Being a significant festival to the people of the Island, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is celebrated with much pomp and fanfare. The transition of the Sun from the House of Pisces to the House of Aries marks the beginning of Aluth Avurudu (in Sinhala) and Puthandu (in Tamil) and is usually celebrated on April 14th every year. The whole island takes on a festive mood as people gear up for the upcoming celebrations by cleaning homes, shopping and making New Year sweetmeats, to begin the New Year on a joyous and positive note.
Auspicious times for New Year
Bathing for the Old Year - April 13
The Dawn of the New Year - April 14 at 1.47 pm
Punya Kalaya (inauspicious time) - April 14 from 7.23 am to 8.11pm
Lighting the hearth and preparation of meals - April 14 at 2.05pm (Dress in red and face East)
Exchanging money and the first meal of New Year - April 14 at 2.42pm (Dress in red and face East)
Anointing oil - April 15 at 9.06 am
Leaving for work - April 22 at 6.02 am
In Sinhala households
Prior to New Year
Household preparations are done in advance, perhaps even two or three weeks prior to the festival; homes are re-painted, floors are polished and kitchens are cleaned. All unwanted items are thrown away, making the setting clean and tidy to mark a new beginning. The best part is the preparation of sweetmeats and purchasing new clothes. The traditional oil lamp is lit at the auspicious time.
As the sun exits Meena, people take the final bath of the old year. As the ‘punya kalaya’ or ‘nonagathaya’ (inauspicious time) begins all business and work related activities come to a halt. Everyone occupies themselves in spiritual activities by visiting temples.
Dawn of the New Year (Aluth Avurudu Udawa)
The sound of firecrackers and the rhythm of ‘rabana’ (a one-sided traditional drum) signal that it’s the dawn of a new beginning – ‘Aluth Avurudda’. As the New Year sets in, families become busy with activities, getting ready for the rituals that are to follow.
Lighting the hearth (Lipa gini melaweema)
The hearth is lit by the lady of the house facing the designated direction (which varies every year) and either the traditional new year dish, Kiribath, is cooked or a pot of milk is boiled, both signifying prosperity. Before lighting the hearth, the lady of the house would worship the new pot three times. From the oldest of the family to the youngest, all gather around to witness the milk bubbling from the pot.
First meal at the Avurudu table (Ahara anubawaya)
At the table, kiribath, bananas, sweets like aggala, kavum, thalaguli, aasmi, kokis, aluwa and many other delicacies become the centrepiece. Families sit around the table and share the kiribath, as the head of the family offers it to all members. After this the oil lamp is lit and the feast commences.
Performing rituals and exchanging money (Wada alleema saha ganu denu kireema)
Every ritual is performed at an auspicious time. After meals, children show respect to their elders by offering sheaves of betel and elders bless them. The elders in return would give them money and commence the first financial transaction (ganu denu) of the New Year. In the ancient times ‘ganu denu’ or financial transaction was done in a different way, The woman of the house would drop a new coin wrapped in clean cloth into the well and draw a bucket of water. She would then fill a bottle with that water and keep it aside, which will be renewed the following year.
Friendly exchange of sweets amongst neighbours
Plates of sweets and other goodies are exchanged between neighbours and it is a tradition that the plates should not be returned empty. Families visit their relatives and friends forgetting resentments and to strengthen their relationships during this joyous season.
Anointing the holy oil purifies one’s mind as well as the body; families conduct this ceremony at their homes or go to temples where the priest anoints oil on the devotees’ heads and bless them. The patriarch of the family or the chief of the temple stands upon leaves, roots and flowers and anoints the oil while chanting shloka or gatha. During this ritual one is blessed from head to toe.
Time to play
After the rituals finish the celebrations move out into the streets where various games and many other fun filled activities begin. Bridging families and friends together, these traditional games and joyous activities are the limelight of the day.
In Tamil households
Setting up the house
As the festival date closes in, chores like scrubbing, cleaning and getting rid of old items begin. Houses are white washed and tidied up as it is believed that the Goddess Lakshmi visits and resides in a clean home and showers her blessings to the family to prosper. Tying the traditional Maviliai Thoranam symbolises the onset of a festival in any Hindu house hold, during these times. On the eve of the new year, the garland of Mango leaves or the Maavilai Thoranam is hung in front of the doorstep to ward off the evil eye while announcing that the festivities are about to begin. Another attraction, is the Kolam which are designs drawn with rice flour at one’s doorstep or the main entrance. Ladies of the same neighbourhood embark on a silent competition with each other on coming up with the best design, as they draw these artful creations on new year’s eve.
Morning of the New Year
At the dawn of the new year, families rise early and collect ‘Maruthu neer', a special water that contains a mix of herbal leaves and flowers such as lotus, pomegranate and few others. This ritual is considered an act of purification and normally ‘Maruthu neer' is anointed at an auspicious time as recommended by the astrologers or priests in the kovils. The spirit of new year sets in when everyone dresses in new clothes and wish family and friends with “Puthandu Valthukkal” (Happy new year). Later on, families gather at a place, ideally at the entrance to the house where a potful of milk is boiled. As the first rays of the new year begin to fall, watching the milk overflow from the rim is a sight meant to bring boundless joy and bounty into ones life. The milk is used to make pongal—a type of sweetened rice made in Hindu homes during times of festivals. The Pongal is made at a specific time in which the sun moves from the Meena Rasi ( Pisces) to Mesha rasi (Aries).
The traditional Pooja
The new year pooja is a ceremony conducted to thank the gods for the previous year and to seek their blessings in order to face the forth coming year of possibilities with strength and fervour. Typically the lady of the family sets up the Kumbam—a silver pot with coconut on top adorned with mango leaves on the sides, in the prayer room. The kumbam along with fruits like mangoes, jack, and comb of bananas and sweets are laid in front of the gods as offering. Once the ceremonies at home finish, families visit temples during the ‘Punya Kaalam’ which is a specific time of the day, considered ideal for visiting temples and being involved in spiritual activities.
A rather special custom, the Kai Visesham is a ceremony during which the elders of the family offer a small amount of money to the youngsters thereby commencing the first financial transaction of the year. The Kai Visesham money is supposed to bring luck to the youngsters and it shouldn’t be spent, until the next year. Like all other new year customs the Kai visesham too must be conducted at a special time.
Towards the evening various games like Porthenkai( a game played with coconuts), uriyadi (pot breaking), Pole climbing and tug-o-war are conducted amongst the neighbouring communities. Cart racing is a popular sport in the village areas which attracts the crowds in large numbers. One can also spot ladies hopping around gracefully, dancing Kolattam and Kummi, while singing songs about the new year.These fun filled activities are a way of promoting kinship amidst neighbours and other people from the locality.