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Celebrating Vesak Day in Singapore
This is the day Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. It is a time of joy, peace, good deeds and reflection.
According to the last census in 2020, 31% of Singaporeans practise Buddhism. This makes Vesak Day the biggest festival celebrated on the Little Red Dot.
If you aren’t Buddhist, you could still take time out to see this fascinating festival, a testament to the rich cultural diversity of Singapore.
How it is Vesak Day observed
Celebrations begin early as Buddhists gather in temples around the island. The Buddhist flag is hoisted, prayers chanted and offerings made of flowers, candles and joss sticks. As they burn, they signify that life is fragile and transient and all things eventually pass away.
Temples also set out altars with a small statue of the infant Buddha. This is in reference to the legend that the Buddha was showered with waters of nine dragons after birth. Devotees re-enact the events at Buddha’s birth by ‘bathing’ the statue with perfumed water as a way to cleanse away bad karma. They also share a vegetarian meal and listen in to the teaching of monks. This is a Day of Goodwill, so Buddhists are encouraged to carry out charitable deeds and refrain from killing of any sort. In keeping with this, practitioners generally observe a meat-free diet. Good deeds are performed on Vesak Day as devotees believe this will bring them even more merit.
Traditionally caged birds and animals had been released as a symbol of liberation, but this has been discouraged in recent years in Singapore to protect the local ecosystem.
In Singapore, Vesak Day was declared a public holiday in 1955 following many petitions.
Where to view the festivities for Vesak Day
Tourists and onlookers are generally made very welcome but are advised to keep a respectful distance and observe any special requirements regarding dress codes and the removal of shoes. Some of the best places to check out the celebrations are:
Phor Kark See Temple on Bright Hill Road (also known as Bright Hill Temple). It is Singapore’s largest Buddhist temple. Catch the candlelit procession and ceremony where a flame is passed from one lotus-shaped candle to the next, signifying the passing on of Buddha's teachings.
You'll also see devotees worshipping during the two-and-a half hour-long three-step, one-bow ritual, taking steps on both knees, bowing at every third step to pray for world peace, personal blessings, and repentance. This is a practice carried out by Mahayana Buddhists. The temple also offers tours of its museum on this day.
Lian Shan Shuang Lin Temple or the Twin Grove of the Lotus Mountain Buddhist Temple (184 Jalan Toa Payoh, 319944) is situated on 20 hectares of land and, at more than a century old, is Singapore’s oldest Buddhist temple and the second largest in Asia. This beautiful complex is off the tourist map and well worth the trip.
Mangala Vihara Temple (30 Jln Eunos, 419495) was built in its current location in 1959. On Vesak Day, the sacred bodhi tree located in its compound is decorated with prayer offerings and other items. Relics of the Buddha and Venerable Sivali (a pre-eminent disciple of the Buddha) are brought out for public viewing on this day as well.
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (288 South Bridge Road, 058840) houses a relic said to be the tooth of the Buddha. The temple’s architecture combines design elements from both the Tang dynasty as well as the Buddhist Mandala. On this special day, 2,000 lanterns are set up around the grounds – a sight to behold indeed. You’ll also not want to miss the cultural museum which houses numerous sacred artefacts such as the tongue and bone of the Buddha.
Amitabha Buddhist Centre is a non-profit organisation officially established on 1 January 1989. It usually sets up a large white tent at the open grounds next to Aljunied MRT and holds a slew of activities to celebrate the occasion.
Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple is also known as the Temple of 1,000 lights. Its centrepiece is a 15-m tall Buddha statue nestled in a chain of lights. At the foot of the statue is a fresco detailing Buddha’s life events. At the end of the Vesak celebrations, the statue is covered in gold leaf donated by members of the temple.