Anthropologist Pandula Endagama, who has done extensive research into traditions and customs of Sri Lanka, says the Sinhala New Year originated with the evolution of agricultural society. He stresses the need to observe the rituals associated with the Sinhala Avurudda or Bak Maha Ulela in their true spirit.
- Avurudu combines society with religion
- Money is never a factor of recognition in rituals
- Liquor consumption during Avurudu has become a concern
- It originated with the evolution of agricultural society
- All the rituals are connected with punctuality
How did the Sinhala Avurudda evolve?
Very many people of this country seem to be misusing the occasion, not because they are anti-traditions but because they do not know the significance and the history of the entire rituals being observed. If they really understand the origin of these rituals and how they influence people, they would act differently. How it came about is obscure. Yet, it is believed that this is something connected with the lifestyle of the people which was agricultural because that’s how civilization emerged. Initially, humans dwelled in forests feeding on wild fruits and all. They passed through the hunting stage. It is by accident that they discovered agriculture. However, once they realized that little things they were consuming in the jungle could be replanted, they realized what they consumed, once put on the ground, would grow and bear fruit, they thought of doing it as cultivation. That is the step for establishment of settlements. When population increased, they developed their own technologies. In agriculture itself, in ploughing the lands, they devised an implement drawn by women. It was a compact society. Next, they realized that womankind should not be exhausted for it. They moved to the use of animals for the purpose. It led to domestication of animals. This is how it evolved.
Next, there came the need to decide how their lifestyles could be coordinated or guided . That is how they started thinking about various planets or their impacts on their lives. They found that the Sun is one of the main factors impacting their lifestyle. Agriculture depends on availability of sunlight. Then, they realized the need for water. Rain was the answer. They never knew how these things got activated. They considered them as superpowers- the Sun, the Moon or anything. They were seen as deities helping them. Rainy clouds were even deified. They paid homage to these sources of energy. They knew these contributed to their prosperity. They started worshipping mother earth.
Now we are coming to these Avurudu rituals. They realized rain was periodical. Even sunlight does not come as they wish. It is also seasonal. Given that, they started paying homage to the services from them. In this act, all the settlements in a society had to be brought together. Each and every one has some share of activity to be done. There comes the preparation of various activities. All these activities are connected with the lifestyle easy for them and congenial for the community. One is the unity of people. Harvest sharing is also there. Everyone has a share. Also, there is the need to transfer these systems to posterity. It was for this reason that these Avurudu rituals came about. It did not evolve overnight. It happened over centuries. It happened according to different periods and people. It is conditioned by the environment.
Evolution of human society in this manner is universal. We find these sort of celebrations in a few Asian countries. How did it happen?
What we call ‘Bak Maha Ulela’ is basically confined to the Asian region. Even there, it is confined to Theravada Buddhist countries. These Theravada countries received Buddhism from Sri Lanka. Buddhism originated from India. India is part of this whole situation. Even during the time of the Buddha, these had happened, may be not in the ceremonial way we do it now. For instance, today we have infused a lot of playful games for celebration. At that time, it was not like that. The Avurudda is an occasion for regeneration of traditions. Sri Lankans living in Europe also celebrate it.
What is the nexus between Theravada Buddhism and this festival?
One, to begin with, is that Buddhism is basically a religion based on natural situations. The Buddha was alive to see all the happenings of the universe. He had been making full use of these things. You can see how scientifically he had used these things for communication of his teaching. Therefore, in the case of Buddhism, it is the responsibility of the religion to guide people for a peaceful life. At the end, it has to be a lifestyle which is religiously in order. That is why, all the virtues are given high priority. These virtues are held in high esteem because they are very relevant to the lifestyle of the community and the individuals. They look like guiding factors. That is where Buddhism becomes the guiding force of Buddhist countries. That is relevant even in ruling a country.
When signing the 1815 agreement by the British, the local British Governor, accepted on behalf of the British crown, to maintain traditions of looking after Bhikkhus and temples, and the propagation of the religion. Therefore, national identity is always coupled with religion here. Both go hand in hand. It is from the temple that everything emanated to the community. That is how Buddhist monks have become astrologers. Not that they practised it as a vocation. It is the Buddhist priests who were knowledgeable about universal things. They guided people and the community. They were responsible for education of the people.
Unity is important. As for agriculture, it can never be accomplished by a single person. People need the help of each other. In the earliest period, it was family members helping each other in agriculture and it spread out to the entire community. In that rituals originated to be followed in an order. The Avurudda is how society and religion mixes with each other in terms of rituals.
What is the astrological element of the Avurudu rituals?
The Buddhist monks were virtually astrologers in this case. The New Year is celebrated on a date in April, not in any other month. Knowledgeable people in the old age, mainly Buddhist monks, knew how the planets move around throughout the year. After a cycle, the planetary movement comes to the same starting point and starts the second round. The arrival at the original starting point is considered the Avurudu day. During this time, you have all the celebrations. That is why I talked about the combination of the social system and religion. All the religious activities are observed on account of this. All the rituals are connected with punctuality. Everting has to be done at the determined time. When we get a little late for something, it amounts to not honouring punctuality. Some ignorant people harps on it saying that it is typical Sinhalese way of timing. They criticize so not knowing that it is the Sinhalese people who have been punctual for whatever job done. For them, apart from birth and death, every other important activity is linked with the auspicious time- the construction of a new house, the selection of a place for it. All are done according to the time determined astrologically. We have been very punctual. This is one thing the rituals associated with the New Year teach us. But since we became the victims of colonialism, we little care for these things. We go by the new introductions.
How has this occasion been celebrated in history?
There are no enough written records as such. While describing certain activities of the king or society, we find instances where it is found. In Sigiriya poetry, we have found references ‘Nawa Sanda Belima (sighting new moon)’. In this poetry, there are references to one’s face being likened to the New Year moon. It is indicative of this New Year ritual. In history, it is described how the ruling kind opened his granary for the less fortunate on a certain day. That is an indication. On the Avurudu day, we do family visits. We receive guests and exchange gifts reminiscent of this.
What is your opinion on the idea that these Avurudu rituals had travelled from Sri Lanka to other Theravada Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia?
I think that is true. Now in our country, the Avurudu rituals are associated with religious practices. As for our rituals, when we reached the time meant for cessation of our activities, we go to the temple at that time. We carry certain items such as dry rations for monks living there. That is for them to consume during the period. Then, we come and indulge in our activities. We observe religious rituals in front of the Buddha image kept at our households. Then, at the auspicious time, we light the hearth.
Even in those olden days, in the absence of firecrackers, people used a devise called ‘Boomeranga’ to announce the auspicious time in the vicinity. When the Buddhist monks went with Buddhism to these countries, they carried not only the religious doctrine but also these customs and rituals. Even today, we are compelled to participate in Avurudu celebrations wherever we are. Sri Lankans, domiciled abroad, celebrate it. When they went to the countries such as Australia, they took these rituals with them. We respect elders. We feed even animals. We share with all the community members.
When it is the time for partaking meals, everybody gathers. In the past, food items were spread on a mat. We light the lamp. At the auspicious time, father or the head of the family takes a plate filled with food items mixed together and feeds one handful to each member. It is a symbol of promise. I fed you for the last time. I will do the same next year. That is the promise.
After the main meal, family members carry plates full of eatables covered with white strips of cloth to nearby households. In urban areas today, such guests knocks on the gate. Once the gate is opened, they hand over the items brought and turn back. It is not like that in those days. The true custom is to enter the house and wish the occupants a Suba Aluth Avurudda. The guests are invited to enjoy hospitality then in the houses they visit - to have a meal.
Ahead of preparations for the New Year, we see children playing with arecanuts, Kottamba, Cadju nuts. They collect these items in large number. These are items with economic value lying idle. Children make their own collections separately. It means even preparation for it has some economic component. Then, they participate in games. Winners have to be gifted with these items.
We have this activity called the cessation of activities in view of the New Year to arrive. You clean the entire house. Finally, the cooking place is also cleared well. You are free then. Afterwards, mother and other females in the family gather flowers and go to temple. All the village folk are there. . As they come back, they get ready for the next occasion- lighting the hearth and preparation of Kiri Bath. All the females have a role in preparing the meal. Then, you have the custom of exchanging gifts with family members. Afterwards, they visit other houses. After returning, they play games. There was a maximum two days meant for all these activities. After that, the ritual of bathing for the New Year comes. It is crucial. You have eaten a lot of food items during the festival. You have been tired. You have to be careful of your health. That is the reason for the application of herbal anointment and bathing. That is the purification of body. You are fresh now. Afterwards, you have to move next to the cycle of production. That is what we call leaving for job. It is not an unlimited period of enjoyment. Rituals determined what you should do.
Now, we find harmful activities being introduced. One is the commercial banks being kept open at the auspicious times. After the auspicious time, you are being encouraged in this manner to run to the bank nearby for any transaction. Money is never a factor of recognition in the Avurudu rituals. Ours had never been an economic ritual. All are related to good, peaceful living. We can understand doctors at work on this day. The police have to be there to maintain order. Liquor has become a main concern now. In the past, it was never there. With the introduction of liquor, things are going from bad to worse. We have to look at the positive aspects of the Avurudu rituals and turn down harmful new additions.