The month of April is known as the Bak-Maha which means the Month of Plenty. It is the month that most Sri Lankans look forward to because it brings the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Described as the pala bara bak maase, the trees are full of fruits, harvesting is over and the atuva (barn) is full with the new stock of paddy. Being the month of the aluth avurudda, people are busy getting ready for the big occasion. Avurudu comes but once a year and there is much to be prepared.
In a typical village home, there are elaborate preparations for the Aluth Avuruddda. The house is given a thorough clean up. Walls get a new coat of paint, floors are washed and cleaned. The garden is cleared of weeds. The kitchen area is a hive of activity making typical Avurudu foods such as kavum, kokis and kiribath.
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. With this unique festival comes loads of traditions and customs that are being observed to this day.
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 (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries). The name Bak is derived from the Sanskrit word bhagya meaning ‘fortunate’. The month of Bak corresponds with April in the Gregorian Calendar, 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 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 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. There is a period of time in between the end of the Old Year and beginning of the new, which is called the Nonagathe (neutral period). During this time, people keep refrain from mundane 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 to 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, Imbul on Sundays, Divul on Mondays, Kolong on Tuesdays, Kohomba on Wednesdays, Bo on Thursdays, Karanda on Fridays and Nuga on Saturdays, for example.
Another prominent feature of Avurudu is the respect paid to elders and the strengthening of relationships with neighbours. Usually, visiting relatives 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 women folk to commence work at their respective homes. Facing the specified direction, they light the hearth to prepare the traditional kiribath (milk rice). 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, steeped in culture and tradition, could be celebrated by all as a national festival and its unique features made use of to promote friendship among people.
Pic by Chamila Karunarathne