The Aluth Avurudda — a celebration of life

by Rohana R. Wasala
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 ‘bhagya’ meaning ‘fortunate’. The month of Bak corresponds to April in the Gregorian calendar, which is commonly used in Sri Lanka 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 Sri Lanka except for a relatively hot August and a relatively cool December, the month of Bak is associated with a certain vernal atmosphere - an unusual freshness in nature enhanced by spring blossoms and azure skies despite occasional showers. This is also the time the ripened paddy is gathered in, which gives rise to a pervasive sense of plenty especially to rural Sri Lanka.

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: only Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus 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)). Yet another fact that adds to its secular character is that the festival focuses on an event which has no connection with religion or race at all.

In terms of traditional astrological belief 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 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 that of their own new year. So the Aluth Avurudda appears to be in homage of the sun god important for an agricultural people.

Cultural anachronism

In view of the increasing popular attention that it receives in Sri Lanka today the first of January seems to eclipse in significance the New Year in April. Those of us who once 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 significant 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 globalisation the threat of cultural obliteration and loss of national identity is very real.

The Aluth Avurudda is part of our rich cultural heritage, which includes among other treasures the historic dagabas, tanks, sculptures, paintings and specimens of ancient literature. Who can be indifferent to the loss of this incomparable legacy? 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. However, 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 Ayrudda 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 man and nature.

I have vivid memories of how the Aluth Ayurudu 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 Aurudda 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 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 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.

Sighting of the new moon

The sighting of the new moon was the first of the Ayurudu rites. Then came ‘bathing for the old year’ as it was called, followed by the ‘nonagate’ period which being considered inauspicious for any form of work was entirely devoted to religious observances and play. Cooking and partaking of milk-rice, 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 sciences is contrary to the spirit of Buddhism, in the villages it was the Buddhist priests who prepared the medicinal oils in the temples and applied these on the heads of people while chanting ‘pirit’ so as to ensure health for the whole year. These Aluth Avurudu traditions touched every important aspect of life: health, economy, religion and recreation .

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 the smell of sweetmeats arose from every household. Visitors were plied with all sorts of sweets. Amidst all this visiting, playing and merrymaking everybody was careful to be at home for the observance of the rites at the appointed times.

It never occurred to us (and 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 the uncertainty and anxiety he was supposed to undergo during the interregnum between the old year and the new, i.e. the period of ‘transit’ (sankranti). 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.

But 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. Today those rites, auspicious times and astrological beliefs are nothing more than irrelevant superstitions. Most of those who still follow the Avurudu customs 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 numerous which informed the event have evaporated. This in large measure is due to our ineluctable sophistication.

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