whites, golds, and earthy browns. They stand immense,  ancient, and solidly immovable — so much so that one cannot help but stand in awe of their magnitude.

One of Anuradhapura’s most popular stupas is the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa. Built in 140 B.C., it is one of the largest and most decorative of its kind. Its architectural beauty is not its only draw card — pilgrims also flock here because it is one of only 16 places in the country said to have been visited by Buddha himself.

Not far off is the Thuparama Stupa. Constructed by King Devanampiya Tissa soon after he introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka, it is known as the “first Stupa” in Sri Lanka and is said to enshrine Buddha’s collarbone.

Observe the Colorful Buddhist Flag-Wrapping Ceremony

Those fortunate enough to pass through Anuradhapura on a Poya Day will witness magnificent stupas partially wrapped in the bright colors of the Buddhist flag. The Buddhist flag, with its bright white, blue, orange, yellow, and red hues, represents the colors of the aura that emanated from the Buddha when he obtained Enlightenment.

The flag-wrapping ritual begins when huge ribbons of colorful cloth are transported by lines of pilgrims to the foot of the stupa. The pilgrims hold the cloth, transporting it with care and reverence. Yet the march is also colourful and upbeat, accompanied by flag-bearers, the sound of trumpets, and the beating of drums. Eventually, monks gather the cloth and wrap it around the base of the stupa. Observing the ceremony can take a while, but it is worth it for the atmosphere, which manages to be like both a street-party and sacred ceremony.

Walk through an Ancient Forest Monastery

If, by now, you are suffering from stupa fatigue or simply feeling overwhelmed by the crowds, relief is close at hand with a visit to the much quieter and lusher Vessagiriya. This quiet parkland is the remains of an ancient forest monastery where around 500 monks lived during the 3rd century B.C. The site is scattered with large rock ruins that you are free to walk between. The rocks are actually the shelters where the Vessagiriya monks once lived. As you marvel at the ancient dwellings, you may come across peacocks and monkeys roaming the grounds. Vessagiriya is not nearly as busy as other parks in Anuradhapura, giving it a special, unspoiled quality. It’s the perfect place to end your Poya Day and contemplate just how ancient and important this city is to the Singahelse.

You can find the Poya Day Calendar for 2017 here.

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Will Higginbotham
Will is an avid traveler and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Since his first trip overseas in 2010, Will has caught the travel bug and spent time in over 20 countries. He travels to challenge himself and to understand more of what it means to be human. When not exploring outdoors, he can be found taking photos, writing, reading, and working as a junior producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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