The festival marks the re-entry of the sun into a new year, the transition of the sun from Pisces to Aries.
There was a timewhen people of this land worshipped nature; nature in essence was their god. The sun, the moon, the rain and the wind became supreme god-like phenomena to people that were involved in agriculture and to whom the sun, the moon and the rains ensured a bountiful harvest. The farmers celebrate an annual festival held in the month of Bak or April in obeisance of the sun and moon god and Sath Pattini, the goddess of fertility. Thus, Althuth Avurudu or Puththandu, as the festival is known in Sinhala and Tamil respectively, is a time of ritualistic renewal spread over two days. The festival marks the re-entry of the sun into a new year, the transition of the sun from Pisces to Aries.
The festive month of April is indeed rich with trees bearing fruits and flowers, the air filled with the mating call of birds, and the skies a clear blue. The rice fields in the Maha season shine resplendently in the sun, as the farming community prepares to reap the bountiful harvest.
Homes are given makeovers with fresh coats of paint, floors are polished, and hearths are cleaned. Festive sweetmeats are prepared. New clothes are bought for the family. In Tamil homes, the woman of the house prepares her home for an exalted visitor, God Ganesh, extinguisher of obstacles carrying blessings of success. For his presence, she sprinkles saffron water on her doorstep and decorates the threshold with exquisite kolam, elaborate patterns made from coloured grated coconut, rice flour or grains of rice. In both Sinhala and Tamil homes, traditional oil lamps are readied, to be lit at auspicious times.
As the sun exits Meena, family members take the final bath for the old year, symbolically casting aside its unwelcome residues. A sighting of the moon on the last day of the old year is said to be fortuitous.
Work comes to a standstill as the country collectively enters the nonegathaya, the transition period of relative inactivity when the sun god is crossing, belonging neither to the old year or New Year. It is known as ‘no-man’s time’ where there are no auspicious moments. Business transactions are not carried out and no food is cooked and the mind is occupied with spiritual matters. Every Buddhist or Hindu visits the temple or kovil. Buddhists make offerings at the temple to acquire merit. Anointing the head with mathur neer, a sacred scented herbal water, at the kovil, is a Tamil custom, followed by a ritual bath to signify a pure body. It is considered a period of danger, where symbols of fertility, such as the fire, water and milk must not be touched. Work begins again only at an auspicious moment after the dawn of the New Year.
The dawn of the New Year is heralded with the burst of firecrackers and the melodious rhythm of drums. It falls upon the woman of the house to welcome the New Year by cooking an auspicious dish. The hearth is lit and upon it is placed a new pot with new rice to cook the first meal for the New Year. It is cooked with milk, a symbol of fertility. The ritual is done facing the auspicious direction, wearing the colour mentioned in the almanac, until the milk spills over from all sides, a sign of good fortune. Young ones kneel at the feet of their parents and elders with sheaves of betel and as they worship, receive blessings and gifts.
The first meal is partaken of at an auspicious time. The father, as the head of the house lights the oil lamp. Generally a parent places a mouthful of food in children before the family sits together at the table. Another table is laid out with sweetmeats such Kevum. Kokis, Asmi, Athiraha, Bibikkan, Peni Walalu and more.
In Tamil homes, the dish constitutes pongal rice, containing cashew nuts, lentils, raisins, ghee, jaggery and spices. Tamil households also prepare a mandala kumbam, an ornamental pot full of water, covered with a coconut and fringed with five or seven mango leaves. The area in front of the house is cleaned and sprinkled with saffron water, and cow dung. The hearth is prepared a little away facing the East, and a new pot is used to cook the ‘Pongal’.
A pot with five mango leaves and a coconut, lit joss sticks, a tray of flowers, betel leaves, arecanuts, comb of bananas and sweet rice are offered to the Sun God and Lord Ganesh to complete the pooja. A coconut is broken by the head of the household and incense is burnt. Games are an important part of the New Year, which have become a tradition. Board games such as pancha and olinda are played indoors. Young ones play on the swing, elderly women play the drum, while men are involved in more outdoor games such as chakgudu and thachchi (a game similar to Kabadi), tug of war and pole climbing among others.
The first financial transaction known as Ganudenu used to be conducted by the woman at the well, by dropping a copper coin and piece of charcoal into the well and subsequently drawing a bucket of water. Today however, the ritual is limited to a financial transaction with a family member or prosperous associate. In Tamil households, the head of the family gives money, betel leaves, paddy and flowers known as Kai Vishesham to the family members and wishes them good luck.
The custom of anointing medicinal oil by an elder is a custom that takes place a few days after the festival. This is followed by a bathe to cleanse the mind and body.
When household rituals are complete, the celebrations move out into the streets. Baskets and trays of fruit and sweetmeats are sent to the neighbour. Families visit relatives with gifts and delicious treats. The greetings “suba aluth avuruddak wewa” in Sinhala and “puththandu nalvalththukal” in Tamil, meaning “happy new year” fill the streets.