Celebrating Vesak (or Wesak) Day in Penang

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

"Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." – Buddha.

Vesak day falls on full moon in May. Also known as Buddha Purnima, it is considered as a holy celebration for the Buddhists as the day commemorates with Gautama Buddha's birth, enlightenment (nirvāna), and death (Parinirvāna).

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

The decision to agree to celebrate Vesak as the Lord Buddha’s birthday was formalised at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950, although festivals at this time in the Buddhist world are a centuries-old tradition.

Vesak is observed traditionally by Buddhists in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and the South East Asian countries including Malaysia. Here in Penang, Vesak is celebrated with much colour and gaiety.

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

Buddhists visits their local temple throughout Penang for services and teaching. Chanting and praying are an important part of this holy day.

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

The 'bathing the Buddha' is also a common ritual on Vesak. Water is poured over the shoulders of the Buddha as a reminder to purify minds from greed, hatred and ignorance.

Gifts are taken to an altar to be offered to the Buddha statues. This shows respect and gratitude to the Buddha for his life and teachings. Some will even release pigeons and tortoise as a symbolic gesture of kindness in releasing the soul.

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

In Penang, the annual Vesak Day procession through the streets of George Town have been organised since 1949 and is being run entirely by devotee volunteers and funded through donations. The grand float procession usually starts in the evening, from the Malaysian Buddhist Association at Burmah Road. Buddhist devotees from all walks of life, both young and old, participate by follow the procession which passes through the streets of George Town. Beautiful floats with colourful flowers and bright lights are accompanied by children singing and monks chanting prayers while sprinkling holy water throughout the procession journey. 

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

Although the celebrations for Vesak day come to an end after the procession, what resonates more here are the teachings of Lord Buddha.

The heart of his teachings is contained in the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, namely:

  • The Noble Truth of Dukkha or suffering,
  • The Origin or Cause of suffering,
  • The End or Cessation of suffering, and
  • The Path which leads to the cessation of all sufferings.

The message of the Buddha stands today as unaffected by time and the expansion of knowledge as when they were first enunciated. His teachings appeal to reason and freedom of thought, recognising the dignity and potentiality of the human mind. It calls for equality, fraternity and understanding, exhorting its followers to avoid evil, to do good and to purify their minds.


Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 4 May 2020