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Traditionally celebrated by the Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus, the New Year or "Aluth Avurudu Mangallaya" as it is known in Sinhala is a celebration of age-old rituals and an opportunity to strengthen family ties. The two communities celebrate the New Year with all the festivity they can muster, while each has its favourite customs, many of them being similar with variations to suite the locality.
The exact origins of the New Year is not known, but can be traced back to two very important ancient festivals. The "Aluth Sahal Mangallaya" or the Festival of New Rice, celebrated by both communities at harvest time, abounds in religious ritual. The farmers and their families would first visit the temple or kovil and after offering a portion of their harvest to the Gods would pray that the Gods would make the next harvest also a bountiful one. Ancient manuscripts referring to the festival, record the making of milk-rice, sweetmeats and many of the community games that are found in today's "Aluth Avurudu Mangallaya".
The second ancient festival that was held during this time of year was the "Surya Deva Mangallaya" festival of the Sun God. It celebrated the movement of the Sun from the Meena Rasiya (Pisces) to the Mesha Rasiya (Aries) as it is this movement which marks the dawn of the present "Aluth Avurudu Mangallaya".
The New Year falls on either Arpil 13 or 14. Whether it is the 13 or 14 is decided by the exact time by calculations of traditional astrology when the Sun moves from the zodiacal sign of Pisces to Aries. This exact time of transit is held to be the auspicious moment of the birth of the New Year. The period which both precedes and follows this is known as "Punya Kalaya". Both communities observe a good part of the "holy period" in common religious activities according to their traditions, either at home or more aptly in the sacred environment of the "Pansala" or the "Kovil".
After the dawn of the New Year there comes a period of busy festivities foremost among these is the lighting of the hearth at the auspicious time and cooking of the first meal of the year. This again is a common observance and the main dish of the meal too is identical in both communities, i. e., "milk- rice" which is "kiribath" in Sinhala and "pongal" in Tamil. Of course curries and sweetmeats are also made, but all of the New Year food is usually devoid of flesh which is in keeping with the religious culture of "Ahimsa" which has become a common feature of Buddhism and Hinduism.
The New Year is also the time for merriment, especially for the young people. It is customary therefore to engage in games and sports of all kinds during this period. It is only natural that this should be another common observance among the two communities, but what is interesting to note is that several of the forms of play and sports are identical.
The dawn of the New Year is immediately marked by the firing of crackers, which is perhaps one of the more "modern" forms of celebration, but again is common to both communities. Not modern however are other common features of merriment such as the wearing of brand new clothes by all the family members in the festival colour.
The New Year festival has significant connections with the economic aspects of life as well. It is for this reason that in both communities it is custom to make a sort of formal observance of spending a little time in one's usual work or profession on the festive day. For example, a farmer would perhaps plough a little, or do some similar work for a while. A student would likewise spend a little time reading his books.
Another important custom with some economic significance is the exchange of money wrapped or offered in a battle leaf, which is called "Ganudenu" in Sinhala or "Kavisesam" in Tamil. It is a common belief that the first monetary transaction should be done with someone whom one respects as a good person and this almost invariably would happen to be the head of the family, though the custom of inviting a respected outsider to the New Year meal and then exchanging monetary gifts with him is not unusual among the Sinhalese.
Receiving gifts from one's elders and from respected persons is one of the many ways in which bonds of relationship in family and society are strengthened during New Year festivities. It is also customary to pay visits to one's friends and relations during the period of the New Year, which too is observed in common by both communities.
Visits to friends and relatives are reciprocal and are for the purpose of discarding the past years animosities through gestures of courtesy and respect, especially towards the older relations. If one is living away from parents a visit to them is a 'must'. In these visits one usually takes New Year gifts especially in the form of sweetmeats appropriate for the season. In general, everyone tries to make a fresh start in good relations, cheerfulness, forgiveness and respect for the older generation are definitely the order of the day.
The Sunday Times spoke to a cross section of people to find out what the New Year meant to them.
Diloka Seneviratne, former Miss Sri Lanka:
"On New Year's day we follow all the customs such as wearing the appropriate colour for the New Year, preparing sweetmeats, etc. It is also a time spent with the family. This is all part of our culture and therefore means a lot to me."
Sabeetha Perera, Actress:
"To me the New Year is essentially a time to strengthen family bonds and respect elders".
Gamini Uduporuwa, Art Director at an Advertising Agency:
"For me the New Year heralds a "new" concept to everything like my children's future, home, etc. It is also a time to forgive and forget and be united. We visit our friends and relations and engage in religious observances".
Shaun Perera, Student:
"New Year is the only time of the year when our family gets together at my parents' home. I like the thought of doing everything together at the auspicious time, looking in the same direction. It is also the only time when the family does everything together like visiting our relations etc."
Heshma Perera, Student:
"New Year is a time when the family gets together and it is also a time of sharing."
Sharmali Rajapakse, Secretary:
"New Year for me is a time for reflecting on the past year and a time for new beginnings. It is also a time to forgive and forget and put aside past differences."
Ranjan Wijeweera, Proprietor Mondi's Clothing Boutique:
"For me the New Year is a time to start afresh. It is also a day set apart for religious activities and family and broadly a time to think afresh and unite as one nation."
Teruni Perera, Hairdresser:
"New Year is a time spent with your loved ones and a time for hope, joy and prosperity. It is also a time for new beginnings".
Today, as we join to celebrate the New Year let us hope that all of us will understand the importance of keeping the essential unity in focus and from that vantage point proceed to appreciate the special feature of the religion and culture of the two major communities.
A Sinhala New Year without the trays of delectable sweetmeats is almost unimaginable. Any special occasion in a Sinhala home is incomplete without a table laden with these mouth watering delights. Of course, most of us know what these sweetmeats are, but extensive studies have not been done to find out how these delicacies came to be part of our tradition. Sweetmeats like the Kavum for instance, have a long history, dating back to the days of our kings .
Kiribath and Kavum are two essential food items for any occasion. The New Year is especially associated with these traditional, often identified as 'national' food items. Since the new year is a symbol of fertility, kiribath takes precedence over all other items. Kiribath as its name implies is a simple food prepared with milk and rice. There are of course, varieties of kiribath especially Mun kiribath, where green gram is added and the delicious Imbul Kiribath with its centre filled with coconut and jaggery. The name 'Imbul' is because it is made in the shape of an Imbul fruit.
The most interesting historical data surrounding Avurudu sweetmeats is centred on the popular kavum which is a very old sweet. In the good old days kavum was associated so closely with the Sinhalese that often people would fondly say that wherever there was a Sinhalese the kavum was certainly to be there as well.
Prof. J.B. Dissanayaka in his book on folklore writes that even though the 'Sinhalaya' proves himself incapable of doing other things, he will certainly admit that he is good at eating. This fact has been expressed humourously in a popular Sinhala saying: 'Sinhalaya modaya, kavum kanna yodaya' which means that the Sinhalaya is a fool but a giant or a real champion at eating kavum.
Kavum dates back to very old times and even our classical texts bear evidence to this fact. Some of the Jataka stories, like the Ummagga Jatakaya and literature such as Saddharma Ratnawaliya and Pujawaliya narrate how kavum was enjoyed even by our ancestors.
There are several varieties of kavum. Among them the konda kavum is very popular. Naran kavum, thala kavum, undu kavum, mun kavum, seeni kavum and atiraha are also prepared during the Avurudu season. Naran kavum as the name implies is the size of a naran fruit and the centre is filled with pol peni. Hendi kavum is another variety. Hendi means spoon and here the dough is not taken bit by bit in the hand and made into a ball, but a spoon is used to make the kavum. Thus the name hendi kavum. Achchu kavum, more popular in the areas of the upcountry is a type of murukku.
In the villages superstitious beliefs surround the process of kavum preparation. It has been in village oral tradition for centuries that the first kavum is the 'konduru kavum'. Kondurawa is an insect that is drawn to a place where kavum is being made. The village lasses hang the first kavum up for the insects, so that the rest will be spared. The last kavum made is 'diya kavum'.
Diya means water. Accordingly the last part of the dough is considered tasteless and thus the last kavum is said to taste like water. Women also believe that they must refrain from talking when the first kavum is being made. If they talk the results may be unfruitful.
Asmi is also a traditional sweetmeat in the shape of'string hoppers dipped in treacle. According to Prof. Disanayaka the name Asmi was not only used to describe the sweet but also applied to a similar white nest built by wasps.
Aggala was often taken by villagers when they went on long pilgrimages to Sri Pada. Aggala is a sweet that can be preserved easily and thus people prepared aggala as it could be kept for long periods. Today it is also served as an Avurudu delicacy.
In certain areas of the Southern Province there is a revival of folk dance. Processions are organised and the villagers, some dancing, visit temples. The procession is accompanied by a cart decorated to depict the solar eclipse, the Prince of New Year the planets and the stars. A colourful feature is the large number of sweetmeats hung all around the cart. Kavum, kokis, atiraha are strung up in their numbers and the onlookers can simply pluck them from the cart . The poor are also treated to these delicacies from the cart. 'Although kokis had become synonymous with the Sinhala New Year, Prof. Dissanayaka says that the name came probably from the Dutch during their long stay in Ceylon. Thus the name kokis is believed to have been derived from Dutch 'Koekje' which in English is 'cookie'.
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