The Sinhala and Tamil New Year or as we all call it Avurudu in Sinhala, has become an important national holiday for both Sinhala Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka. It is unique because it is not celebrated in any other country as a national festival.
There is greenery everywhere; fresh leaves on trees, flowers in bloom, vegetables and fruits in plenty and the songs of birds in the air. The aroma of sweetmeat, the sound of raban and the koha’s cry, symbolizes that the entire country is ready to celebrate this national festival.
According to the Sinhala calendar, Sri Lankans begin celebrating ‘Aluth Avurudu’ in Sinhala and ‘Puththandu’ in Tamil, in the month of Bak when the sun moves from the Meena Rashiya to the Mesha Rashiya. The name ‘Bak’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘bhagya’ meaning ‘fortunate’. The month of Bak corresponds to April in the Gregorian calendar, which is commonly used in Sri Lanka as in other parts of the world.
The Aluth Avurudda signifies the reaping of the harvest and social customs, especially of the farming community. After the Maha harvest, the farmers celebrate the occasion by giving thanks. And these customs and rituals portray the beliefs and thoughts of these people whose life is centred around agriculture.
Rituals associated with the Aluth Avurudda begin with bathing on the last day of the old year and viewing the moon on the same night. The pealing of the bell accompanied with the beating of drums (hewisi) in the village temple announces the times to perform the different rituals.
The custom of offering betel to parents and elders symbolises the act of paying gratitude. The children in turn receive blessings from their parents. The sense of goodwill and friendship among relations and friends is also seen during the festival time.
Something unique about Avurudu is the celebration of the beginning of the New Year as well as the conclusion of the old year as specified by astrologers. And unlike in the customary ending and beginning of the new year, when it comes to the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, there is a period in between, which is called the nonagathe (neutral period). During this time, people keep off from all types of work and engage in religious activities. It is for this reason that it is also called the “Punya Kalaya”.
Before Avurudu it is customary for every housewife to give a new look to her old house. In villages, the floor, if not cemented, is given a fresh application of cow dung mixed with earth. Preparation of sweetmeats, such as kevum, kokis, atirasa, aggala, aluva and asmi takes place at least three days before the new year.
The customary bathing for the passing year is equally important. A herbal bath gives physical purification. When one takes a herbal bath, anointed with gingelly oil or mustard oil, it provides a soothing effect on the body. Traditionally, the anointing is done by an old person who is healthy.
In most villages, the temple is the venue for applying the ‘nanu’ before bathing and is usually done by an elderly priest, with blessings for health and longevity. Anointing is considered an exclusive right of the male.
A certain mysterious force is attributed to the leaves used for anointing the head. They are selected in relation to the day of the week on which the rituals have to be performed, e.g. ‘Imbul’ on Sundays, ‘Divul’ on Mondays, ‘Kolong’ on Tuesdays, ‘Kohomba’ on Wednesdays, ‘Bo’ on Thursdays, ‘Karanda’ on Fridays and ‘Nuga’ on Saturdays.
Another prominent feature of the Avurudu is the respect paid to elders and the strengthening of relationships with neighbours. Usually, visiting relations and friends, exchanging presents and greeting them with a sheaf of betel is the order of the day.
Avurudu involves some interesting games as well. During this period many engage in playing outdoor games. Famous national games are olinda keliya, eluvan keliya, mevara sellama, raban upatha, buhu keliya, muthi gesilla, muthu keliya, onchili varam and mee sellama.
The arrival of the Avurudu Kumaraya attired in princely clothes symbolises the dawn of the New Year. The prince comes in a horse-drawn carriage and his clothes vary in colour from year to year, in keeping with the colour meant for that particular year.
There is also an auspicious time for the womenfolk to commence work at their respective homes. Facing the specified direction, they light the hearth to prepare the traditional kiribath. Prior to this, milk is boiled in a new earthen pot and allowed to boil over, symbolising prosperity. The hath maluwa with seven different flavours which is considered a delicacy is a speciality dish prepared during Avurdu. Other festive sweetmeats are generally made in advance to serve visitors and send to neighbours as a sign of goodwill.
Meals too are taken at an auspicious time. Did you know that taking meals at an auspicious time with all family members sitting together is a noble, and healthy custom.
Avurudu, which is rich in culture and tradition could be celebrated by all as a national festival and its unique features are made use of to promote friendship among people.
The Hindus also celebrate the New Year, commonly known as ‘Puththandu’, by observing the traditions and rituals practised by ancestors over the years. However, they are slightly different to those of the Sinhalese.
Homes are cleaned and made ready prior to the event. On the day of the Avurudu, during the auspicious time, Maruthu Neer – clean water boiled with various herbs, selected flowers and leaves, milk, saffron and other ingredients are made by the priests in temples. The Maruthu Neer is then applied on the heads of all family members prior to bathing. New clothes are recommended according to the colours mentioned in the almanac. Sweet rice is made if possible with new raw red rice, jaggery, cashew nuts, ghee and plums.
The area in front of the house is cleaned and sprinkled with saffron water, and cowdung. A decorative design ‘Kolam’ is done with raw white rice flour. The hearth is made a little distance away facing the East, and a new pot is used to cook the ‘Pongal’. Lamps are lit by the housewife, and the head of the household arranges the Mangala Kumbam.
A pot with five mango leaves and a coconut, lit joss sticks, a tray of flowers, betel leaves, arecanuts, comb of bananas and the sweet rice are offered to the Sun God and Lord Ganesh to complete the pooja. A coconut is broken by the head of the household and incense is burnt.The elders in the family bless the children, who worship them and seek their blessings and good wishes.
A visit to the temple is a must. Customarily alms should be offered to the poor. During the auspicious time, the sweet rice is partaken by the family. Later the head of the family gives money, betel leaves, paddy and flowers – “Kai Vishesham” to the family members and wishes them good luck.
The head of the family performs, “Er Mangalam” – during this time. Being an agrarian community, ploughing becomes the traditional act on New Year’s Day. Likewise, a teacher would start a lesson, a trader starts a new account, a craftsman starts his craft and so on.
Visiting relatives and entertaining relatives and friends are also important features of the New Year celebrations.