The Koha heralds the Sinhala and Tamil New Year with its iconic screech
The favourite national holiday in Sri Lanka is Sinhala and Tamil New Year; called in Sinhala Aluth Avurudda and Tamil Puthandu. New Year, which is on April 14, entails prayer, but mostly activities such as games, and customs of goodwill, among them family gatherings with special food, and visits to relatives and neighbours.
Words: Richard Boyle | Photography: Rasika Surasena
It is believed that the Sinhala and Tamil New Year originated with the suriya wandanawa, the worship of the Sun as the source of life. Indeed today, according to the system of astrology adhered to in Sri Lanka, the festival marks the passage of the Sun from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries). Such timing corresponds with a yearly occurrence when the Sun is directly overhead on April 14, while sometimes, though rarely, it takes place on April 13.
New Year is of special relevance to the Sinhalese farming community as it celebrates the end of the maha kanna (main harvest). Bak Maha or the month of April, in which this festival falls, is also when the trees recently gained new, glistening leaves, exotic flowers are in bloom - the crimson yak erabadu (Erythrina fusca) is linked to the New Year - and trees are also abounding with new harvests.
For the Sinhalese, Aluth Avurudda begins with families improving their homes – thoroughly cleaning, even perhaps painting... Tamil customs are a little different. Before the rituals begin, the entrance of the house is purified with saffron water.
Before New Year
New Year coincides with the mating season of a type of cuckoo known as the koha, thus the festival is heralded by the persistent lilting sporadic call of the male of the species. As a result, the koha-bird is inextricably associated with the New Year and thus features in all the traditional stories and verses regarding the festival.
Sinhalese and Tamil Customs
For the Sinhalese, Aluth Avurudda begins with families improving their homes - thoroughly cleaning, even perhaps painting. A few days before the festival, traditional food items are prepared in lieu of the celebrations.
Tamil customs are a little different. Before the rituals begin, the entrance of the house is purified with saffron water. Intricate designs called kolam, made of rice flour - a neat drawing of colourful curved loops, drawn around a pattern of dots - decorate the floor.
On the ultimate day of the old year or Parana Avurudda, the Sinhalese take a herbal bath, prior to which the head is anointed with predetermined auspicious oils. This year the juice of Kohomba (neem) leaves will be applied on the head by a senior Buddhist priest at the temple - or, if at home, an elderly relative - with blessings for health and longevity. Rituals are a harbinger of good luck.
Nonagathaya, the "neutral period"
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year does not begin at midnight, for the timing is established by astrological calculations regarding the passage of the Sun between Meena Rashiya and Mesha Rashiya. This period from the end of the old year to the start of the new is usually 12 hours and 48 minutes. Called the nonagathaya, the "neutral period" - astrologically ‘inauspicious' - worldly pursuits are discouraged and religious activities encouraged. Business activities, studies and even cooking are not practised during this period.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year begins
Whatever the astrological beginning of New Year, day or night, the Sinhalese custom is, during the auspicious time, to light an oil lamp and use a new hearth to boil coconut or dairy milk so that it overflows, a sign of prosperity in the year ahead. This New Year, the auspicious colour to be worn during the boiling of milk is gold. The respect paid to elders is a special feature of the New Year, in which a sheaf of betel is offered to parents and elders in an act of gratefulness and esteem, and the youngsters in return receive blessings. The 'Hisa Thelgaama' is performed for good health in the New Year, where herbal oils are applied on the forehead at an auspicious time. In addition, goodwill visits to relations and neighbours reinforce the ties of the community.
For Tamils, New Year starts with the preparation of a herbal mixture, called maruthu neer, which is applied on the foreheads of family members before bathing. New clothes are worn in colours that are chosen annually. A new hearth is also used to cook the pongal, a sweet rice containing mung dhal, jaggery, raisins and cashews.
In a special pooja, the pongal, with other offerings such as mango leaves, flowers and bananas, is made to god Ganesh, the elephant-head god, the ‘remover of obstacles'. Younger family members are then blessed by their elders.
This is followed by a visit to the kovil to implore blessings and good favour in the New Year. As with the Sinhalese, another vital aspect of the New Year for Tamils is visiting their relatives and neighbours; usually with plates filled with sweetmeats. The festival and the holidays symbolically come to an end as people set out to work, attired in new clothes on the aupicious day at the auspicious time of the New Year.
The New Year menu
During the festivities new clothes in the propitious colours which, in this year, are white and blue to be adorned during the partaking of meals.
Most of the Avurudu sweetmeats are prepared prior to the festival while Kiri Bath is made on New Year day.
Coconut milk is used to make the most important item on the New Year menu: Prepared by cooking rice with the coconut milk; a form of rice pudding essential for New Year.
Also known as "oil cake", a sweetmeat made of rice flour and the kittul palm sap, coconut palm sap or sugar jaggery.
Deep-fried, crispy and savoury, made of rice flour and coconut milk; of Dutch origin.
Half-moon shaped; consists of a noodle-like latticework made of rice flour and coconut milk, fried, with added treacle.
A diamond-shaped ash or whitish coloured sweet. Aluva is prepared using rice flour, cashew nuts, cardamom and sugar.
One fruit completes the Avurudu feast: it is vital that a comb of banana graces the table.
Games, indoor and outdoor, are an important part of Sinhalese festivities:
Indoor game played with sea shells.
A board game played with olinda (Crab's eye) seeds.
Swings, which women and children ride singing special verses.
Pillow-fighting astride a raised pole.
Aliyata aha thabeema
Marking the eye on an elephant drawn on a board while blindfolded.
Kanaa mutti bindeema
Breaking a water-filled pot while blindfolded.
The traditional Western tug-o-war, Sri Lankan style.
The playing of the large drum, the rabana, by women.
Lissana gaha nageema
Climbing a greasy pole, ten metres high, to claim a flag.
Celebrated by most Sri Lankansin one form or another, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year involves the young and the old, and goodwill that strengthens friendships, community ties and has even produced many entertainment activities.
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is a date of great importance in the Island's calendar.