Photo credit: Moran Perera - Photo: 2019

The Unique Sights & Sounds of Sri Lanka Come Alive in America

By Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana

The writer is Former Deputy Director General, United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV), Director, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, and President Emeritus, International Institute of Space Law & Policy.

NEW YORK (IDN) – When the annual Sri Lanka Day was celebrated in the historic city of Pasadena, Sri Lanka took its rightful place among the ethnic festivals held in America. The featured event of the day was the ‘Pageant of Lanka’, a miniature Kandy Perahera. It took the breath away of the onlookers who filed along the historic route of the annual New Year’s Day Rose Parade, the most prestigious parade in America. 

The United States is a nation of immigrants with many religions and ethnic groups. Many of these groups have festival days, holy days, or unique customs related to their faith or their society of origin. 

New ethnic groups arriving in recent times from all over the world have brought with them a diversity of languages, religious practices, food, craft traditions, music, styles of dress and decoration, and unique ways of Capturing the spirit of their motherlands.

During ethnic celebrations, immigrants display and enjoy many of their native cultural traditions while joining with others from their homelands. 

Some customs which hark back to the traditions of other countries lend a great deal of colour to American life. The celebration of Mardi Gras is a tradition in New Orleans, that grew out of old French traditions. In various cities, other ethnic groups sponsor parades or other events of great interest, adding pageantry and merriment to American life.

Among the well-known ethnic celebrations are Saint Patrick’s Day in the United States which is a time of celebration for people of Irish descent, particularly in New York City, where a grand parade is held.

These festivals are growing in number and popularity and include the Greek Festival, the Middle Eastern Festival, the Scottish Highland Games, and the Hispanic Festival. In areas where Americans of Chinese descent live, such as in the Chinatown sections of New York City and San Francisco, California, people sponsor traditional Chinese New Year’s celebrations with feasts, parades, and fireworks.

The Cinco de Mayo (“Fifth of May”) is the annual festivity that honours the Mexican heritage of a growing number of U.S. citizens, with a focus on Mexico’s distinctive cuisine, folk dances, colourful costumes, and mariachi music. Carnival celebrations are held by Brazilians, Caribbean immigrants, Germans, and others, with revelry and costumes commonly found in Carnival celebrations. 

They are big public celebrations that are very elaborate and shared with the public at large and intended to expose their culture and tradition to the Americans. Many other celebrations are attended only by community members.

These occasions also offer a time for people of the same ethnicity to share traditional foods, dance, music, and other arts and wear traditional dresses, and participate in ethnic traditions and enjoy customs that connect them with their homelands and with one another.

Such celebrations are common among recent immigrants, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees who began coming in the mid-1970s, followed by more-recent refugee populations, including Somalians, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Ukrainians, Russians and Arabs.

Many such ethnic celebrations are calendar events commemorating political holidays, religious holidays and calendar holidays. The sacred month of Ramadan observed by Muslims and the Diwali celebrated by the Indians are examples of religious festivals. 

Calendar determined immigrant Independence Day marks a significant historical event—the day a country was founded or reclaimed. For those no longer living in their home country, Independence Day draws people from the same country together. Mexicans, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, Ghanaians, and many other groups including the Sri Lankans, celebrate their respective Independence Days.  

Los Angeles is the most diverse county in the U.S., and many cultures have large enough communities to hold one or more cultural festivals each year. It is the home for the largest Sri Lankan community in the United States. Naturally, it is the centre where the biggest Sri Lankan celebration, the ‘Sri Lanka Day,’ takes place.  

Sri Lanka Day celebrations are sponsored and organized by the Sri Lanka Foundation, a brainchild of Dr. Walter Jayasinghe, a leading expatriate physician who came to the United States in the early 1960s. In 2003 he established the Foundation to promote Sri Lankan cultural activities in the United States and expose the American public to the many facets of the historical heritage and culture of Sri Lanka.

Throughout the year the Foundation carries out a series of activities to promote Sri Lankan culture. It has established the Sri Lanka Foundation Performing Arts Center, which conducts free classes to promote cultural activities such as traditional Sri Lankan dance and drumming, and language.

It holds an awards ceremony to honour Sri Lankan expatriates for their exceptional work in their fields of activities, and to inspire the young generation to follow the examples of such eminent expatriate Sri Lankans. The admirable vision and tenacity of the Founder Dr. Jayasinghe in carrying out such a challenging task and committing a considerable amount of funds is highly appreciated by the Sri Lankan community in the United States.  

The premier event of the Foundation is the annual Sri Lanka Day celebration. It is a day when the sights and sounds and the unique taste of Sri Lanka come alive in the midst of one of Southern California’s glamorous cities, Pasadena.

The Festival is held on the sprawling promenade of the historic Pasadena Town Hall, attracting tens of thousands of visitors to the event. Sri Lanka Day brings the entire Sri Lankan community to the event to support and enjoy the day.  

The Foundation has designed the celebrations partly to pass on the traditions of Sri Lankan culture and traditions to the younger generation of Sri Lankans. It features Sri Lankan traditional products, clothing, art, artefacts, foods, music, dances, art, and theatre.

Visitors are treated to a tour de force of Sri Lankan fashionable clothing jewelry, sweets, spices, and a taste of the famous Sri Lankan tea. The food stalls featuring Sri Lankan delicacies are the Favourite congregating spots for all visitors who are treated to the unique taste of Sri Lankan hoppers, kotthu roti, rice and curry, patties, cutlets, and a variety of other authentic food.

Mesmerizing dance and music performances are staged throughout the day from ten to ten to captive audiences. Traditional Kandyan, low country and Kauthuvam dance performances, featuring vibrant costumes, and ornate jewellery; Raban Gee with Raban Pada, Hela Gee Rangana, Thaala Nada, and other Sri Lankan classical and popular songs accompanied by well-choreographed dances with breath-taking spin movements and pulsating drumming keeps the crowds entranced.

The performances are interspersed with a cultural fashion show with Sri Lankan models showcasing Sri Lankan costumes on the catwalk. As the sun goes down, the stage is transformed to accommodate the big bands that play Sinhala, Hindi and English songs popular in Sri Lanka culminating in a Baila session that brings the audience to the floor to dance the evening away. 

The highlight of the day is the ‘Pageant of Lanka’ that winds its way along the famous Colorado Boulevard which is cordoned off for traffic. A courtesy only accorded to the famed annual Rose Parade on New Year Day.  

The ‘Pageant of Lanka’ depicts the annual Kandy ‘Esala Perahera’, the flamboyant annual procession which is the ultimate celebration and showcase of Sri Lanka’s rich heritage and vibrant culture, conducted in homage to the sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha.

The Pageant of Lanka is a mini sample of the iconic Kandy Perahera and features a procession of ceremonial musicians, drummers, dancers, singers, stilt walkers, whip crackers, flag bearers, sword carriers, Sesath Carriers, led by elegantly dressed Nilames and various other performers accompanied by several elaborately adorned elephants including the casket carrier mounted on wheels parading the streets in celebration.

Following the traditions of the host country, the procession is augmented with several elaborately decorated floats mounted on truck beds depicting historical and religious themes from Sri Lanka. They are painstakingly decorated over many days by the sponsoring temples in the area, Associations of Old Boys and Old Girls of Sri Lankan Schools and local commercial establishments operated by Sri Lankans.

This year, the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States, Mr. Rodney Perera, the Mayor of Pasadena, and Dr. Jayasingha, rode on an open antique car, as Marshals of the Parade. Staging the Sri Lanka Day is a gigantic task. Each year, as soon as the day ends, the planning and preparation for the following year begin. Over 500 volunteers work to make it happen.  

With the elaborate events that were well planned and presented this year, Sri Lanka Day came of age to take its place beside the other more established ethnic celebrations in the United States.

According to some accounts, the Sri Lanka Day celebrations early July this year exceeded the standards set by long-established ethnic events. It should be a matter of pride to every Sri Lankan at home and elsewhere that their countrymen can stand side by side with other nations wherever they may be.  

This reviewer concludes by wishing the Sri Lanka Day celebrations greater success in the years ahead. Chiran Jayatu! [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 August 2019]

Photo credit: Moran Perera

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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