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Type of Holiday: Religious (Buddhist)
Date of Observation: May-June; full moon day of the Hindu month of Jyestha
Where Celebrated: Sri Lanka
Symbols and Customs: Bodhi Tree, Mango-Tree Stupa, Thuparama Stupa


The full moon day of every month is a holiday in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), an independent island state off the southern tip of India. But the full moon day of the Hindu month of Jyestha, known as Poson, is the second most important holiday (after VESAK) of the year for Sri Lankan Buddhists. It commemorates the day on which, in 306 B . C . E ., Buddhism was introduced there, triggering a widespread and profound revolution in Sri Lanka's cultural and religious life.

Buddhism, one of the four largest religious families in the world, is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B . C . E .), who came to be known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The basic tenets of Buddhism can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are 1) the truth and reality of suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) the way to end suffering is to end desire; and 4) the Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right view or right understanding; 2) right thoughts and aspirations; 3) right speech; 4) right conduct and action; 5) right way of life; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; and 8) right contemplation.

The Sri Lankans have a legend about how Buddhism was introduced to their island. King Tissa was out hunting when he saw a deer grazing near the mountain known as Mihintale, about seven miles from the capital city of Anuradhapura. Because he was a true sportsman, he alerted the deer to his presence so he wouldn't have to shoot it while it was feeding. The deer took off up the mountain with King Tissa in pursuit. Suddenly the deer disappeared and in its place stood a yellow-robed monk. This was Mahinda, the son of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India. After a brief conversation designed to test King Tissa's readiness to receive instruction (see MANGO TREE STUPA ), Mahinda introduced him to the basic tenets of Buddhism. The king was so impressed that he built sixtyeight caves at Mihintale for Mahinda and his companions to live in while they did their missionary work, and it wasn't long before the entire island had been converted to Buddhism.

Mahinda had been sent to Sri Lanka by his father, Asoka, who was a friend of King Tissa and wanted to share with him and his people the rewards of the Buddhist religion. Mahinda stayed in Sri Lanka until his death at age eighty, by which time Buddhism was well established there. A monument, known as the MANGO TREE STUPA , was built near the place where he and King Tissa first met, and now more than 1,800 stone steps lead pilgrims up the mountain to the shrine that houses Mahinda's relics.

Poson is celebrated throughout Sri Lanka, but especially at Anuradhapura and Mihintale, where the buildings and streets are lit up and reenactments of the meeting between Mahinda and King Tissa are a popular entertainment. In addition to visiting Mahinda's shrine, Buddhists make a point of paying homage to the BODHI TREE growing at Anuradhapura, which is believed to have descended from a branch of the original Bodhi Tree in India that is associated with the Buddha's Enlightenment.


Bodhi Tree

According to Buddhist belief, the Buddha (Siddhartha Guatama) was meditating under a ficus or fig tree at Bodh Gaya, a village in central Bihar (India), when he reached the spiritual state known as Enlightenment. Thereafter this fig tree was known as the Bodhi (or Bo) Tree. While Mahinda was preaching Buddhism to the people of Sri Lanka, his sister Sangamitta brought a branch of the original Bodhi Tree to Anuradhapura. It was planted in the royal garden there and can still be seen, with monks standing guard around it as they have done since it was planted. Many believe that it is the world's oldest living tree.

Forty saplings grew from the seeds of this tree and were planted at every Buddhist temple on the island. Although there is no way of ascertaining that fig trees weren't already growing in Sri Lanka when Sangamitta arrived, it is widely believed that all those now in existence are descendants of the branch she brought from India. In any case, the Bodhi Tree remains a symbol of Buddhism.

Mango-Tree Stupa

The Ambasthala or Mango-Tree Stupa, where Mahinda's relics are enshrined, got its name from a series of questions that Mahinda posed to King Tissa as a way of judging his readiness to receive Buddhist teachings. Pointing to a mango tree that was growing nearby, Mahinda asked the king to identify it and then used it as the basis for a riddle. King Tissa solved the riddle brilliantly, thus proving that he was the right person to help Mahinda bring Buddhism to the people of Sri Lanka.

The Mango-Tree Stupa was built just below the peak of Mihintale, where this conversation took place, by one of King Tissa's successors. Many mango trees are now growing in the area, where they stand as a symbol of the historic meeting that resulted in the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka.

Thuparama Stupa

In addition to bringing a branch of the original Bodhi Tree to Sri Lanka, Mihintale's sister Sangamitta also brought some relics of the Buddha. A commemorative monument or stupa was built for his collarbone in Anuradhapura, where it served as an ongoing source of inspiration for Buddhist worshippers. The original stupa was fairly primitive, but it was later rebuilt and eventually turned into a vadatage or relic house, with many columns supporting a circular roof. The remains of these columns can still be seen surrounding the more solid, domelike stupa, now known as Thuparama.


Bechert, Heinz, and Richard Gombrich. The World of Buddhism. New York: Facts on File, 1984. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Bowker, John, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


Kataragama Devotees Trust and the Living Heritage Trust kataragama.org/sacred/mihintale.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


May-June; full moon day of Hindu month of Jyestha
This festival, also called Dhamma Vijaya and Full Moon Day, celebrates the bringing of Buddhism to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). It is second in importance only to Vesak. The story of this day is that King Devanampiya Tissa was chasing a deer in the forest of Mihintale when someone called out his name. He looked up and saw a figure in a saffron-colored robe standing on a rock with six companions. The robed figure was the holy patron of Sri Lanka, Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka of India, who was a convert to Buddhism from Hinduism. He had sent his son and companions as missionaries to Ceylon in about 251 b.c.e. Mahinda converted King Devanampiya Tissa and the royal family, and they in turn converted the common people. Mahinda, who propagated the faith through works of practical benevolence, died in about 204 b.c.e.
While the holiday is celebrated throughout Sri Lanka, the major ceremonies are at the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Mihintale. There, historical events involving Mahinda are reenacted, streets and buildings are decorated and illuminated, and temples are crowded. In Mihintale people climb to the rock where Arahat Mahinda delivered his first sermon to the king. An important part of the festival is paying homage to the branch of the Bodhi Tree brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda's sister, Sanghamita. This is the tree that Gautama sat under until he received enlightenment and became the Buddha.
Sri Lanka Tourist Board
111 Wood Ave. S., Ste. 323
Edison, NJ 08820
732-516-9800; fax: 732-452-0087
EncyRel-1987, vol. 2, p. 551; vol. 4, p. 318
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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