Temple Etiquette

Ok, so this post also has a YouTube video to go with it, you will find it at the end of the post.

Sri Lanka has the highest number of holiday days out of any country in the world, 140 of their days are holidays! This is partly due to the fact that every full moon they celebrate a holiday known as Poya. There is no work, no drinking alcohol, a day for family and temple. This is a Buddhist holiday and we have been lucky enough to be present for about 5 Poya days now. However, this post is about March Poya, we were fortunate enough to be invited by our 2 disabled friends from Volunteer Village to join them at temple. Here is what we learnt about Buddhist temple etiquette:

  • Wear white, flowing clothes. Most women will wear long white skirts and a white blouse, the children often have beautiful frilly white dresses and the men, white trousers or sarongs with a white shirt.
  • 10921643_424785681016249_884962662446374356_o Take flowers, incense and burning oil – not all necessary but the truly religious will always have these things before entering the temple.
  • When entering the temple, phones must be switched off! Shoes must be removed!! This is a sign of respect, not to mention the dagger stares you would receive if your mobile went off!
  • Firstly, walk to the relic (this is kept in the huge, white dome-like buildings, there are usually 4 shrines of Buddha, spaced at North, East, South and West) this is where you give your flowers. Choose a shrine and take your flowers, DO NOT SMELL, (like me and Sherard *facepalm) you will have to throw these away if you do smell. Carefully place each individual flower, always facing upwards, Buddhists chant a prayer whilst doing so.

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  • Next, there is usually a wall or area full of oil burners containing wicks, similar to lighting a candle in Church. You take your oil and top up the cups that are running low.


  • You then light your incense from these burners, DO NOT BLOW OUT, you must shake the stick to dub the flame, again Buddhists chant a prayer whilst doing so. You take your incense and place in the designated areas (you will clearly see, or if not, smell the areas).
  • We were allowed to take photographs at this temple but the rules differ depending on the strictness of the head monk so it is always wise to ask first. If you wish to photograph anyone, always ask permission!!


  • You then walk to the statue of Buddha, placing both hands on the shrine, bring your hands together in a prayer motion, then bring your hands to your forehead whilst bowing your head.

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  • You then move on, there is always a room in every temple that contains a shrine of Buddha surrounded by intricate and colourful frescoes. You repeat the bowing and praying action on the shrine in this room, you may notice Buddhists sitting on the ground, praying in this room. Do NOT touch the frescoes, each statue and painting depicts a specific part of the Buddhist faith – for example, Buddha is sitting surrounded by a huge snake that towers above his head, this snake is protecting him from the rain and shows that all creatures are respected and in turn respect Buddha himself.

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These are just a few of the behaviours we learnt from our friends, though I’m sure there is far more too learn. It is important to know these behaviours as it helps tourists be more aware and therefore respectful of their surroundings. These temples are very important to the Sri Lankan people – 94% of the country follows the Buddhist faith and so if you can show you understand and respect their customs, the Sri Lankan people will greatly appreciate this.

This wasn’t quite where our Poya ended, Dilani took us just past Koggala, a bridge hangs over a small harbour where a river meets the sea but is surrounded by rocks, this creates a serene little lake, a lot of locals swim here as it is safe from currents – most Sri Lankan people (bar fishermen and divers) are not great swimmers. There was a tiny path, I say path, it was a curb that went through bushes and trees and was totally invisible from the road – a hidden, local gem. We climbed through to see the most spectacular sunset since being here and we have seen some crackers!!


We enjoyed rotti on the spit of land separating the lake from the sea, we watched the sun set and the full moon rise. It was a truly magical experience, being friends with people that have had such difficult lives, Dilani has a crippled arm and a bad limp, her family rejected her and no longer speak to her, her brothers and sisters stole from her. Her husband was abusive and she is currently fighting for custody of her baby, she can’t afford her own house and so lives at Volunteer Village with two other girls and yet, she does nothing but smile, laugh and bring joy to the miserable world she came from. I have 2 inspirations in my life, my mum whose heart is so pure her blood is white and Dilani whom keeps fighting for happiness everyday.


We hope you enjoyed this post 🙂 below is a video explanation of temple etiquette by yours truly and the gorgeous Mr Pearson.

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