The Sinhala and Tamil New Year or the “Aluth Avuruddha” has been celebrated in Sri Lankan homes for millennia. It has enriched the culture, stimulated society and illuminated the nation so much so that today the “Aluth Avuruddha” has emerged as the country’s premier National Festival.
It has acquired even greater significance in the objective of achieving national harmony because the New Year is the single event in Sri Lanka that is celebrated by both the Sinhala Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus.
The traditions, customs, the rites and the rituals associated with the New Year followed for the enhancement of health, prosperity, quality of life and recreation with emphasis on renewal of goodwill depict a rich heritage that once was heavy with meaning to a farming community. Traditions are still being followed in spite of transformation from a pastoral to a commercial society. The New Year thus, has stood the test of time.
The event signifies a solar phenomenon which is the transit of the sun from the zodiacal position “Pisces” or “Meena” to “Aries” or “Mesha.” According to a thesis written by Professor A.D.T. E. Perera – a former author of the Buddhist Encyclopaedia on Lankan Festivals and Ceremonies, the fact that the event denotes the movement of the sun reflects an ancient cult which is embedded in hoary antiquity. And the celebration of the event by both the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus bespeaks of a forgotten period in Sri Lanka’s dim past when the two communities shared common interests in their cults, beliefs and practices.
|Heralding the New Year to the beat of the rabana
Professor Perera holds the view that before the advent of Aryachakravartis and other conquerors from South India, the Sinhalese and the Tamils belonged to one ethnic group while the Aryanisation the Sinhalese claim to have made them the predominant race, has made it difficult to trace the origin of social customs that apparently had been common to the two communities.
However, only a community whose ancestors were well informed in zodiacal studies says Professor Perera, could claim an inheritance of a practice associated with the study of planetary movements which had led them to the knowledge of the transit of the sun from Pisces to Aries. In short, it had to be a community whose ancestors were sun-worshippers who naturally preserved such traditions associated with solar-cults.
The thesis reveals that the worship of the sun-god was prevalent in most ancient civilizations in the Orient and the Americas and according to archaeological discoveries; the knowledge of the zodiacal and planetary systems had reached considerable heights.
The author had noted that almost all these civilizations that sprang from sites such as the Nile valley, the Indus valley, the Euphrates and the Tigris Basin and civilizations in Mexican and Peruvian terrain belonged to the non-Aryan ethnic groups. Whereas among the Indo-Aryans, who had devastated most of these pre-historic civilizations, the solar-cult was not as popular. The early part of the Rigveda shows that the primary god of the Indo-Aryans – Indra, often discomfited the sun-god Surya in battle, an episode that reflects the clashes between the Aryans and their sun-worshipping adversaries. The sun-god “Surya” was given pride of place only in the later Atharvaveda and Brahmana literature, several centuries after the Indo-Aryan themselves got naturalized among the non-Aryans and after their absorption of non-Aryan cults and practices to the Aryan fold.
Professor Perera states that this could be the reason for non-Aryan Lankan Tamils to have a claim on the Aluth Avuruddha and the solar-cult while celebrations centred round sun-worship were prevalent among the Sinhalese whose ancestry goes into deep antiquity long before any fusion with the Aryan blood. The celebration of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka thus is an echo of the pre-historic socio-religious phenomenon, Professor Perera surmised.
The spread of Buddhism, Professor Perera points out, resulted in the appropriation of pre-Buddhist shrines although places of solar deity-worship before the advent of Buddhism have not been traced. But he says that if archaeological and historical data are carefully investigated, it could be surmised that most of the hilltops which later turned to be sites of Buddhist-worship were places where the sun-worshippers gathered to pay obeisance to their all-encompassing divine being – “Surya deiyyo.” Cittalapabbata (Sithulpawwa,) Dambulla, Dimbulagala, Kataragama, Sri Pada, Cettiyapabbatha (Mihintale,) Arittapabbhatha (Ritigala,) Kadiramalai and Tiruketisvara Professor Perera cites as probable sites of pre-Buddhist Ssun-God worshipping centres. The professor had proposed that such sites of national eminence could be ascertained by an investigation of cults and practices associated with the celebration of the New Year.
Justifying his proposition he discusses the worshipping of Sri Pada at Sumana Kuta (Adam’s Peak) when the season reaches its peak in the month of “Bak” or April. “Bak” is derived from “Bhagya” which means prosperity, fertility, fecundity, resourcefulness and affluence; hence “Bak Maha” was the month that yielded prosperity. The Sri Pada pilgrimage is incomplete without the witnessing of the “Irusevaya” – the solar phenomenon at the break of dawn. The Sun God worshipped earlier at the summit of Sri Pada had now been made to pay homage to the great sage Sakyamuni Gautama who had sanctified according to tradition the summit of the sacred mountain by keeping his Footprint on its top.
Professor Perera states that the Bak Festival now termed Aluth Avurudda is a continuation of the Solar Festival of pre-historic times and the pilgrims to Sri Pada still consider that their pilgrimage has to be fulfilled in the Bak Maha when the Sun-God enters the path of a New Year, a path of prosperity and bliss – a good reason for merry-making and festivity.
Does not the fact that the Aluth Avuruddha which continues to be called the “Suryadeva Mangallaya” or the “Festival of the Sun God” and the view still held that a mythical Avurudhu Kumaraya descends upon the earth in a horse-carriage, dressed in royal garb at the dawn of the New Year bringing peace, prosperity and tranquillity give credence to the theory of the sun-worship and the godly-treatment of the event?
The Aluth Avuruddha meanwhile, happily coincided with the Maha harvest. Maha was the island’s main paddy cultivation and the harvest was brought home in the month of April. It was also the beginning of the Vasanthaya (spring) in Sri Lanka when trees bore fruit and bounties full.
The astrologers worked out the auspicious hours and directions for observances of customs to be followed for the lighting of the hearth, partaking of the first meal and the commencement of work. The custom of anointing of the head with herbal oil and the first bath were as important to be carried out at the auspicious hour. Therefore all customs and practices seem to have taken shape to contribute towards the wellbeing of the individual and the family in the year that began.
Once customs were followed and gifts exchanged, obeisance was made to the elders offering sheaves of betel to express respect towards them. Celebrations commenced thereafter when the village reverberated with the beat of the raban and the young swinging on the onchilla tucking into Avurudu delicacies.
Traditions and customs apart, Sri Lanka’s rich gamut of folk games and folksongs could be traced to the Aluth Avuruddha. Games such as olinda keliya and the throw of coins or shells were played at home while onchili kavi were spontaneous outbursts of immense joy the young derived while they found themselves swinging on the coir-rope onchilla specially hung for the New Year.
Raban pada essentially were impromptu-compositions of the women-folk. They sat round the rabana and created tunes to outdo the players of the next rabana, some even trying a dance-step in between playing. Many folk songs happened to be composed by fun-loving village-folk who sang them when they played group-games such as kalagedi sellama, mawara keliya, eluvan kannai mung awe and leekeli sellama at the village avurudu festival. Folk-games such as kotta pora, kanaa mutti, kamba edeema, climbing the oiled pole, coconut scraping as well as the selection of the Avurudu Kalyani were essentially part and parcel of this festival.
Besides, an important part of the avuruddha was the preparation of avurudu delicacies such as kavun, kokis, aasmi, aggala, dodol and aluva. These were prepared well ahead of the Avuruddha and enjoyed by one and all in the neighbourhood. No other national festival has enriched Lankan culture as the Aluth Avuruddha.