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The Sinhala New Year; A festival of gratitude and harmony

Reconnecting with our roots

The month of April or Bak, is a time of celebration for the Sinhalese. The April festival is known as the Sinhalese New Year.  This festival season is more about a harvest festival and a set of age old rituals of paying gratitude towards Mother Nature and the gods of harvest.

During the month of April, farmers harvest their crops. The first harvesting is celebrated with rituals and festivals. In Sinhalese language, these rituals are called as Aluth Sahal Mangalya and the Karal Perahera. Most of these rituals has lost their roots and authenticity by now and the Sinhala New Year festival has lost its traditional flavour. It has become a major target of the apparel industry, food industry and the entertainment business. Also as many Sri Lankans are giving up on their traditional life styles and are forgetting their roots, such cultural festivals are also fading away.

A festival of the farmers

Harvest festivals are not unique only among the Sinhalese. It is an ancient festival common in many agrarian societies. The time of celebrations among these communities depends on the geographical location.

In the past where agriculture played the most important role of our lives, this festival was a set of rituals that we paid our gratitude towards the Sun, the cattle and other elements of nature and to renew human relationships. These elements of nature were personified as various deities. Although at present we do not worship the Sun, during early historic times the Sinhalese have venerated Surya as a powerful deity. These cults have completely faded away.

April is called as the month of Bak in Sinhalese. This is the time when the crops are ready to be harvested. The first potion of the harvest is offered to Buddha and gods. Afterwards people would take a break from their strenuous life, spend time with families, renewing human relationships, playing games and enjoying a time of dance and music. Gradually, this became a major festival of the Sinhalese.

A glimpse of History as recorded by Robert Knox in the late 17th century

The following description is taken from the records of Robert Knox:

The Sinhalese celebrated their New Year on the 27thor 28th of March. On one of these days, at a given auspicious time, the king will take the holy bath. This is an event of great importance. The royal palace is decorated beautifully. Thorana or pandols are prominent among these decorations. One pandol has seven or nine towering pillars. Centre of each thorana is an arch shaped entrance. Flags are hung on the top of each pillar. Large paintings of humans, animals, birds and flowers are among the attractive decorations. These are painted on large fabric. Fruits are also used for decorations. Each side of the arch shaped entrance is adorned with plantain trees which has ripped plantains.

There are tall pillars that stands in solitude and these pillars are supporting long vertical shaped flags. These colourful vertical shaped flags are decked with tiny bells. With all these decorations the royal palace looks enchanting than a gods’ abode.

To enhance the grandeur further, military army troops are stationed near the royal palace. Meanwhile the king enters the Ulpange (the water palace or the royal bathing house). Bathing equipment, baths and showers are in this house. Also there are servants who are in duty to assist the king in his bathing. After the royal bath, the king comes out to meet his subjects. The military takes their places all decked up in Armor. As the king comes out of the bathing house, cannon are shot as an honour to the king. Then the officials meet the king, according to the order of their rankings. These officials pay tribute to the king and this is called as Awurudu dakum. Each official is accompanied by their servants and the tribute is carried by these men. The officials kneel in front of the king and place them in front of the king’s feet. These tributes consists of gold, gems, precious metal objects, weapons, and precious fabric. Sometimes they also paid tribute in money. The value of the tribute depended on the ranks and power of each official.

A festival to celebrate nature

Here is a brief description of some vanishing rituals of the traditional Sinhala New Year festival.

Aluth Sahal mangalya – It is recorded that during the Kandyan kingdom, the king performed this ritual by harvesting the paddy using a golden sickle. There was a separate paddy field dedicated to perform this ritual which was called as the Thingula wela. Even today this Thingula wela, situated at Gurudeniya is used to perform the Aluth Sahal mangalya in Kandy. Once the king harvests the first set of crops, the rest of the royals and officials follow the king and the crops are taken to the granary.

Then the uncooked rice is offered to the temple. During the Kandyan kingdom, the rice is taken to the Temple of the Tooth, to the Four Chief devalas and to the royal palace in a perahera. Once the rice is cooked it is offered to Buddha and to the gods. Until the rice is offered to the gods, villagers do not consume the rice.

The cooking process is performed as a sacred and pious ritual by the farmers. It is said that only pure coconut milk is used to prepare the milk rice. No water is mixed to the milk. Furthermore, only sandalwood or citrus wood is used to light the hearth.  The cooking area is covered with curtains and the farmers who are doing the cooking has to cover their mouths with a clean piece of cloth. 

Once the villagers harvest crops from their paddy field, the first potion is taken to the temple or the devale in a local perahara. These crops are offered to the deities and to the patron gods of the area as a gratitude and also to evoke their blessings. This perahera is called as the Karal perahera.

Once again villagers cook the rice using pure coconut milk, and offer the food to gods such as Kataragama, Pattini, Saman, Visnu and local deities such as Aiyyanaka, Kadawara, Dadimunda, Veeramunda. What is unique about this ritual is, these offering are not done inside a devale or a temple. The food is offered in a specially made ‘tattuwa’ and placed in a junction that has three pathways. This ritual is called as the Adukku baama. There is another ritual similar to this and milk rice is offered to holy women known as Kiri Ammas. During all these rituals the priest recites religious poems. All of these rituals continues for several days and several nights. The nights are illuminated with lamps and traditional torches. Traditional religious dances are also performed in honour of the deities.

All these rituals are performed to show gratitude to the patron gods and goddesses and to bless the villagers. Although these rituals are religious, they are entertaining too. These rituals display slight changes in different villages depending on their local beliefs and natural resources.

Once these main rituals are over, villagers enjoy meals together. Sweets are distributed among the villagers. Families spend quality time together. Every aspect of this festival reminds us of our belongingness to nature. Food is consumed on a table lightened by an oil lamp. Fire has always being considered as a symbol of purity and sanity. Use of the Beatle leaf hints of our ancient roots once again. The first bath is done using herbal mixed water. A unique feature of the Sinhala New Year is that our ancestors used keep away a kawuma for the flies, and give away Ghee mixed milk rice for the crows. These are not seen in harvest festivals held in other countries.

Hooting at the New Moon

On the New Year’s Eve, our ancestors would look at the New Moon. Once they see the New Moon they would hoot loud at the moon. And also they would eat coconut milk mixed with kithul jaggery. Today this is not a practiced ritual. However this is an innocent practice to show gratitude to the moon.

Let us reconnect with our roots

When tracing back the roots of this festival, it seems that this festival was refined by Buddhist philosophies as the Sinhala civilization was revitalized during the 3rd century BC after the introduction of Buddhism. As Buddhism became the state religion, pre-Buddhist beliefs were absorbed into the new culture. The April harvest festival or the New Year festival is one of those cultural events that was refashioned with time. Buddha and the Buddhist monks were given a prominent place in each and every ritual. The village temple plays the leading role. An oil lamp and other offerings are prepared to the Buddha in each home. People would start the New Year after visiting the temple and taking the blessings of the monk. The New Year’s Hisa thel gaame ritual is performed in the village temple by the chief monk. The first crops and rice are offered to Buddha and the monks. Secondly, people would pay gratitude to local deities and nature.

The Sinhalese New Year has gone through many changes with time and has lost its true purpose. As the Rajarata civilization was facing its demise, the Sinhala culture was also going through changes with the advancement of foreign influences. As a result, Hindu Vedic and Brahmin beliefs and rituals were forced into the Sinhala New Year festival. Adding into this, the modern marketing world has also ruined the authenticity and simplicity of this festival.

The crisis we are facing today due to this mysterious pandemic, has proven that we are merely another species on earth and that we are not the most powerful creature. Our greed and ego has broken the balance that should be maintained between human and nature. Consequently that has caused all the chaos that we are facing today. And this has reminded all of us about our ancestors’ healthier life styles and their intimacy with nature. It is high time that we look at this festival as an opportunity to renew our roots, pay gratitude towards nature, and most importantly to spread love and compassion towards every living being.

Uncategorized, april new year, harvest festival, sinhala new year, sri lankan new year 

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