Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Aluth Avurudda, a Celebration of Life

The Sinhala Hindu New Year - the Aluth Avurudda - is celebrated in the month of Bak according to the Sinhalese calendar. The name ‘Bak' derives from the Sanskrit word bhāgya meaning ‘fortunate'. The month of ‘Bak' corresponds to April in the Gregorian calendar, which is commonly used in Sri Lanka today as it is in other parts of the world. Although there is usually little conspicuous seasonal change experienced in the course of the year in tropical Sri Lanka except for a relatively hot August and a relatively cool December, the month of Bak is associated with a delightful vernal atmosphere, and an unusual freshness in nature enhanced by spring blossoms and azure skies despite occasional showers. This is also the time that the ripened paddy is gathered in, which gives rise to a pervasive sense of plenty, especially to rural Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan woman offers prayers as a pot with milk boils over during the cooking of kiribath or milk rice
A Sri Lankan woman offers prayers as a pot with milk boils over during the cooking of ’Kiribath’ milk rice in the neutral period between the old and new year during the Sri Lankan Singhala and Tamil New Year celebrations in Colombo, 14 April 2007.

The Bak festive season centres around a national cultural event which is unique in a number of ways. The Sinhala Hindu New Year is probably the only major traditional festival that is commonly observed by the largest number of Sinhalese and Tamils in the country. Its non-ethnic non-religious character is another distinctive feature.

This festival cannot be described as ethnic because it is celebrated by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, yet not by all of them either: only the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils participate in it, the Christians in both communities having nothing to do with it. On the other hand, it is a non-religious celebration in that not all Buddhists nor all Hindus in the world take part in it; only the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus do. {I owe this description of the non-ethnic, non-religious nature of the Aluth Avurudda to Professor J.B.Dissanayake’s explanation of the subject in his booklet The April New Year Festival (Pioneer Lanka Publications. London.1993)}.

In terms of traditional astrological beliefs, the sun is said to complete one circular movement across the twelve segments of the zodiac in the course of the year, taking a month to traverse each constellation. The arbitrary beginning of this circular solar progress is taken to be Aries (Mesha), which is conventionally represented by the zodiacal sign of ‘the ram’. Having travelled from Aries to Pisces (Meena usually represented by the drawing of ‘two fish’), the sun must pass from Pisces to Aries to begin a new year. The solar new year (known as the Shaka calendar) is reckoned from this transit (sankranti), which comes a week or two after the beginning of the new year according to the Sinhalese calendar. The Vesak Festival, which marks the dawn of the Buddhist new year, comes at least another month later.

The Aluth Avurudda centres on the ‘transit’ of the sun from Pisces to Aries. It is remarkable for Sinhalese Buddhists to thus celebrate the beginning of the solar new year, rather than their own Buddhist new year. So the Aluth Avurudda appears to be in homage of the sun god, which is significant for an agrarian community.

Because of the increasing popular attention that it receives in Sri Lanka nowadays, the first of January seems to eclipse the New Year in April in terms of the popular recognition it enjoys. Those of us who enjoyed the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda as the main secular festival of the year may wonder with some justification whether it is now beginning to be shelved as yet another “cultural anachronism”.

This is indeed a regrettable state of affairs. Institutions such as the Aluth Avurudda and the various Esala Peraheras are vitally important cultural legacies we have inherited from the past, and they help sustain and define our identity as a people. In the face of the inexorable advance of modernism and globalization, the threat of cultural obliteration and loss of national identity is very real.

The Aluth Avurudda is a part of our rich cultural heritage, which includes among other similar treasures the historic dagabas, tanks, sculptures, paintings, and specimens of ancient literature. Who among us the inheritors of such an age old culture can be indifferent to the loss of this incomparable legacy? True, we must modernize, and participate in the emerging world order so as to keep pace with the rest of the international community in science and technology, and in the advancement of the general quality of living that it makes possible; yet, it would be most unfortunate if we were so foolhardy as to throw overboard the cherished possessions from the past in the name of progress.

These things have come down to us through the ages because they are ingrained in our history and culture. For thousands of years our ancestors – the inhabitants of this island - built up a highly organized agrarian civilization based on the principles of harmonious co-existence with nature, non-violence, tolerance and peace. The Aluth Avurudda wonderfully demonstrates our national ethos with its characteristic emphasis of the renewal and reaffirmation of goodwill within families and among neighbours, and in the series of ritualistic practices and observances that are meant to revitalize an essential link between human beings and nature.

I have vivid memories of how the Aluth Avurudda festivities were held in the remote villages of the Nuwara Eliya District in the late fifties and early sixties when we were young children. The Avurudda was an event we looked forward to for a whole year through interminable months of school, and ups and downs of childish fortunes (such as exam success or failure, friendship or fighting among playmates).

At this time of the year we were invariably aware of a general awakening in nature. It was the time when the paddy was harvested and the fields were left fallow for a few weeks, allowing us children to romp about and play ‘rounders’; it was the time when exotic birds with bright plumage like the golden oriole sang from the flower-laden trees; it was the time when the humble dwellings of the peasants were cleaned and whitewashed, adding to the sunny brilliance of the surroundings. Unlike children today, we had more time to play, because tuition and cramming was almost unknown then and nature had not yet been replaced by TV and computer in engaging the aesthetic sense of the young. The impression we got from observing the multitude of ‘beauteous forms’ in the environment was that even nature joined us in our joy – a very positive sort of ‘pathetic fallacy’!

The sighting of the new moon was the first of the Avurudda rites. Then came ‘bathing for the old year’ as it was called, followed by the ‘nonagathe’ period (literally, a period without auspicious times); being considered inappropriate for any form of work, this idle period was entirely devoted to religious observances and play. Cooking and partaking of milkrice, starting work for the new year, anointing oil on the head, and leaving for work were the other practices. All these rites were performed at astrologically determined auspicious moments.

Although belief in astrology and other occult practices is contrary to the spirit of Buddhism, in the villages it was the Buddhist monks themselves who prepared the medicinal oils in the temples and applied these on the heads of the celebrants, young and old, while chanting ‘pirith’ so as to ensure their good health for the whole year. In this way, the Aluth Avurudda traditions touched every important aspect of life: physical wellbeing, economy, religion, and recreation.

Aluth Avurudda foods

Children and adults walked in gay abandon about the village dressed in their new clothes visiting friends and relatives amidst the cacophony of ‘raban’ playing and the sound of firecrackers set off everywhere. The aroma of savoury dishes and smell of sweetmeats arose from every household. Visitors were plied with all sorts of sweetmeats. Amidst all this visiting, playing and merrymaking everybody was careful to be at home for the observance of the rites at appointed times.

It never occurred to us (or to our parents, I am sure) to question the necessity, or disbelieve the efficacy, of these rites. The sun was a god; the shining thing in the sky was not him, though; it was only his chariot! We really sympathized with him over the uncertainty and anxiety he was supposed to undergo during the interregnum between the demise of the old year and the dawn of the new, i.e. the period of ‘transit’ (sankranthi). The ‘Avurudu Kumaraya’ – the New Year Prince – was as real in our imagination as the Sun God. That we didn’t see him in flesh and blood was in the nature of things, too.

Today the Aluth Avurudda means much less to us than it did in the past. Our response to the theme of the festival has lost much of its emotional content. Those rites, auspicious times, and astrological beliefs are nothing more than irrelevant superstitions to many. Most of those who still follow the customs associated with the Aluth Avurudda do so as a concession to tradition, out of a sense of nostalgia. Our failure to participate in the joyous experience which the Aluth Avurudda was in our childhood is a very significant loss. The mystique charm and the sense of the numinous (holy, divine) which informed the event have evaporated. This, in large measure, is due to our ineluctable sophistication.

Not all is lost, though, the Sinhala Hindu New Year still remains a powerful symbol of the renewal of hope for the future and a reaffirmation of our bond with nature and our commitment to the time-honoured values of our forefathers. It is truly a celebration of life.

This article by Rohana R. Wasala was first published in The Island (Colombo) of 13th April 2001.