If you’re planning to travel around Southeast Asia and a trip to Indonesia is on the cards, we recommend that you visit in early spring to witness how Buddhists from all across the country meet up to observe the holy Waisak Day festival.
It’s a day that promises vibrant colours, plenty of celebrations and many spectacular sights. Even if you are not a Buddhist, this day offers plenty of varied traditions that are marvelous to witness.
This article will explain the significance of the festival and explain how the day is celebrated in Indonesia, namely at the Borobudur temple – the largest Buddhist structure in the world.
About Waisak Day:
Waisak Day is a major event in the religious calendar for most Asian Buddhists, who celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha on this day. Those who observe the religion use it as an opportunity to pay homage to The Enlightened One, seizing the opportunity to reiterate their devotion to principles of Buddhism: the determination to lead a noble life, the promise to develop their minds, the practice of love and kindness and the strive for peace and harmony with humanity.
This significant and traditional holy day is observed throughout Indonesia, and beyond too: other countries that celebrate this holiday include Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand.
As with many religious holidays or traditions observed around the world, the name of the day can vary from place to place. While known as Waisak Day in Indonesia, the holiday is more commonly known as “Vasak” Day elsewhere. In some areas, it is known as “Visakah Puja” which means “Buddha’s Day”, when translated from Sanskrit. Sometimes, the holiday is also referred to informally as “Buddha’s birthday” too.
Waisak is typically celebrated on the first full moon day in May, but this can also vary from country to country due to differences in how lunar calendars are interpreted. Some cultures will stretch celebrations across several days.
How Waisak Day is celebrated:
How the festival is celebrated can also vary depending on location as each country has its down set of traditions. Typically, devout Buddhists will meet at temples and attend a ceremony before dawn, where they will hoist the iconic Buddhist flag and sing hymns. Buddhists might bring bright floral offerings to the ceremony as flowers are a symbol of that even something so beautiful can wither and die, and a reminder that all life is subject to decay. Some Buddhists might choose to eat only vegetarian food during this holy day too.
Many Buddhists will release hundreds of small animals into the wild, such as birds or insects in an act of “liberation”; this is a symbolic act designed to wish freedom upon those who are in captivity, imprisoned or tortured against their will.
Devout Buddhists might choose to make charitable donations to the less fortunate and will seek to bring happiness to those who need it most on this day, such as the elderly, the handicapped and the ill of health.
About Borobudur, Indonesia and how the festival is celebrated here:
Borobudur is a Buddhist stupa and temple complex, located in Central Java, Indonesia. It dates back to the 8th Century and has been awarded UNESCO world heritage site status. It’s a large, ancient monument and the largest Buddhist structure on earth. The temple is set against a magnificent backdrop of active volcanoes and stunning scenery, making it an unmissable destination for those traveling around Indonesia.
Borobudur is a central meeting point for thousands of Indonesian Buddhists who will flock here to celebrate the holy day. It’s not unknown for Buddhists from abroad to fly over especially too.
Waisak Day at Borobudur will be celebrated on Saturday, May 25th in 2013 and the day will be a public holiday in Indonesia.
At Borobudur, thousands of Buddhist monks will join together to repeat mantras and meditate as they circuit the temple in a ritual called “Pradaksina”. This is a form of tribute to the temple. Rituals feature heavily the Borobudur celebrations, especially those that are symbolic. In 2012, monks celebrated the special day by bottling holy water (which symbolises humility) and transporting flames (which signifies light and enlightenment) from location to location. The monks also took park in the “Pindapata” ritual, where they received charity from the people of Indonesia.
Each year, one of the many Indonesian Buddhist organisations will take the lead in the festivities and organise the famous 15,000-strong procession that marks the special day and concludes the celebrations. Last year, the festival ended with a spectacular candle-lit walk from Candi Mendut to Borobudur where one thousand lanterns were set free in the night sky. As you can imagine, this created an impressive and magical display.
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Can spectators watch?
Last year, people were invited to visit Borobudur to enjoy the procession and celebrate the day on the grounds in front of the temple, but understandably, guests were unable to climb the temple during proceedings.
Milda is a guest contributor at Indonesia Travel Guide. She is the Community Manager @ AsiaRooms. Born in Lithuania (love it!), studied in the UK, travelled around Asia and USA, taught in Africa and now residing in Singapore where, equipped with a strong cup of coffee and surrounded by an amazing team I’m blogging about travels, cultures, events and hotels in Asia.