29th April 2001
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Sweetmeats, swings and the beat of the rabana

By Alfreda de Silva

The Sinhala and Hindu New Year in this country is associated with the tattoo of pestles and mortars, pounding rice with a sledge-hammer beat.

Women in the villages turn the season into a festival of sweetmeat-making: flower and leaf-shaped kokis, flat sweet athiraha, kaludodol, mung kavun and delicious kavun filled with honey, its konde cunningly fashioned with an ekel in a pan of hot oil.

One of the rarest delights of the season is the aasme. A necessary ingredient for it is the dawul kurundu, a kind of cinnamon whose leaves produce a sticky substance.

This gives lightness to the flour-threads that are poured through the hands of the expert into a pan of sizzling oil. There emerges then the thready fan of aasme, decorated with shocking pink cochineal in melted sugar.

Two people who recreated this festive day for us several times, are the Bodinagodas - the late Ranapala was the organizer of the games, and his wife Malinie, was the warm and gracious hostess.

They communicated to their guests the traditions of the occasion, with its multi-faceted experiences, in which even children could participate. They shared their knowledge of avurudu games and the rhythms of the rabana.

Among the games we played were the Olinda Keliya, where tiny red olinda seeds are moved on a partitioned wooden board; and an exciting one called Gadol Kireema. The latter was played with round coins of the same size and denomination on squares drawn on the floor with white chalk. You threw a coin up in the air and let it fall. If it fell in the centre of a square, it was yours. Anyone whose coin struck another on a square, was entitled to all the loot.

This game always took me back to childhood holidays in my paternal grandparents' sprawling home in Kelaniya.

In those river-sand, fern and moss breathing houses not far from the Kelani river, the floors were of red gadol, set in square or diamond shapes. These were edged with strips of cement.

Not only were they delightfully cool underfoot but just what was needed for indoor games like Gadol Kireema.

Drawing chalk squares on them was a pastime for the children.

Outside, the large festive drum - the rabana - was heated over a pot of coconut shell coals by women in their colourful cloths and jackets. The warmed drum took on a new resonance.

The circle of women round it lifted their hands gracefully and started beating a rhythm - a raban pada.

Uding uding vara petthappu

Bimming bimming vara petthappu

Kavung kanda vara petthappu.

There was much merriment as the hands of the women moved over the drum gracefully. The rhythm changed and the movements became jaunty. The drum was beaten alternately by the hands and the elbows of the women:

Kobeiya Kobieya

Theleng baddath

Kireng baddath

Mokeng baddath


The lower note of the rabana beaten with the elbows suddenly picked up a new pitch and rhythm, with a bunch of keys thrown over it.

The interplay of the raban players' hands was fascinating to watch as they tried all sorts of variations. Hands on the rabana criss- crossed clapped with neighbours' hands; beat, beat with elbows, returning to the rabana, and beating it with a faster, more jaunty style; their bodies swaying this way and that:

Egoda gedera rattarang,

Megoda gedera rattarang,

Egoda gedera, megoda gedera

Athek barata rattarang

A bulath heppuwa held over the rabana and a new tone emerges:

Udahagedera hansiputuwa

Ape gedera banku kakula

The jocularity increased and so did the groups of children enjoyng the rabana.

In the open space by the fibre mill, women and children rode the onchilla strung on trees.

The men fell over each other at tug-o'-war, a stout rope being pulled with might and main, this way and that. Pillow fights were noisy and amusing.

Not to be out-done, women sat in a row on coconut scrapers, turning out shreds and curls of coconut with the speed of machines!

The rabana had not ceased playing.

Dhontha babakkata

Dhenta deyak natha

Pethagamak uda

Thuttu thekak etha.

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