Vesak Day

Singapore Infopedia


Vesak Day, spelt Wesak Day until the 1970s, commemorates the birth, enlightenment and attainment of nirvana of Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni (Sakyamuni) Buddha.1 The day falls on the full moon of the fourth lunar month.2

Celebrations in Singapore
The earliest mention in The Straits Times of Vesak Day being celebrated in Singapore was a notice by jeweller B. P. de Silva on 8 May 1925 which informed that his shop would be closed to celebrate the Wesak Festival.3

The move to make Vesak Day a public holiday only started after World War II. According to Ong Y. D., the first of many petitions to the government to make Vesak Day a public holiday was from the Singapore Buddhist Association in October 1947. Both the Buddhist Theravada and Mahayana communities then united to form a joint Vesak Holiday Committee in 1949. However, in 1950, a government select committee did not recommend adding Vesak Day to the number of holidays, stating that there was “insufficient evidence” of public support.4

It was only in June 1955, after David Marshalls Labour Front government had come to power, that Vesak Day was made a public holiday in Singapore.5 The date for the first Vesak Day celebration was gazetted as 23 May 1956 after consultation with the Singapore Buddhist Association. However, the full moon in May 1956 fell on the 24th. This sparked a protest from other Buddhist groups, particularly the Buddhist Union,6 and the first Vesak Day was eventually moved to 24 May 1956. Despite a subsequent protest by the Singapore Buddhist Association that Vesak Day could not be celebrated on the 24th because of a lunar eclipse that night, the date remained set unchanged.7

Buddhists believe that the merit they achieve from performing good deeds on Vesak Day would be multiplied many times over. General rites and rituals carried out on Vesak Day include the chanting of mantras; releasing of caged birds and animals; having vegetarian meals; and “bathing” a Buddha statue, a reference to the legend of the child Buddha being showered with the waters of nine dragons soon after birth.8 These acts of generosity observed by Buddhist temples are also known as Dana.9 Most statues of the Lord Buddha are illuminated on Vesak Day. The celebrations conclude with a candlelight procession through the streets. Different Buddhist communities in Singapore observe the occasion in varying ways.10

In Singapore, many of the Chinese practise Mahayana (“Greater Way”) Buddhism.11 Mahayana Buddhism was brought to Singapore in 1884 through missionaries from China’s southern province. The focus of Mahayana Buddhism is that nirvana can be attained not only through self-perseverance but also through the help of bodhisattva or “enlightened ones”. One such bodhisattva highly regarded in Singapore is guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Mahayana Buddhist temples in Singapore, such as the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery on Bright Hill Road, practise the “three-step, one-bow” ritual on Vesak Day. Devotees prostrate themselves at every third step, believing that the ritual would purify their minds and help them repent.12

Theravada (Way of the Elders) Buddhism is mainly practised by Singapore’s Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhist communities.13 The focus of Theravada Buddhism is to seek one’s own path to salvation. The Burmese Buddhist Temple at Geylang and the Sri Lankaramaya Temple at St Michael’s Road perform a ritual of cooking a pot of rice in milk on Vesak Day. This is reminiscent of the bowl of rice-milk Buddha accepted from a woman before he attained enlightenment.14

The turn of the century has seen some changes in how Vesak Day is celebrated. Since the 1990s, Buddhist organisations have increasingly turned away from promoting the release of animals. Some organisations have even hosted exhibitions and talks about the adverse effects of releasing animals into the wild.15 In 2004, a group of volunteers started patrolling parks and reservoirs on Vesak Day to educate the public on the issue. This annual effort cumulated in Operation No Release in 2006.16 In 2002, an annual community celebration along Little India's Serangoon Road was started, followed by the Chinatown Vesak Festival at South Bridge Road in 2007.17

On 15 May 2015, the Singapore Buddhist Federation organised a concert to celebrate Vesak Day and Singapore’s 50th birthday. It was held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. More than 6,000 people attended the concert that was put together by some 600 performers.18

Suchitthra Vasu & Timothy Pwee

1. “Birth of Buddha: Religious Significance of the Day,” Straits Times, 12 May 1993, 7; Lea Wee, “Merit Way to Salvation,” Straits Times, 14 May 1995, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “A Day of Celebration,” Straits Times, 13 May 2008, 114. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Page 5 Advertisements Column 2: Notice,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 8 May 1925, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Y. D. Ong, Buddhism in Singapore - A Short Narrative History, with a foreword by Ven. Ajahn Brahm (Singapore: Skylark Publications, 2005), 85. (Call no. RSING 294.3095957 ONG); “'Extra Holidays Not Justified',” Straits Times, 19 July 1950, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Holidays Change in Singapore,” Straits Times, 15 June 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Ong, Buddhism in Singapore, 92.
6. “Wesak Day: Let's Get It Right, Says Buddhists,” Straits Times, 16 April 1956, 7; “Wesak: Decision Today,” Straits Times, 2 May 1956, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Lunar Eclipse on Wesak Day Sets Buddhists Off Again,” Straits Times, 15 May 1956, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Wee, “Merit Way to Salvation”; “Day of Celebration”; “Dances, Songs and Cross-Talks to Celebrate Vesak Day Today,” Straits Times, 14 May 1995, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Ong, Buddhism in Singapore, 93.
9. Evelyn Ng, “Bustle of Activity as Buddhists Celebrate Vesak,” Straits Times, 29 May 1980, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Ong, Buddhism in Singapore, 93.
11. Wee, “Merit Way to Salvation.”
12. Wee, “Merit Way to Salvation.”
13. Wee, “Merit Way to Salvation.”
14. Wee, “Merit Way to Salvation.”
15. Dawn Tan, “Buddhists Advised Not to Free Birds and Animals,” Straits Times, 18 May 1995, 24. (From NewspaperSG); “Day of Celebration.”
16. Theresa Tan, “Fewer Cases of Animals Released into the Wild,” Straits Times, 13 May 2006, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Boon Chan, “Parade, Chinatown Light-Up to Mark Vesak,” Straits Times, 19 May 2007, 2; “Celebrate Vesak Day in Little India,” Straits Times, 17 May 2002, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Melody Zaccheus, “Concert to Celebrate Vesak Day and SG50 to Be Held at the Indoor Stadium on May 15,” 2 March 2015.

The information in this article is valid as at October 2019 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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