Sinhala and Tamil New Year is celebrated across Sri Lanka in April by the island’s two main ethnic groups. Originally a harvest festival, this event marks the passage of the sun from the constellation Pisces to Aries. The holiday is celebrated with traditional rituals, merrymaking, feasting and fun and games. Sinhala New Year is the Buddhist New Year. Tamil New Year is the Hindu New Year. They are both celebrated at the same time.

New Year — known as Aluth Avurudhu in Sinhala and Puththandu in Tamil — coincides with end of the harvest season and the run up to the monsoon season. It is a time when everything it seems has a special auspicious meaning or has to be done in a prescribed way. People are anointed in oil, cook and eat “kiri bath” (milk rice) and conduct their first business of the year. There are special clothes that are worn and proscribed directions that are faced when doing certain activities to maximize good fortune.

The New Year holiday season lasts for about a week. Many shops are closed and the public transport system is packed as people return to their home villages. When the family is all gathered together the house is thoroughly cleaned and a ritual “raban” drum is pounded. The first official act of the new year is the lighting of the hearth which is used to make the kiri bath. Other foods associated with the holiday include plantains, “kokis” (a Dutch sweetmeat) and “kaung” (an oily cake). Gifts are exchanged, often new clothes are put on after they are received.

Because the new year coincides with the time when the harvest ends, colorful fruit from the trees is collected in bulk to fuel the week-long celebrations. Festivities are prepared well in advance and most of the country grinds to a halt as hundreds travel home to be with their families and stores close down in their wake — it can be impossible to track down the simplest of things just before it all starts. Wealthy Sri Lankans make it an excuse to come home from wherever they are to make it a long holiday season. Those who can't handle the heat of the pre-monsoon season in the south escape to the cooler hills and indulge in the expensive pastimes of the elite — such as polo, golf, tennis and motor racing.

Bak and the Sinhala and Tamil New Year Season

Sinhala and Tamil New Year takes place in the month of Bak (April), which means “Times of Plenty”. Rohana R. Wasala wrote in The Island: The Sinhala Hindu New Year - the Aluth Avurudda - is celebrated in the month of Bak according to the Sinhalese calendar. The name ‘Bak’ derives 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 it is in other parts of the world. Although there is usually little conspicuous seasonal change experienced in the course of the year in Sri Lanka except for a relatively hot August and a relatively cool December, the month of Bak is associated with a certain vernal atmosphere - an unusual freshness in nature enhanced by spring blossoms and azure skies despite occasional showers. This is also the time the ripened paddy is gathered in, which gives rise to a pervasive sense of plenty especially to rural Sri Lanka. [Source: Rohana R. Wasala, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

W. T. A. Leslie Fernando wrote in The Island:“In our country some festival or other is celebrated almost every month. As Sri Lanka is a meeting point of four world religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam most of the festivals are associated with a religion. However the most widely celebrated festival is the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, which stimulates society, enlivens the nation and fosters, national consciousness. Earlier the Sinhala and Tamil New Year was celebrated mainly by the Buddhists and the Hindus in our country. Now Christians too participate in New Year celebrations and it has become almost a national festival. Both Easter and New Year fall during the same season of the year. In some years New year falls during or before the Holy Week, where Christians commemorate the Passion of Christ, in a penitential atmosphere. In that event Christians join New Year celebrations after the Holy Week. [Source: W. T. A. Leslie Fernando, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The "cukoo" call of the ‘Koha’ during the harvesting time of Maha, the major rice crop in Sri Lanka, reminds that the New Year is approaching. And the beautiful Erobodu flowers begin to blossom. The bounties of farmers begin to fill. Nature brings the message and people prepare for this annual festival celebrated all over the country.

History of Sinhala and Tamil New Year

Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala: “The history of the New Year goes back to our primitive period in history. Various beliefs, perhaps those associated with fertility, gave birth to many rituals, customs and ceremonies connected with the New Year. The advent of Buddhism in the third century B.C. led to a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in the Buddhistic light. The majority of the people in our country were Buddhists, and as such, it is no surprise that the Buddhist outlook was predominant in transforming the New Year rites to what they are now (possessing a logical and positive base). [Source: Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Hinduism, on the other hand, existed side by side with Buddhism, in medieval times. New Year practices interpreted in the Hinduistic way developed among the Hindus. Buddhism and Hinduism were historically connected with each other. Their philosophies were running along parallel dimensions, except for certain ultimate truths concerning the self, the way to achieve emancipation and the nature of a creative god and nirvana (which Buddhism denies). There was no serious contradiction in New Year rituals that are found among the Buddhists and Hindus. Even today, Hinduism exists peacefully with Buddhism in the Buddhist areas. The organised rivalries appearing as ethnic diversions are the result of terrorist tactics which did not disturb the main lines of such peaceful integrative existence of the two religions.”

W. T. A. Leslie Fernando wrote in The Island: The Sinhalese have celebrated New Year from time immemorial. Robert Knox writes that during his time New Year was a major festival of the Sinhalese and it was celebrated in March. It could be that during the latter part of the Kandyan rule, the Nayakkar Kings who gave royal patronage to New Year shifted the festival to April to fall in line with Tamil New Year called "Pudu Varsham". [Source: W. T. A. Leslie Fernando, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Festivities similar to our New Year in this season are found in India, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, China and some other societies in Asia. There is a belief in Sri Lanka and in India a new deity "Avurudu Kumaraya" arrives at New Year. In some parts of our country they make altars with tender coconut palms for the deity at New Year. In some areas in the South a lamp is lit for the new deity. In some countries the worship of deity is performed during the harvesting time and the New Year is associated with the harvesting ceremonies.

“Whatever the origins New Year is not a Buddhist festival, though the Buddhists go to the temple at the Nonagathe time. Strictly speaking there is no place for auspicious times in the Buddhist doctrine. The major Buddhist festivals are Wesak, Poson and Esala. Besides Buddhist festivals are held on poya days based on Lunar observances. New year is a solar festival commencing with the entry of the Sun to the zodiac of Aries. New year also cannot be classified as a Hindu festival for it is not celebrated all over the Hindu world. It is a national festival of Tamils and some others in South India. The Andras, Kannadigas and Malayalis though Hindus do not observe it. Those Hindus in North India and the Himalayan region have their own dates for the New Year. According to Dr. P. Poolagasingham it is a misnomer to call Tamil New Year as Hindu New Year.

Sinhala and Tamil New Year Customs

W. T. A. Leslie Fernando wrote in The Island: New Year observances commence with the Sun entering the asterism of Aries. The rituals begin with the observance "Nonagathe" where people stop all work and go to the temple for religious rituals. The festivities begin with the lighting of hearth at the auspicious time. The whole family then clad in new clothes in the lucky color eat together the first meal also at the auspicious time. They next exchange gifts and are pardoned by elders for their lapses in the past. The celebrations take group form when the villagers get together to play the traditional games. The womenfolk participate in indoor games or play the rabana. Some play games of cards introduced by the Dutch. This festival atmosphere lasts for a number of days and during this time they also visit relatives and friends with kavum, kokos, and other sweetmeats and gifts. The festivities end with the anointing of the oil ceremony, where at the auspicious hour an elder annoints the young with oil invoking the blessings of Gods. There are also auspicious times set apart to go to work in the New Year and to watch the New Moon. [Source: W. T. A. Leslie Fernando, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Sinhala and Tamil New Year rituals begin with the cleaning of the house and lighting of an oil lamp. Women congregate to bash on the raban (drum) to warn others of the incipient change in the year. If you fail to hear this, a storm of firecrackers is bound to hammer the point home. Families indulge in a variety of rituals which are carefully determined by astrological calculations — from lighting the fire to making the kiri (milk rice) bath, to entering into the first business transaction and eating the first morsels.

Once these are done, the partying really begins as families mingle in the streets. Homes are thrown open and children are let out to play. The ubiquitous plantain is dished out alongside celebratory feasts of kaung (small oily cake) and kokis (light, crisp, deep-fried sweetmeat, originally from the Netherlands). House visitors are indulged with sweets and tea. On their departure both young and old have traditionally been given a gift of coins wrapped in betel leaf. Usually there is a silver coin and a copper coin. In rich families it has been customary to include an Indian silver rupee coin along with a copper cent. This was done to ensure property for the coin receiver in the coming year.

D.B. Kappagoda wrote in the Daily Mirror: The events associated with the celebrations are bathing during the old year, viewing the moon, Punniyakalaya or Nonagatha, lighting the hearth, preparing meals, partaking of meals, transactions, exchange of gifts, anointing with oil and herbal mixtures and setting out for work.Women play a prominent role in the celebrations. They prepare for the festival in advance by purchasing the required coconut oil, kitul honey and jaggery to make sweetmeats like kevum, kokis, aluva, asmi, and other provisions to prepare meals during the festive season. New clothes and other items meant to be given as presents are purchased from shops. [Source: D.B. Kappagoda, Daily Mirror, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

There are some interesting poems describing how olinda keliya is played by women which convey their belief in the goddess Pattini. Young girls take to the swing. There are verses describing the joy experienced by them when the swing goes up and down. There is raban playing by elderly women who compete with one another when they play the rabana to their singing describing the flight of the parrot. Rana dela del is a game in the Vanni where women recite a line from a verse describing some aspects of Sinhala Avurudu celebrations. The day after observing the anointing ceremony the women gather to perform Kevummale nateema. This is performed to amuse themselves by singing and dancing.

There is also worship offered to Bahirawa known as Bahirawa pooja in which the ash collected from the hearth is collected into a winnowing fan (kulla). To do this three portions of food are placed on a banana leaf along with ash and taken to the corner of the land where they are placed. Later three oil lamps are lit to worship Bahirawa. It is an appeal to Bahirawa begging him for protection. There is an interesting dance called muthi gasilla in which women sing these verses and dance with others who perform with them. This is performed purely for amusement. Some interesting games played in the past are described in verses. They were recited while engaged in playing outdoor games. The famous out of these national games are olinda keliya, eluvan keliya, mevara sellama, raban upatha, buhu keliya, muthi gesilla, rena dela del, muthu keliya, onchili varam and mee sellama.

Astrology and Sinhala and Tamil New Year

Sinhala and Tamil New Year takes place when the sun moves from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries). Unlike the usual practice where the new year begins at midnight, the New Year in Sri Lanka begins at the time determined by the astrologers. Not only the beginning of the new year but the conclusion of the old year is also specified by the astrologers. And unlike the customary ending and beginning of new year, there is a period of a few hours in between the conclusion of the Old Year and the commencement of the New Year , which is called the nona gathe (neutral period). During this time one is expected to keep off from all types of work and engage solely in religious activities. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Most of the rituals are based on times calculated according to astrology. ‘Aluth Sahal Mangallaya’, ‘Esala Keliya’ and ‘Karthikeiya Mangalliya’ are essentially indigenous ceremonies based on the beliefs woven around agriculture. Rohana R. Wasala wrote in The Island:In terms of traditional astrological belief the sun is said to complete one circular movement across the twelve segments of the zodiac in the course of the year, taking a month to traverse each constellation. The arbitrary beginning of this circular solar progress is taken to be Aries (Mesha), which is conventionally represented by the zodiacal sign of ‘the ram’. Having travelled from Aries to Pisces the sun must pass from Pisces to Aries to begin a new year. The solar new year (known as the Shaka calendar) is reckoned from this transit (sankranti), which comes a week or two after the beginning of the new year according to the Sinhalese calendar. The Vesak Festival, which marks the dawn of the Buddhist new year, comes at least another month later. The Aluth Avurudda centers on the ‘transit’ of the sun from Pisces to Aries. It is remarkable for Sinhalese Buddhists to thus celebrate the beginning of the solar new year, rather than that of their own new year. So the Aluth Avurudda appears to be in homage of the sun god important for an agricultural people. [Source: Rohana R. Wasala, The Island, D.B. Kappagoda, Daily Mirror, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: “The injunctions laid down under the Uttara Bharata Shastra, and to be observed during the 'Aluth Avurudda' 2004, are: (1) Looking at the moon for the ensuing year on March 22 as the lunar month, and on April 22 as the solar month, (2) Bathing to mark the previous year, on April 12, after anointing the head with 'Nanu' (medicinal herbal preparation), prepared from the leaves of the 'Divul' (Limonia acidissium, or Feronia elephantum) tree. The 'Aluth Avurudda' dawns on April 13, at 18.32 hrs. 3) The 'Punyakalaya' (the time set apart for religious observances) stands from 12.08 hrs. on the 13th to 00.56 hrs., on the 14th. Hence, during this period all work, including taking of meals, should be suspended before 12.08 hrs., and keep the time exclusively to go to temples for worship, which is the first phase of the 'Punyakalaya'. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe CDN, Sunday Observor,Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The second phase begins at 06.32 hrs. on the 13th and lasts till 00.56 hrs on the 14th., and during this period all matters connected with commencement of work, transacting business and taking of meals have to be done. 4) Lighting the hearth to cook the first meal (Kiribath) has to be done on the 13th at 19.49 hrs, looking South and wearing a red dress. partaking of the meal has to be done at 21.47 hrs. also looking South. (Most housewives are not satisfied with this time as it interferes with dinner), (5) Anointing the head with 'Nanu' is an important injunction considered as essential to health.

It has to be done on the 15th at 10.57 hrs. looking North, and by placing 'Bo' leaves (Ficus religiosa) on the head, and 'Kohomba' leaves (Azadirachta indica), under the feet.

Bathing is done after anointing the head which is the highlight of the festival. Leaving home for work has to be done on the 19th at 06.59 hrs. heading in the northern direction, after partaking a meal of 'Kiribath' mixed with 'Undu' (Phaseolus radiatus).

Ayurveda Medicine and Sinhala and Tamil New Year

Dr. Upali Pilapitiya wrote "Sinhala and Hindu New Year custom and traditions are mainly based on Ayurveda system of Medicine which has been developed on the Principles of Hindu Philosophy. The New Year begins with the offerings to various gods. As a method of wading off evil spirits and misfortunes brought about by different planetary positions. By performing these rituals and pujas, mental tranquility, is achieved. Hope of success is implanted in the mind. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Ayurveda mentions a category of diseases called Daiva Bala Pravritta. In this category there are some kind of diseases which are engendered by forces beyond human control. These are considered to be caused due to providential dispensation or acts of gods. According to traditional beliefs, some of the diseases included under this category are considered to be embodiments of curses, divine wrath or displeasure. Some of them are caused through mystic powers of charms and spells that are mentioned in Atharva Veda.

The nonekata is the transitional period in the planetary movement and considered to be inauspicious to start any propitious work. Therefore, this time is set apart for religious observances. Ayurveda envisages a method of treatment known as Daivavyapasharaya or spiritual therapy. This therapy involves the use of mantras or incantations such as Aushadhi or sacred herbs, Mani or precious gems, Mangala or propitiatory rites, including oblations, bali or offerings and homa or sacrifices, Niyama or vows, prayaschitta or cremonial pevitence, uparasa or fasts swastyayana or prostrations and pranipata — gamana or pilgrimages and so on. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Ayurveda explains that transitional period at different seasonal variations changes an imbalances in the body humours or forces namely Vata, Pita, Kapa. Therefore it is advised to have light food or complete fasting (Langana) during such periods. So that minimal fluctuation in the three Dosha will take place. Therefore during nonekata it is the custom to be aloof from all normal activities and to confine only to religious observances.

Ayurveda New Year Medicines and Treatments

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: “ In the days of our kings, the Royal Physician was entrusted with the task of preparing the 'Nanu' conforming to the established standard. The ingredients used were: 'Nelum-dandu' (stalks of Nelumbium speciosum), 'Goda-manel-ala' (Yams of Crinum zeylanicum), Bbeli-mul' (root of Aegyl marmelos), 'Wenivelgeta' Coscinium fenestratus), 'Ee-tana' (Isachna kuntiana), 'Kalanduru-ala' (yams of Cyperus rotundus), 'Kumkumappu' (sweet-smelling flowers native to Kashmir in India), 'Sudu-handun' (Santalum album), 'Vishnukranti' (Evolvulus alsonoides), 'Gorochana' (sweet-smelling substance taken from the cow), 'Sassanda-mul (roots of Pandamus humilus), 'Iriveriya' (Plectranthus zeylanicus) and 'Sevendra-mul' (Vetiveriya zizanioidus). [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe CDN, Sunday Observor,Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Having pounded these ingredients together in a mortar, the mixture is put into a new earthen pot and boiled to reduce the contents from 8 cups to 2 cups. The juice of 'divul' leaves and lime leaves are added to the preparation, before application. Sometimes, 'Pas-thel' (five kinds of oil) are also added to the mixture, or taken separately for the purpose of anointing the head. The oils are extracts of 'tala' (Sesamum indicum), 'mee' (Madhuca longifolia), 'aba' (Brassica juncea), 'Kohomba' and 'Endaru' (Ricinus communis), which have medicinal values.

“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 usually done by an elderly priest, with blessings for health and longevity. Women do not do the anointing as it is considered an exclusive right of the male.

“A certain mysterious efficacy is attributed to the leaves used for anointing the head. They are selected in relation to the day of the week on which the injunction has 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. Accordingly, this New Year, 'Bo' leaves have to be placed on the head and 'Kohomba' leaves under the feet.”

Historical Origins of New Year Anointting

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: “Anointing the head with 'nanu' (herbal oil) is one of the injunctions ('nekath') laid down under the Uttara Bharata Shastra (North Indian School of Epistemology), to be observed during the New Year festival, and it is considered indispensable for health and longevity. Besides other injunctions to be observed to mark the New Year, our kings were particular to get their heads anointed with 'nanu' at the appropriate time laid down in the almanac. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe CDN, Sunday Observor,Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Before the approach of the New Year the king's physicians and the Royal astrologer had certain functions to perform which were inevitable. The physicians had to superintend the preparation of a thousand pots of the herbal oil, making use of wild medicinal plants supposed to contain certain mysterious powers to maintain good health. They were kalanduru-ala, sevendra-mul, iriveriya, vishnukranti, asasanda, godamanel-ala, nelum-dandu, nasnaran-mul, eetana, venivelgeta, kohomba-kola, kumkumappu, and gorochana.

As the time approached the king sat on his throne and the event was announced to the public by ringing the temple bells and by the discharge of jingalls (large Indian swivel muskets) from the cannon of the city. At the auspicious time, young women of noble families, with lighted tapers in their hands, and a silver tray containing paddy and turmeric water, stood close to the king. As he turned his face towards the given direction, the women went close to the king and applied the 'nanu' on his head, exclaiming thrice "Increase the age of our king to five thousand years, increase it as long as the sun and moon lasts and as long as the heaven and earth exist." The ritual was then followed by the chiefs by kneeling down before the king in complete obedience. The event was marked by the saying: "Kalu kaputa sudu venathuru, Kikili bijuva pelavena thuru,, Gei molgaha dalu lana thuru, 120 ta 220 ayu boho veva." [“Until the crow turns white, until the hen's egg grows to a plant, until the mortar bears slender leaves, be thy age be increased from 120 to 220 years.}

At the time of partaking of meals, the king first having tasted a dish on his table, mixed with various kinds of food, called 'divya bhojana' gave a little to each chief participated in the ceremony. Later, they were all invited by the king to the palace to have a sumptuous meal in the night. Finally, the king received his chiefs according to their respective rank and file and the Maha Adikaram took the lead. Now they took their turn to greet the king.

Each chief prostrating before the king, exclaimed thrice: "May Your Majesty live as long as the sun and the moon and the heavens and earth exist." The presents received by the king were valued and deducted from the taxes due from each chief annually to the king's treasury. During the festive season, both the chiefs and the people were exempted from 'rajakariya' (state service).

Celebrating New Year in Sri Lanka

Recalling Sinhalese New Year in his youth, Rohana R. Wasala wrote in The Island: “The sighting of the new moon was the first of the Ayurudu rites. Then came ‘bathing for the old year’ as it was called, followed by the ‘nonagate’ period which being considered inauspicious for any form of work was entirely devoted to religious observances and play. Cooking and partaking of milk-rice, starting work for the new year, anointing oil on the head and leaving for work were the other practices. All these rites were performed at astrologically determined auspicious moments. Although belief in astrology and other occult sciences is contrary to the spirit of Buddhism, in the villages it was the Buddhist priests who prepared the medicinal oils in the temples and applied these on the heads of people while chanting ‘pirit’ so as to ensure health for the whole year. These Aluth Avurudu traditions touched every important aspect of life: health, economy, religion and recreation . [Source: Rohana R. Wasala, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Children and adults walked in gay abandon about the village dressed in their new clothes visiting friends and relatives amidst the cacophony of ’raban’ playing and the sound of firecrackers set off everywhere. The aroma of savoury dishes and the smell of sweetmeats arose from every household. Visitors were plied with all sorts of sweets. Amidst all this visiting, playing and merrymaking everybody was careful to be at home for the observance of the rites at the appointed times.

It never occurred to us (and to our parents, I am sure) to question the necessity or disbelieve the efficacy of these rites. The sun was a god; the shining thing in the sky was not him, though, it was only his chariot! We really sympathized with the uncertainty and anxiety he was supposed to undergo during the interregnum between the old year and the new, i.e. the period of ‘transit’ (sankranti). The Avurudu Kumaraya — the New Year Prince — was as real in our imagination as the sun god. That we didn’t see him in flesh and blood was in the nature of things, too.

But today the Aluth Avurudda means much less to us than it did in the past. Our response to the theme of the festival has lost much of its emotional content. Today those rites, auspicious times and astrological beliefs are nothing more than irrelevant superstitions. Most of those who still follow the Avurudu customs do so as a concession to tradition out of a sense of nostalgia. Our failure to participate in the joyous experience which the Aluth Avurudda was in our childhood is a very significant loss. The mystique charm and the sense of the numerous which informed the event have evaporated. This in large measure is due to our ineluctable sophistication. Not all is lost, nevertheless. The Sinhala Hindu New Year still remains a powerful symbol of renewal of hope for the future and reaffirmation of our bond with nature and our commitment to the time-honoured values of our forebears. It is truly a celebration of life.

Preparation for Sinhala Avurudu

Recalling the preparation for Sinhala Avurudu in his youth, Sybil Wettasinghe wrote: “ “Before making the sweetmeats, coconut oil had to be made. For this our immediate neighbours gathered together at Aththamma's center hall. The huge basin from under her massive bed was dragged out, washed thoroughly and cleaned. Then the women sat on the coconut scrapers around this huge basin, and scrapping coconut. A big heap of coconuts was cracked and the coconut water was the kid's delight who drank and drank the water till their bellies bloated out like balloons. Then they kept jumping up to hear the water gurgling in our tummies. Nobody stopped them. [Source: Sybil Wettasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The highlight of the day was when the temporary hearth was put together in a corner of compound. The big cauldron from under Aththamma's bed was pulled out. Into this was poured the extracted coconut milk. And then each one took turns to ladle the boiling milk. They ladled till the sun turned westwards. After some time the oil appeared on the surface, which was gently skimmed and stored in a big jar.

“The whole village seemed to be getting ready as if for a great wedding feast. One of the other major preparations for the New Year was the washing of the house which was another great day for the kids. They didn't mop the floor with wet cloth like now-a-days. Instead whole bucketfuls of water were splashed on the entire floor.

“Usually on New Year's eve mother and Caroline had much to do. They cleaned and removed ash from the hearth. Astrologers prescribed a time to stop work for the old year, on New Year's eve. And until the dawn of the New Year it was Nonagathe time to devote to religious activities. During the Nonagathe no work should be done and the hearth should not be lit. Lighting the hearth for the New Year is done at an auspicious time.

New Year Bath in Sri Lanka

Sybil Wettasinghe wrote: “The first bath for the New Year had to be taken at an auspicious time as well. For this a special herbal oil was brought from the temple. An elderly man anointed this oil on the heads of other with blessings for long life. Then they took the first bath in the New Year, usually two days after the dawn of the New Year. [Source: Sybil Wettasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Dr. Upali Pilapitiya wrote: “The customary bathing for the passing year is equally important facet. Herbal bath gives physical purification. When one takes a herbal bath over the entire body, anointed with gingelly oil or mustard oil that provides a soothing effect for the body. Herbal baths are prescribed in Vedas too. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“For this year, water mixed with the Juice of Bo leves is recommended. Body massage and herbal bath promotes blood circulation, and it is considered the best method of maintaining positive health. Herbal baths are prescribed as a method of treatment in many nervous disorders and diseases of the muscles and joints.

“Anointing of the head with Nanu (medicated shampoo) and oil is described in Ayurveda as a way of promoting health, specially massaging the scalp with oil and cleaning the head with medicated decoction known as Nanu. It promotes the growth of hair. It improves a sound sleep and balances the body humours. These rituals and New Year custom are healthy. Therefore they should be incorporated in our daily life for greater progress and prosperity. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Family and Betel Nut Bonding During the Sri Lanka New Year

After the New Year meal the mother in a family has traditionally shown here respect to her husband by offering him a sheaf of betel leaves. This is followed by children offered betel to their father and mother. Elders in the village have also been offered betel in this way on New Year's day.

Dr. Upali Pilapitiya wrote: Another salient feature of the New Year is to respect the elders and to strengthen relationships with neighbours. Usually, visiting relations and friends and exchanging presents, greeting them with a sheaf of betel is the order of the day. Betel play a vital part in the New Year particularly in Asian culture. Betel is considered a sacred herb with many medicinal values. Chewing of betel along with cloves, cardamoms and arecanut after a meal is considered the best way to strengthen the gums. A chew of betel cleans the mouth, and wades off bad breath. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The juice of betel leaves promotes digestion, kills organisms which are harmful to the body. The value of betel is also appreciated in Buddhist literature. Building up confidence, love, friendship and hope among elders, relations and friends plays a great role in achieving mental, physical and social wellbeing. Arrogance, hatred, sorrow, pangs of jealousy, cruelty are all considered as mental illnesses. Exchanging sheaves of betel and paying respect to elders brings about a new feeling of freshness. The elders feel that they are accepted, wanted and venerated by their kith and kin. This warmth helps to a great deal to the elders in maintaining good health and vitality.”

Sinhala and Tamil New Year Foods

During the New Year holiday season people cook and eat “kiri bath” (milk rice). The first official act of the new year is the lighting of the hearth which is used to make the kiri bath. Other foods associated with the holiday include plantains, “kokis”(a Dutch sweetmeat) and “kaung” (an oily cake).

Godwin Witane wrote in The Island: During the New Year period every household prepared sweetmeats or rasa kevili for the occasion. They included kavun, kokis. athi rasa, aasmi, kalu dodol, Aluwa, mungedi and weli-talapa. Few days before the dawn of the New Year, my father selected two or three matured bunches of plantains from our garden. Having dug a pit in the garden he usually wrapped the bunches of plantains in biling leaves and fronds of keppitiya plant and after placing the bunches of plantains flat in the pit covered it with planks over which he piles up the dug up earth. Into this pit smoke was blown in twice a day both in the morning and evening. For this he devised a global gadjet made out of two coconut shells that have holes and in the shape of a husked coconut. Into this ball he stuffed coir fiber and shredded dry plantain leaves and placed it carefully at a top corner of the pit. When a piece of burning ember was introduced to the ball through the hole on top and blown into it with the mouth the packed coir and leaves caught fire forming a cloud of smoke that filled the pit completely. When smoke was seen leaking through the loose earth it was prevented by stamping more earth on these places. When this process is carried out twice a day, morning and evening for two days the plantain bunches get ripened and when taken out of the pit they are completely yellow. These ripe plantains along with the various sweets adorn every table in all Sinhalese houses. [Source: Godwin Witane, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Dr. Upali Pilapitiya wrote: “The food which is taken during Sinhala New Year has many nutritious values. Sweet meat such as Mung Kevum, Konda Kavum made of brown rice, flour, Unduvel made of undu are indigenous sweets. All they have many food and nutritious values. Taking meals at an auspicious time with all family members sitting together is a noble, and healthy custom. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“This happy get together should be adapted at all meals, and not confined to the New Year table alone. Many indulge in unwanted arguments and talks while taking meals. The Avurudu custom, gives the signal to avoid such unhealthy manners. Happy state of mind is very necessary for the proper digestion of food. Ayurveda makes it clear that wholesome food taken at proper time in proper quantity will not digest properly if the person is in bad mental state, such as fear, sorrow or arrogance. Therefore happy state at meals is ulmost importance in attaining healthy digestion.

Food Preparation and Eating During Sinhala and Tamil New Year

Describing food preparation in her family during Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Sybil Wettasinghe wrote: “Aththamma had brought out her big rabana, The largest tambourine, propped up on three wooden legs. Before beating a tune with her fingers Aththamma heated the rabana over burning coals to make the tune clearer when playing on it. Mother and Caroline were in the kitchen with everything ready for the making of kiribath and waiting for the auspicious time to light the hearth. Washed rice was in the brand new pot. The hearth was made with dry wood and a small sheaf of dried coconut fronds. The box of matches was at hand. That moment, everybody in every household was waiting for the auspicious time to light the hearth to welcome the New Year. And then the temple bells pealed, the burst of fire crackers filled the air. From far and near came the rhythmic beat of the rabana playing. [Source: Sybil Wettasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“In our own kitchen the fire in the hearth began to crackle richly. I watched how the new pot with rice was slowly getting covered with soot on the hearth. Caroline cracked the coconut and began scraping it, to extract the milk to add to the rice when cooked to make kiribath — milk rice. A smile was appearing and disappearing on Caroline's face. Out in the yard Aththamma was beating a popular tune on her rabana When I went to her, she taught me to play a simple accompaniment to her beat. "Punchi batala getatumba kola Linda watakara bahina batala."

“Soon the smell of kiribath came swirling out of every kitchen in the neighbourhood and the spirit of a happy New Year filled the air. Our dining room became charmingly alive. A pure white cloth was laid on the table. On it was placed the small brass lamp polished for the occasion and new wicks and oil ready for lighting at the auspicious time, before partaking of the first meal of the New Year. Mother brought in the big tray of kiribath cut into diamond shapes, and placed it on the center of the table. The various types of sweetmeats were arranged around the tray of kiribath. There were kevum, asme, athirasa, kokis and aluwa and also a luscious comb of golden yellow bananas. One could eat the kiribath with either the red chilli sambol that was there or with jaggery.

“Just a little before the appointed time to partake of the first meal for the New Year, father lit the lamp and kindled a handful of joss sticks and placed them in a little jar on the window sill. The smoke carrying the smell of burning incense went curling around creating an aura of divine sanctity. Mother dished out platefuls of the meal for everyone and we waited for the auspicious time to eat. The first meal for the New Year had to be taken facing a certain direction prescribed by astrologers each year.

“Once again the temple bells pealed and then it was time to begin the meal. Mother handed father his plate of food and ours were given in turn. There was a most peculiar thing that intrigued me in this whole ceremony. Before we began to eat our food, each one of us had to pick out a bit of every item of food on our plates and drop into a piece of banana leaf. This was taken outside the house and placed on a high elevation away from cats and dogs.

“I asked my father for whom this food was meant to be. And he told me it was for the unseen ones, the spirits of the dead. I was unable to understand how the dead could turn into spirits and still lurk around. But all I saw was that the birds and squirrels too had a feast as well on New Year's day, which I thought was a wonderful thing.

Games and Pastimes Enjoyed During Sinhala and Tamil New Year

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: Among the national sports activities organised during the festive season are 'on chili-pedima', 'kalagedi-sellama', 'olinda-keliya', 'mewara-keliya', 'udekki-sellama', 'leekeli-sellama', 'korapol-gehima', 'meemesi-keliya', 'kalligesima', 'katti-penima', 'lanupora-allima', 'mallawa-pora', 'ali-pora', 'gon-pora', 'rilapeti-pedima', 'dadu-gesima', and many other games of interest to keep the festival a happy event.Old women love to play the 'rabana' (a single-sided drum about 3 feet in diameter), and 4 or 5 women can play at one time, and it is an indispensable item in every home to be made use of whenever necessary. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe CDN, Sunday Observor,Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Godwin Witane wrote in The Island: “During Sinhala Avurudu time the whole village transformed itself into a grand festival. Both young and old were kindled with the enthusiasm of an enjoyable and happy atmosphere. [Source: Godwin Witane, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The menfolk prepared swings. on the branches of overhanging trees for the enjoyment of young boys and girls. They sang swing songs while the swings swayed to and fro reaching great heights.
Sura love wimane Suran padinne
Nara love guvaney naran padinne
Sura Saema Athhtho vaaran denne
Budunne saranin apida padinne.
Purawara meda bendi onchilla
Durayana satiyata puduma novella
Waeragena pirimin thawa pedapalla
Surapura Deviyan rakinu siyalla

“Sinhalese womenfolk have excelled and figured in the alluring pastime known as onchilli pedima. The songs sung by these females have been handed down to us from our forefathers as also, carters’ songs, boatmens’ songs and other Siv Pada of a bygone era. The ancient ordinary villager was capable of expressing his innermost feelings and faith in the sweetest of poetry to be found in the Sinhalese language. Our Sinhalese merry makers revelled in singing these melodious songs which made the New Year celebrations seemingly lively. They were a living testimony to the peace and tranquility that existed among the village folk. But the present day damsels, boys and girls both from the villages and towns have more alluring pastimes than enjoying in a swing singing Siv Pada. Their rendervous are the numberless sangeetha sandharahanas or musical events where they gather in unpredictable numbers wherever they are held on day to day arrangements unrelated to any’ significant occasion appearing on the calendar.

“The kathru onchilla or great wheel was introduced by the foreigners when they held sway within this country. This wheel like structure was put into motion going round and round by a person who actually walked in step inside the wheel to turn it round anti clockwise. Usually, eight seats were hung from eight cardinal points on the wheel and when persons, usually young boys and girls sat on the hanging seats they maintained an upright position throughout the operation of the giant wheel. This was a rare attraction in the village and the construction of which required the expertise and skill of several people.

“The playing of raban during the festive season is a common feature both during day time and especially in the night accompanied by the singing of resounding Siv Pada and folk songs. Games such as panchi or kawadi were played for stakes by both males and females. The scoring by means of runners was done on a drawn up chart on a plank or on card board.

Playing of cards was a pastime exclusively of the menfolk. They either played a game of buruwa or asking and hitting and ajutha akin to Bridge. They choose to play these games either in the open air seated on mats or inside the house. This gambling was supposed to be exempted from the attention of the police as a concession during the festive days. Playing of cards was an important eventduring the New Year celebrations. While having a game of cards, I remember seeing my grand father entering his room for a hurried peg. He usually resumed his seat viping his mouth with his palm.

Kids and the Sinhala and Tamil New Year

Rohana R. Wasala wrote in The Island: “I have vivid memories of how the Aluth Ayurudu festivities were held in the remote villages of the Nuwara Eliya District in the late fifties and early sixties when we were young children. The Aurudda was an event we looked forward to for a whole year through interminable months of school and ups and downs of childish fortunes (such as exam success or failure, friendship or fighting among playmates). At this time of the year we were invariably aware of a general awakening in nature. It was the time when the paddy was harvested and the fields were left fallow for a few weeks, allowing us children to romp about and play ‘rounders’; it was the time when exotic birds with bright plumage like the golden oriole sang from flower-laden trees; it was the time when the humble dwellings of the peasants were cleaned and whitewashed, adding to the sunny brilliance of the surroundings. Unlike children today we had more time to play, because tuition and cramming was almost unknown then and nature had not been replaced by TV and computer in engaging the aesthetic sense of the young. The impression we got from observing the multitude of beauteous forms in the environment was that even nature joined us in our joy — a very positive sort of pathetic fallacy. [Source: Rohana R. Wasala, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Sybil Wettasinghe wrote: “ The elders in our village always had children in mind, in whatever they did. That was the reason why they started off by putting up the swing first. It was made of home made rope, strong and tightly twisted to ensure the safety of the young ones. From the time the swing went up on the mango tree, it was the start of the New Year celebrations for the kids who more or less lived on the swing. [Source: Sybil Wettasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Everyone went to the temple during Nonagathe time. We too joined our neighbours, all dressed in white, carrying flowers, joss sticks, coconut oil and wicks for the oil lamps. On returning home, mother spread mats under the mango tree, and we spent out time in joyous mood. We played indoor games like Panchi. Panchi is played with five small sea shells, a coconut shell and a chart. Players are divided into two groups. My father and I were always on one side, whilst mother and Caroline were on the opposite side. Half way through the game, father would whisper to me, ``we should let them win. If mother loses, she will be angry and getting angry on New Year's day is not very good.''

“Father gave each one of us a silver rupee coin blessing us with good health, happiness and prosperity. Many people came visiting my mother on New Years day, mainly to receive a silver coin from her as the first transaction of the New Year. They believed she was a generous lady. The people came with platefuls of kiribath and sweetmeats and all this fare was heaped on the string bed in our dining room which had a mat on it.

“The old and the young played together on New Year's day. Some played the cadju nut game on the gravel road. Some sat in groups on the verandahs playing panchi The menfolk indulged in playing draughts and card games. We kids had a rollicking time on the swing. The swing had a long plank, on which sat all the kids holding each other firmly. On either side stood two young women who swung forward by turns. As the swing moved to and fro, the women worked up the speed by pushing themselves forward in mid-air. Soon the swing went flying high to and fro, whilst the women sang long drawn swing songs.

Legend and Myths Associated with Sinhala Avurudu

Punyakante Wijenaike wrote: "The mythological conception of a Aluth Avuruddha' is that the Prince of Peace called Indradeva descends upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness. He comes in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first dips, like a returning space capsule plunges, breaking earth's gravity, into akiri' or sea of milk. "It was incredible. The moon, like the sun, had been, up to that moment, mysterious, sacred and elusive, smiling down on earth through centuries, keeping us in awe. As children we learnt to trace the outline of a hare on it during Poya. We were told that Handa Hamy, peeped down on us children and often provided us with milk and honey. Lovers kissed under and poets wrote — about the moon. She hung, like the Mona Lisa, above us." [Source: Punyakante Wijenaike]

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: This peace mission is expected to promote harmony and goodwill and vanquish all fears faced by mankind. So, people who believe in the mythical conception of down-coming of Indradeva, celebrate the festival of the New Year, conforming to certain injunctions laid down according to the Uttara Bharat Shastra (north-Indian School of Thought), anticipating health, wealth and prosperity in the New year. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe CDN, Sunday Observor,Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

At that time, the King of Sri Lanka was Valagambahu alias Vattagamani Abhaya (104-77 B.C.). When the Saka Era began in 78 B.C., Sri Lanka was visited by a great famine known as 'Beminitiya-saya', which had its origin in India. In Sri Lanka, it lasted for three years, claiming a heavy death toll due to scarcity of good and water. Although the Saka Era is not in much vogue, the Indian Government began to use it officially, since 1957, alongside with the Christian Era. Although Saka Era is not adopted in Sri Lanka as a chronological system of calendar calculation, it is still being used for purposes of astrological calculations connected with events in the public or private life of the community. Though heavily overlaid by myth and legend and also superstition, the astrological phenomena have given the sun and the moon, a divinely regulated existence by calling the sun 'Soorya Divyaraja' and the moon 'Chandra Divyaraja'.

Socio-Anthropological Look at Sinhala Avurudu

"To many of us, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is an occasion on which we attempt to repeat certain rituals and ceremonies of the past, based on a lifestyle that had agriculture (i.e. paddy cultivation) as its main vocation. Some of us, I mean, a significant portion of our people fail to see any relevance of such New Year rituals, customs and ceremonies to modern life. [Source: Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

But on closer inspection, with a knowledge culled from our sociology and anthropology of the past, we observe in these practices a definite social relevance and a meaning. Such a relevance and meaning could be underestood only in the total context of all such rituals, customs and ceremonies. An understanding of that nature perhaps would assit us to develop new insights and gain from the practice of New Year customs etc, and help in building the nation in a positive way.

“The value of paying respect to elders is found underlying all phases of New Year celebrations. It is one of the vital reasons that motivates our young people not to forget their parents in their old age. If we understand social-cultural occasions such as the New Year with their emphasis on such values, it would be an eye-opener for all other ethnic groups (Muslims, Burghers etc,) and religious to make the best out of it.

“Of values associated with the Sinhala Tamil New Year” are “gratitude and paying respect to elders. Cleanliness (i.e purity of body and mind) is another such value. The ritual baths at the end of the passing year and the onset of the New Year lay emphasis on washing the head with lime and such other medicinal herbs, weraing clean clothes etc. These values, the elders see, are ingrained in young children during the New Year. The New Year is thus not an occasion only of celebrations but also of positive socialization.

“The importance attached to food cannot be forgotten. It should be shared by everyone. No one who comes to the house is allowed to depart without a meal. Even animals are fed, as they also considered a part of the family. The food often consists of milk, milk-rice and other grains and fruits. The use of such items, I believe, are dictated by reasons of health. The ritualistic offerings made to Hindu gods and the Buddha consists of such items only. Could it be that the insight into our individual and community health prompted our ancestors to choose such items of food alsofor the New Year?

“The leadership pattern in the village is often articulated during the time of the New Year. The religious leader (i.e. the Buddhist monk or the pusari), the social leader (i.e. the physician or teacher), and. Also the economic leader (i.e. the affluent landed or management strata), all have a duty to perform which they do with great dedication and pleasure. The mutual interaction of the community awakens itself from a long, incentive slumber and adds color to the rural village life. Even those who do not visit the village temple or the god's shrine do so on this occasion. With social change, interior patterns of behaviour have come to March the usefulness of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. One such pattern is the inordinate use of alchol. Sometime ago, if one were to partake of alcohol, he could not take part in New Year activities. The wing dedicated to Goddess Pattini would never tolerate a drunken individual who mounts it. It is unfortunate to observe how today such positive cultural values are undermined, giving rise to verbal and physical disorganisation among people.”

“Even the solutions to conflicts is built-in to the structure of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. The strengthening of family units takes place in the form of eating together at home according to a set plan created by auspicious times and fortified by rituals which are looked at with respect. The father and mother lead, and the children follow. They exchange gifts, paying attention to seniority, and these activities release a fund of goodwill and thus strengthen the foundation of family life. In the community, social visits are made, and usually a plate of oil cakes, milk rice and plantains are sent from one house to the other. Each one reciprocates by continuing the chain of mutual exchange. Even those who for some reason or other have developed ill-feeling, exchange such food. I have never come across any family refusing such a plate of New Year food sent to them in the village. The only instance that I experienced it in the city was in a so-called educated family who blatantly refused such a gift from another family (a neighbour) who wanted to put an end to the misunderstanding between them that arose over a simple act of misinformation.

Tamil New Year

The Tamil New Year is widely celebrated in mid April in Tamil areas of southern India as well as Sri Lanka. Northern Indian festival like Holi and Dussehra are not that big in Tamil Nadu in southern India.. Diwali, the festival of lights, is widely celebrated. Held around the time the monsoons arrive, Tamils New Year is viewed as a time to wear new clothes and is considered the beginning of summer. The first thing that a person sees in the morning is supposed to influence one for the rest of the year. The Tamil New Year in 1996 was named ``Thathu'' in the Almanac. Its beginning (“Varushapirappu'' ) was at 2.25pm on April 13. The “Vishu Punya Kalam'', auspicious period, was from 10.25am to 6.25pm on the same day.

Nirmala Ragunathan wrote: “ Homes are cleaned and got ready for the event on previous day. On the day, during the auspicious time Maruthu Neer'' — clean water boiled with various herbs, selected flowers and leaves, milk, saffron and other ingredients is made by the priests in temples. Maruthu Neer is applied on the heads of all family members whilst the placingPunku'' leaves on head and Fig leaves under the feet and bathe. Then new clothes are recommended according to the colors mentioned in the almanac to wear. This year's colors are shades of black or ash. [Source: Nirmala Ragunathan, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Giving thanks to the Sun God is observed by making Pongal''. A sweet rice 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 designKolam'' is put 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 will arrange theMangala Kumbam''. A pot with five mango leaves and a coconut, joss sticks are lit, a tray of flowers, betel leaves, arecanuts, comb of bananas and the sweet rice are offered to the Sun God and Lord Ganesh to compete the pooja. A coconut is broken by the head of the household, and incense is shown.

“In earlier times, people made a sambol ``Pachchadi'' with the flowers of Margosa, the sour mango, and the sweet jaggery. Sweet rice was eaten together with this sambol. The sambol was made to remind people of the fact that life has sorrows, troubles and happiness — a mixture of circumstances in life that one faces in the year ahead cannot be overlooked. This practice is hardly in use today.

“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 when New Year dawns. The Hindus always begin by worshipping and offering poojas to Lord Wina Vinayaga to have his blessing in the coming year for prosperity. The priests bless them too. 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. This ploughing ceremony — being an agrarian community, is the traditional act on a new year day. However, today people observe this according to their occupations. 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 duties of the New Year celebrations. As a Hindu housewife I shall observe the rituals laid down by my ancestors in todays context to the best of my ability. In this ``Thathu'' Hindu New Year, when I offer poojas to the Sun God and pray to Lord Vigneshwar, I will pray most sincerely and ardently to ask his blessings for Mother Lanka and all her children to live happily in peace, harmony, understanding and prosperity. "We Hindus try to celebrate the new year by observing the procedures and rituals practised by our ancestors over the years.

Sinhalese and Tamils and the Celebration of New Year

New Year is an important national holiday for both Sinhalese Buddhist and the Tamil Hindu Sri Lankans. The holiday is unique in the way the two cultures celebrate it together and at the same time. It would be sort of like Christians and Jews celebrating January 1st together. Sinhalese make up about 75 percent of the population of Sri Lanka and Tamils, about 16 percent. The two groups fought against each other in bitter civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009 and left around 100,000 dead and Tamils claim they are still discriminated against today but the two groups generally hide or leave behind their ill feelings and enjoy the holiday together.

Rohana R. Wasala wrote in The Island: The Bak festive season centers around a national cultural event which is unique in a number of ways. The Sinhala Hindu New Year is probably the only major traditional festival that is commonly observed by the largest number of Sinhalese and Tamils in the country. Its non-ethnic non-religious character is another distinctive feature. This festival cannot be described as ethnic because it is celebrated by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, yet not by all of them: only Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus participate in it, the Christians in both communities having nothing to do with it. On the other hand it is a non-religious celebration in that not all Buddhists nor all Hindus in the world take part in it, only the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus do. Yet another fact that adds to its secular character is that the festival focuses on an event which has no connection with religion or race at all. [Source: Rohana R. Wasala, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala wrote: The start of the New Year ceremonies is made by looking at the so-called old moon and engaging in a ritual bath on behalf of the passing year. Buddhism turned this act to an act of gratitude for the past year. To Hinduism it was one of establishing purity — specially bodily purity, gradually making way to spiritual purity. [Source: Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The break with the past by doing away with everything associated with it might have been a practice, we, as primitive people had in the past. In the sixties, I observed, how, when a death had occurred the Veddas [the original forest people of Sri Lanka]completely demolished their huts and constructed a new one. In the past, they left the old cave and occupied a new cave; thus starting a new life, breaking from the past.

“The New Year for the Buddhists, and maybe according to Hindu practice, provided an important break with the past. It was a break undeertaken with two important principles in mind. On the one hand, you break away from the past, but do that with gratitude. This gratitude was not found in primitive times. The awe the primitive people had for natural objects (e.g. the sun, moon etc,) prompted them to worship such objects, and the Hindus gazed at the moon and bade `adieu' to the past year, perhaps with some nostalgia, but always with gratitude.

“Secondly, they did this with a firm resolve to do better in the New Year. The prayers of the Hindus to gods and the transfer of merit to gods by the Buddhists were believed to a prosperous harvest and a successful New Year. This resolve was very important to both cultures — Sinhala and Tamil. One could observe it on a number of occasions associated with the New Year; particularly in the astrological beliefs which gave life to certain rituals.

“The gazing at the old moon and ritual bathing for the passing year were undertaken at auspicious times. Even the preparation of the hearth, lighting of the hearth, preparation of food; particularly milk rice, the partaking of meals, engaging in the ritualistic bath for the incoming year, and gazing upon the New Year moon as well as the start of economic life in the New Year — all had specific auspicious times set for them. Buddhism, although it does not believe in good and bad times, saw in it a sociological truth. A community of people get disciplined by working to time. An auspicious time once set, people believe that it is bad to work outside it. The strength of the beliefs lays the foundation for a trait of positive behaviour; working according to a time-table. Long before Western management specialists talked of time management, the Sinhala and Tamil culture had developed an intricate measure to manage time through a framework of auspicious and bad times. This came into their culture through astrology.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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