Although it’s technically referred to as the Sinhalese and Tamil New year, I prefer to call it the Sri Lankan New Year because it is celebrated not just by Sinhalese and Tamil people but by most Sri Lankans. ‘Aluth Avuruddha’ as it is called in Sinhalese is celebrated on the 14th of April each year. It is an astrologically significant day and also marks the end of the harvest season. Like most other traditional celebrations in Sri Lanka, we have loads of very specific, unique and sometimes somewhat strange customs and traditions that are upheld on the New Year day and a few days before and after it.
Everyone knows when the Avurudu Season comes along when they hear the sound of the Koha. The Koha is a type of cuckoo bird called the Asian Koel. The mating season of the Koha coincides with the New Year Season, and therefore Sri Lankans consider the mating call of the Koha to be like an announcement that the New Year is approaching!
Unlike the dawn of the New Year on the 1st of January, where the old year ends on the 31st of December at midnight and the New Year starts immediately after, the dawn of the Sri Lankan New Year occurs hours after the end of the old year. These are auspicious times and are different each year. There is a period called the ‘Punya Kaalaya’ that starts with the ending of the old year, which is a neutral period where traditionally Sri Lankans refrain from material pursuits and engage in religious activities. This period is also often referred to as ‘Nonagathe’ which means period of no auspicious time.
Confused yet? Wait, there’s more!
There is an auspicious time when Sri Lankans boil milk in a clay pot on a wood fire until it froths to the top and overflows. This signifies an abundance of success in the upcoming year. They then start preparing the meal for the New Year. This meal however cannot be consumed until a certain time because we Sri Lankans have an auspicious time for everything! Other customs like lighting the oil lamp and eating Sri Lankan Kavili like Kavum [an oil cake] and Kokis [a crispy sweetmeat] are done at this time as well. It is after this that the celebrations begin in each town with traditional games and ladies playing the Rabane, a large round drum. People also go around to all of their relative’s homes to wish them a Happy and Prosperous New Year.
The traditional games are fun to take part in and even more fun to watch! Here are a few of them:
Kana Mutti – Where the contestant is blindfolded and given a pole to hit one of the clay pots that are hanging on a string. Kind of like a piñata, but not really! The clay pots are usually filled with water, flour or toffees and the crowd usually backs away from the blindfolded contestant to avoid being sprayed or having the pole being swung at them!
Banis Kama – Which translates to ‘eating buns’, is a game where the contestants kneel in front of a bun hanging on a string and compete to be the first to finish eating it without using their hands!
Kotta Pora – This one’s kind of like a pillow fight, but you are seated on a log and you must try and whack your opponent off the log with a very hard pillow using only one hand to win!
There are more bizzare games as well, like the one where a blindfolded person must be the first to finish feeding their partner yogurt or curd and the one where the person that manages to climb furthest up a greasy pole wins. There are also lime and spoon races, draw the eye on the elephant, gunny bag races, tug of war and the egg toss where you keep throwing an egg to your partner and catching it when they throw it back. You keep taking a step back after every round and the last team standing without having dropped or broken the egg wins!
If you think that the Avurudu Traditions end there, you’re wrong! There are two other main customs that happen after New Year’s day. One is to apply oil on your head and the other is to leave for work, both which occur at specific auspicious times!!
Although our customs, traditions, rituals and games might seem unusual and most often kind of bizarre, I believe that it is what adds flavour to our culture and it is what sets us Sri Lankans apart from the rest.