Monday 13 April is a public holiday marking the start of the Sinhalese and Tamil (Buddhist and Hindu) New Year celebrations in Sri Lanka, with New Year Day (also a public holiday) being Tuesday 14 April.
In Sinhala, the official name for the commemoration is Aluth Avurudda; in Tamil, it’s Puthandu. There is actually a gap of several hours between the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new one. This occurs when the sun moves across the astrological boundary between the House of Pisces and the House of Aries. The halfway point is regarded as the dawn of the New Year. During that time, according to ancient traditions, Sri Lankans engage in religious activities.
Cultural rituals associated with the New Year include cleaning the homestead, lighting an oil lamp, and the boiling of milk in special clay pots. This is the time of the year when people working away from home return to their villages to renew family ties and enjoy a break from work. Traditionally, village women play the raban drum to announce the change of the year. Families perform age-old rituals according to decreed astrological times, such as cooking and eating the first meal, making the first business transaction, and wearing certain colours. Firecrackers herald the approach of each auspicious moment.
After the blessings and the ceremonies, it’s time to party. Families stroll together, children play, and traditional games like tug-of-war and climbing a slippery pole, are organised. Special sweetmeats, such as kavum, small oil cakes and kokis, crisp battered shapes, along with plantains, are prepared and served to visitors.
It is also a time for less traditional, gambling games when men take time off from their families to throw dice at a board and bet on the result, or play cards for money. Meanwhile, whole families will take advantage of official holidays to visit the hill country, Nuwara Eliya being a favourite destination in April.
There are horse race meets attracting crowds to the town’s race course, and flower shows with competitions for the best flower garden. The streets are lined with vendors selling clothes, souvenirs and snacks, while children and their parents enjoy strolling in Victoria Park in the centre of town. Paddle boats can be hired on the placid waters of Lake Gregory, and there are ponies to ride around town.
Although it might seem unusual for visitors that New Year is celebrated in April, the tradition goes back to an ancient period in Sri Lanka’s history. It is associated with harvest time, and modern celebrations include a mix of indigenous and astrological traditions as well as Hindu and Buddhist rituals. New year is also celebrated at this time in some Indian states, in Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal and Thailand.
So on Tuesday 14 April, greet your friends with hands clasped together at chest height as you say: suba aluth avuruddak wewa (Happy New Year!)
Royston Ellis (www.roystonellis.com) is a British author resident in Sri Lanka since 1980