Yes, Avurudu or Puthandu (in Tamil) is primarily celebrated by Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus, but over the years it has transcended such man-made boundaries and become a national festival celebrated by all Sri Lankans. That is what Sri Lanka should be – a country where all live in harmony and take pride in each other’s cultural norms and traditions.
But above all, Avurudu celebrates our very close bond with Nature. In a way, it is our tribute to the Sun, whose movement from Meena (Pisces) to Mesha (Aries) is the very basis of the traditional New Year. This is distinct from the modern Gregorian calendar introduced just 436 years ago. On the other hand, the roots of the traditional New Year go back thousands of years. In fact, Oriental cultures have based their calendars – and daily life – around the movements of the Sun and the Moon for millennia.
New Year traditions
The festival is based on the fact that Sun gives us life. Our food is literally made by the Sun through the process of photosynthesis, which is really the basis of all life on Earth. Thus the New Year traditions evolved as a result of farmers expressing their gratitude to the Sun and Nature for a bountiful harvest. One cannot get any closer to Nature than that. The traditional New Year (or variations of it) is a common festival all over Asia, but here in Sri Lanka it is the most important national event of the year. In fact, the Sinhalese word “Bak” for the month of April signifies “fortune”, being a derivative of the Sanskrit root word “Bhagya”.
Avurudu teaches us many lessons apart from bringing us closer to Nature. What other national festival unites an entire country to do certain activities at the same time? Some may disregard and even make fun of the Avurudu Nekath or auspicious times, but they help make us more punctual and disciplined. While cooking and partaking meals in accordance with auspicious times is certainly very important, the foremost place in Avurudu traditions should go to the age-old tradition of Ganu Denu, which literally means Give and Take. That is sadly a factor that is missing from our lives for the most part, but Avurudu reminds us of the importance of compromise and the joy of sharing.
The symbolic conduit for Ganu Denu in Sri Lanka (as well as in neighbouring India) is the humble sheaf of betel leaves. There are many legends associated with the betel leaf which has become a pivotal item in New Year festivities. Again, the betel leaf symbolises our close affinity with Nature. It is thought of as a harbinger of prosperity.
Avurudu reminds us of the importance of respecting our elders. Hence the practice of worshipping parents and elderly relatives when the New Year dawns. But there is another higher purpose – giving someone a sheaf of betel leaves means that you have forgotten or forgiven any enmity, misunderstanding or anger that may have caused a rift in the old year. Thus Avurudu is a season for Giving – as well as for Forgiving. It is a time where everyone in the family and the neighbourhood gets together in a spirit of harmony and peaceful co-existence. Another important part of Ganu Denu is commencing some sort of work for the first time in the New Year. Called Weda Alleema in Sinhala and Er Mangalam according to Hindu traditions, this calls for starting some work that would bring prosperity to oneself and the family throughout the year. For example, a student can study a lesson and a farmer can work on his field.
Avurudu is a joyous occasion - what would it be without all those sweetmeats? Some of the Avurudu sweetmeats are found nowhere else on Earth. Kavum, Kokis, Athirasa, Bibikkan, Mun Kavum, Peni Walalu, Asmee and many other types of sweetmeats adorn the Avurudu table, along with alien arrivals such as cake and biscuits. No Avurudu table can be complete without the obligatory Kiribath (Milk Rice), which is the first item cooked to mark the dawn of the year. The overflowing of milk in this instance sysmbolises happiness and prosperity for the entire family. In many Hindu households, a sweet rice is made with new raw red rice, jaggery, cashew nuts, ghee and plums.
The Avurudu table brings everyone together. This is a very important in a society where the tradition of family sit-down meals has disappeared for all intents and purposes. Today’s pressures to relentlessly pursue money and differing interests/work hours of family members mean that no one has the time to enjoy a sit-down meal over free-flowing conversation and plenty of laughter. At best, the whole family might have eyes glued to the television while having dinner with no conversation at all. Family bonds have taken a severe beating due to modern lifestyles, but Avurudu reminds us that we can – and should – do better to keep families together.
The demands of commercialism have enveloped everyone in our families, including the children. Unlike in the days gone by, today’s children are pressured by parents, teachers and the wider society to study all the time in order do well at examinations at the expense of their playtime. However, Avurudu literally gives them a break from the tedium of studying and attending classes non-stop. Avurudu is playtime, from the Onchillawa (swing) to nearly forgotten indoor games such as “Panchi” and “Keta”. It is also a time when the children get a lot of gifts, from new clothes to toys. Naturally, it is the children that enjoy Avurudu the most, starting with the delicious sweetmeats on the table. Of course, Avurudu games and festivities have no age limit – everyone is free to join in the fun.
Bak Maha Ulela
Most villages do have “Bak Maha Ulela” events where the entire village comes together for a bit of downtime. Participating in many traditional games such as Pillow Fighting, Tug-O-War, Cadjan Weaving and Raban playing give the villagers an opportunity to reaffirm their bonds with each other. The authorities must also make an effort to preserve some of the more traditional games such as olinda keliya, eluvan keliya, mevara sellama, buhu keliya, muthu keliya and mee sellama. Of course, these events are open to all, regardless of communal o religious differences. This is significant at a time when there is a dire need to reinforce the bonds among different communities and religious groups.
But Avurudu cannot be confined to one’s home or village. Avurudu gives us an opportunity to visit far-flung friends and relatives at least once a year with plenty of gifts and sweetmeats in hand. There is a massive rush to go to villages, with buses and trains filled to capacity. This is also one of the few chances for those based in the cities to go back to their villages for a few days to get in touch with their roots, so to speak.
Avurudu also has a spiritual or religious element, though the commercial elements may sometimes overshadow it. The Punya Kalaya (literally a time for meritorious deeds) or Nonagathaya (literally a period with no auspicious times) is designed to let us visit the temple or the Kovil to purify our souls. Thus the Avurudu brings to the fore the nexus between the village and the temple/place of worship. Many of the problems in our lives can be traced to the gulf between us and the place of worship – Avurudu gives us an opportunity to renew this bond. The temple is also often the location for anointing oil for the New Year, an age-old tradition that is said to bestow fortune and good health. This is usually done by the head priest or a village elder.
Avurudu is sometimes likened to a person, through the reference to an Avurudu Kumaraya (New Year Prince). He is supposed to be a radiant individual who brings prosperity to the whole village and the whole country. In fact, in keeping with this thee, many Avurudu festivals select an Avurudu Kumaraya and as well as Kumaraya (Princess).
There are many other rituals and traditions associated with the New Year, such as bathing for the new and old year and leaving for work in the New Year. We might not have the time for observing all Avurudu traditions, but the lesson is clear – togetherness pays dividends in the form of peace and harmony.
Avurudu is a time for a fresh start in every sphere of life. From new clothes to a new coat of paint to new aspirations, it marks a deviation from the old routine and signals that life is ready to take on new challenges in the coming year. Avurudu thus gives us fresh hope for a successful, bountiful year ahead.
Pramod De Silva