Here comes the Sinhala – Hindu New Year | Sunday Observer

Here comes the Sinhala – Hindu New Year

“The sun and the stars that float in the open air

The apple-shaped earth and we upon it -

Surely the drift of them is something grand

I do not know what it is except that it is grand,

and that is happiness.”

-Walt Whitman (1819-91)

US Poet

If a person has had the good fortune of spending one’s childhood in the bosom of a traditional Sinhala village, he or she will invariably feel a keen and pleasant tinge of nostalgic ache, when the word “Avurudu” is mentioned.

A thrilling sensation will touch his inner being, however much that person is now advanced in years, from those early, free and untrammelled days.

In those far off days-the joy and the feel of which, have now vanished into thin air - New Year was a highly engrossing folk-festival. Months ahead of the festival, nature’s heralds, keep the rural community informed of the arrival of the New Year.

In the early years of the Twentieth Century, the Sri Lankan villagers were innocent of sophisticated modes of communication. Even if a stray newspaper made its way into the village, its use was strictly restricted.

The traditional villager’s trust in nature, was unflinching. The Erabadu tree blossomed forth in red, signalling that the New Year is nigh. The koel – flitted through the village, announcing the good tidings of New Year’s arrival.

The villager kept track of these nature’s messages and went about setting the stage for the festival in the offing.

Koel

The regularity of the koel, is exceptionally surprising. Even in the city, I could not help but feel pleasantly amazed, when the koel awakened us to the festive season with its soothing tones. (strangely enough, this year the city koel was a wee-bit late for duty – I assumed that even he is too busy nowadays, distracted by the unusual hum-and-buzz that overwhelms urban life).

The toilers of the soil, have their harvest brought home, in time for the New Year repast. Folk rituals associated with the propitiation of Gods for the bounty of a bumper harvest, are at times deemed part of the New Year festival.

Many facts of the New Year festival in villages, are taken care of by the village temples.

The document setting down the auspicious hours for ritual-items is distributed by the village astrologers.

But, when everything is said and done the most humane aspect of the New Year, is the family reunion – which is decidedly a ‘core’ ritual of the Sinhala New Year.

Most persons from the deep South, display a marked proclivity to leave home, and seek success at distant destinations. (one cannot help but wonder whether this is a vestigial residence of the Aryan “wanderlust”).

The Sinhala New Year, is primarily a children-focused festival. Each household is keen to nurture the ‘Avurudu’ spirit, in the young ones.

A vivid memory I cherish, is the urge I had as a child, to amass as many fire-crackers as possible, ahead of New Year’s Day. When I am taken to visit a household, I am quite certain the host will present me boxes of crackers. In those early days, fire-crackers came to us from China, in elegant packs. I had an urge to hoard them, before firing.

At this stage, it is quite apt to take a historical view of the New Year festival.

Initially, the New Year festival possesses a hoary past, since it is one of the oldest festival of mankind.

The ancient man, lived in great intimacy with Nature. In summer, the world around him offered him all the things he needed, with overwhelming lavishness. The earth was fertile. Streams flowed, at a pleasing rhythm. Birds were always on the wing. Game was widely available. Hunger and thirst fully satiated, the ancient man felt happy.

But, in the fall – Autumn – the green leaves turned colour and fell to the ground. The trees withered. The whole world was covered in snow. Game was gone. Streams were still. Ancient man was devastated. Tormented by hunger and thirst, the ancients thought, the God of Nature was dead. They wept, lamented.

But, gradually, the earth began to green. Trees flourished. Food was once again available. The ancients, rejoiced at the new birth of the God of Nature. With the risen God, they started a new life-cycle.

Rituals

In our New Year rituals, we still have those twin aspects. In the old year, hearths are not kindled. Food is not taken. The moderns do not weep and lament. But, at shrines they perform rituals.

When the God has reawakened they rejoice in the New Year. Bouquets and lavish repasts are held. All transactions are newly initiated. Games, both indoor and outdoor, articulate the newly won New Year joy.

This is the ‘secret’ of the so-called ‘Nonagata’ period of austerity. We in our ultra-modern way, relive the experience of those ancient proto-humans.

In the traditional villages, the preparation of the New Year repast, assumed the sanctity of a sacred ritual.

The women-folk take charge of the food department. The complicated process of food preparation, brought out the whole range of culinary skills of the women folk of the village. The artificial ripening of the banana, in a hole dug in the ground, was a display of a kind of rustic science.

The New Year Sinhala smorgasbord offers a bewildering range of indigenous cuisine. Kiribath – (milk-rice), Ke-um, rice-cake, kokis are staples. Various pickles, fish-preparations and curries, supported the main rice-dish.

Of all these Sri Lankan food items, I count ‘Kiribath’ as my distinct special choice. Please allow me, present a minor ode to kiribath, that adorns the New Year table everywhere.

In the culinary psyche of all races, a special dish is enthroned as their mass delight for all seasons. The favourite item may not necessarily be a five-star goodie that could swoon elite gourmet foodies. But, on the other hand it could very well be humble, simple or just plain-like Sri Lanka’s milk-rice kiribath. In Sri Lanka, kiribath comes into its own, during the New Year season. It is presented with embul-thiyal fish dish, pickles, or sambol, fiery salad leavened with Maldive-fish. When I was young, my mother lad a way of presenting kiribath, with a spicy dried-fish preparation. Although this particular preparation is still deeply embedded in my inner taste-portfolio, I have no memory of its recipe.

In its sociological implications, the Sinhala New Year Festival is a unique mechanism of pragmatic social integration. The specific ritual – moments associated with New Year, are held at various pre-planned times, by the total population, simultaneously.

When the auspicious moment arrives to partake of the New Year Meal, the totality of nation, begins the ritual at one specific moment. Such auspicious moments, brought the whole community together, all performing the rituals exactly at the same time. In those by-gone eras, bereft of such mass media as the Radio and the TV, the masses were alerted by the temple bells.

A morally exalting facet of the New Year Festival is the worship of the elders. Offering a sheaf of ritual betel leaves, the young ones honour their seniors. Old simmering grudges are forgotten. Unity is, wholesomely restored.

In the traditional village home, the New Year joys begin with the arrival of the invited chief guest, who is offered the privilege of taking part in the New Year repast. He engages in transactions with the host family.

The children have a bewildering variety of choices. They invariably receive fresh garments. Games galore. Throwing cadjunuts at a hole in the ground, is a favourite New Year pastime for the young.

Untied

Adults have their own share of New Year fun. Swings allow even young women to have a free outing. Rabana – a round drum on wooden supports, summon the ladies to display their drumming skills.

Most of these New Year games have their accompanying recitals.

But, today, we just cannot recapture the old ‘New Year’ that enlivened the total rural community. Efforts are made today, to revive the vanished glory of the New Years past. But, that archaic spirit can in no way be fully brought back.

I remember reading about a remote Irish Village, where the folk perform a ritual to revive the age-old origins of the New Year Rituals.

The village folk gather together. Enacting an ancient ritual, they mime the death of Nature’s God and his diminished progress.

To enact this, the women-folk of the village tie-up sturdy young men in the village, to mime the loss of God’s power.

Fortunately, after a brief enactment, the young men are untied. Ropes gone, they live their New Year joys. In our own land there are efforts to give new life to the vanished glory of traditional New Year rituals. The efforts are praiseworthy but, the past is now beyond recall, I feel.

The only option is to appoint a responsible group of eminent men and women, to record those wholesome eras and the lively New Year pageants that were a pulsating part of the life of those times.

This could, very well be our collective New Year Wish.

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