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The Forgotten Traditions of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year

2021 Apr 14

Sri Lanka is a land steeped in culture. Over the years it has experienced and integrated influences from all cultures that have visited the nation into its music, food and traditions.

With a documented history that dates back over 3000 years, Sri Lanka enjoys a strong devotion to its traditions and values that are carried forward through tiAme over many generations. These customs form a tether through time and ground people into the ebb and flow of spiritual awareness, a norm that will continue through many more years to come.

As sure as the moon rises and the sun sets, Sri Lankan’s across the globe or at home, pay close attention to the immaculate execution of their traditions to garner the good favour of the celestial systems and gods that govern much of the cultural thinking.

Many of these traditions have stood the test of time, surviving the modernisation of the world and shifts in human behaviour and values. However, there are some aspects of Sri Lankan customs and traditions that are slowly fading away from memory.

As people shift away from their roots in villages to cities and towns in search of more opportunity in a more competitive world, they unwittingly leave behind a piece of their cultural identity. The traditions that they once practised are abandoned and left amongst the elders for safekeeping. Over time this leads to specific customs falling through the cracks as they get passed down to newer generations and realise only in nostalgia that they have indeed been lost.

The dawn of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is with surety one of the most widely celebrated holidays in Sri Lanka.

As children, the beginning of this festive season is met with a flurry of activity around the house with the parents and relatives preparing for their looming duties.

The house is cleaned while gifts and food items are prepared. The more experienced cooks will prepare the essential items while the children are roped in for small tasks that will keep them busy and at bay while the adults ensure that the preparations take place without a hitch.

One of the most commonly practised traditions during the dawn of the new year by Sinhala households is the neutral period also known as the nonagathe. This is a time determined by an astrologer to be the transition between the old year and the entry of the new year during which people are expected to stay away from work and engage in religious activities.

Alternatively, in the Tamil community, every household can reminisce fondly on the countless days where the boiling of milk is observed and the delightful sweet meal of Pongal is consumed. A common thread that binds both cultures is the value they place on the potent nature of conducting actions at the right time based on the positioning of celestial bodies.

Additionally, in terms of the Tamil traditions and beliefs with regards to the dawn of the New Year, there is a belief that a cyclical 60 yearlong calendar exists. With each year referred to as a ‘Samvatsara’, it is said that the end of the 60th year will mark the restarting of the cycle once again.

What makes this calendar particularly important is that each year in the 60-year long cycle is also accompanied by a unique premonition in the form of a poem that is meant to prepare the people for what awaits them. For example, the poem associated with the year 2021, which is the 34th year in the calendar, also known as ‘Sarvari’, declared that all communities of all faiths will be afflicted by a disease, experience less rain as well as lower food yields during the year.

With so many traditions and beliefs to keep abreast of across the board, it is only natural that certain customs get lost in translation before simply disappearing into the ether. As rural populations decline across many nations as well, it is an unfortunate reality that we may lose more and more of our treasured customs.

However, this does not mean they should simply be left in the past. There is still plenty of reason to look back and appreciate the forgotten traditions of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year

The villages of Sri Lanka are where the remnants of the authentic customs and traditions still linger. The dawn of the New Year is heralded by the sound of firecrackers and a sound that is now heard rarely heard in many cities and towns, emanates rhythmically.

The playing of the Raban also known as ‘raban gaseema’ is the sure harbinger that the celebrations have begun in earnest. A melody typically conducted by women, young and old, floats across the air as the drummers sing songs in rhyme that speak of the tasks and activities of the day.

Such activities are typically followed by the sight of dedication to the sun, in the form of a large swing that is ridden mimicking the movement of the sunrise and the sunset accompanied by the chanting that is passed down through the years. These activities which are considered games are very much part of the customs and traditions that have supported the annual new year’s celebrations for generations that are now less common across the country.

With the shift of the populations living in rural communities toward more urban or suburban areas, certain traditions are sure to be forgotten simply out of inevitability.

The dawn of the New Year is typically coordinated with an array of extensive cleansing rituals. These rituals encompass the cleansing of the body, mind, soul as well as household. Sri Lankan homes in rural villages were, until recently built purely from the mud, clay and brick carved out of the earth.

As the new year dawns, the walls of the home are strengthened by a coating of water that is applied onto the wall using a brush of coconut leaves. This acts to clean the walls but also to strengthen the binding of the wall to maintain its integrity for the year that lies ahead. This process is concluded with the rubbing of a mixture of water and manure to the floors of the home!

‘Kunumuthan Pidima’, is an older tradition that takes place before the dawn of the new year where the lady of the home visits the woodfire upon which food is prepared and gathers up remaining ashes. Once collected, several of the sweetmeats that are prepared for the new year are placed onto the ashes along with a coin. This collection of items is then taken out of the home through the back door into a nearby forest and placed in a location where it will not be stepped on. Once this process is completed the individual is expected to wash their hands in a nearby clean stream and re-enter the house exclaiming that the ‘Kunumuthan Pidima’ is complete.

These rituals, custom, traditions and even the language that was used for centuries are now slowly receding from common knowledge. It is likely that in a hundred years, there will be even less left behind, however, the appreciation of this history and culture through art and written works will hopefully memorialize a more bona fide glimpse of Sri Lankan history.