The Sinhala Hindu New Year is in all probability the only main traditional festival that is commonly observed by the Sinhalese and Tamils, and celebrated by Buddhists and Hindus in the country. Traditional astrologers believe that the sun completes a circle across the twelve subdivisions of the zodiac in the course of one year, taking one month to go across each group called a constellation. It is significant for Buddhists and Hindus who commemorate the commencement of the solar new-year to observe the age-old rituals that ends with the oil anointing ceremony.
Oil Anointing and Pachyderms
I was confused after seeing an elephant receiving a lot of attention at a temple, visiting my cousins in the village a couple of decades ago. What is the rationale behind the temple authorities ordering a pachyderm for the annual ritual during the festive season, I inquired. “Yes”, he said, “May be an unusual experience, but it is customary for the she elephant owned by a well-connected businessman from the area to be anointed with oil.” My cousin replied.
The much publicized ceremony got underway at the temple the priest on this occasion playing an insignificant role, leaving it to the ‘Prabhu’ clan [elite] and a few prominent elements who dominates the Dhayaka sabhawa. The gaily decorated entrance with traditional ‘gokkola’ and ‘punkalas’ added extra glamour. The arrangements were colourful and impressive.
The traditional oil lamp was receiving its floral arrangements with jasmine flowers by a few ‘jacket and cloth’ clad charming damsels from the area
“This giant platform…?” I asked him pointing to the specially built stage and a ramp. “That is to match the height of the ten footer tusker ‘Hasthi-Rajaya’, doesn’t she look majestic, and its presence enhances the standing and value of the ceremony.”
“Can we get your Tommya anointed as well?” I proposed.
“Don’t create a scene here, this is a village” he warned me.
The Sinhala/Hindu Avurudu festival reach a climax with an anointing ceremony followed by the first bath for the New Year. Oil is mixed with herbal paste for the family elder to rub on the heads of other members while reciting the famous verse, a pali/Sinhala rhyme. People sit with a white cloth under their feet. While some go to the nearest temple in the village seeking the blessings of the Loku Hamuduruwo others visit the elderly indigenous physician, or the vedamahattaya who attends on every villager who walks in to his chamber.
Anointing oil and Nanu (Herbal mixture) is performed just before taking the ceremonial bath. The observance has its roots in Kandyan era, where it was performed as a religious ritual by the Royal Nekath Mohottala, who would directly supervise it, while the royal physician prepares the oil as well as Nanu. The oil is made out of herbs such as, Sevendara, Gorochana, beli-mal, kalanduru-ala, kohomba-kola, sandalwood, iriveriya, kumkumappu, and sathsanda. The ‘Nanu’ is a concoction made using ingredients agreed by astrologers and differ each year; usually, leaves from Bo, Nuga, Divul, Kohomba, Karadana, or Kumbuk are used, but according to the Almanac of the year. It is the same therapeutic leaves as prescribed that is held over the head and laid on the ground for the feet, during the ceremony.
The traditional oil lamp was receiving its floral arrangements with jasmine flowers by a few ‘jacket and cloth’ clad charming damsels from the area. Prabhu dayakes would light it; that included the local government member, the businessmen and the Bhandagarika, [treasurer ] of the Dhayake sabha. I noticed one mischievous young man attempting to decorate the hair-do of a pretty girl with a bunch of jasmines.
“He cannot do that” My cousin objected. “Let them have a little fun, don’t be jealous.”
Kiribath, and many a varieties of oil cakes and plantains were arranged on the white cloth-covered the table in the ‘dana salawa’. Inquired by my cousin, the ‘Abiththaya’ [acolite] said, “Dhanapala Mudalali, the businessmen spent a lot on the function, while ladies from ‘Kulangana Samitiya’ collected the balance by visiting every house.
That is how it happens, a precedence had been created; on the orders of Bandagarika, the abittiya make a special one to give priority for the elite, friends of Businessmen and the Prabhu clan
With few more minutes to go for the much awaited nekatha, special guests arrived with family kith and kin at the scene. The organisers garlanded and ushered them to the inner chamber, where the oil lamp was to be lighted. While hundreds of people; young mothers carrying their new-born babies; elderly and the sick standing in hot sun for their turn, the treasurer signaled to the mahout to get the animal near the ramp to have its head auspiciously anointed on priority. As the time approached the CD played Karaneeya metta sutta. The queue was getting longer as people started walking in numbers. I observed with astonishment a second queue being hurriedly arranged by the abittaya.
“That is how it happens, a precedence had been created; on the orders of Bandagarika, the abittiya make a special one to give priority for the elite, friends of Businessmen and the Prabhu clan.”
“He cannot do that” I objected. “Let them have a little fun, don’t be so discourteous.”
The matter was getting unusually delayed, its well past the nekatha—being worried over the delay we walked up to the central area through curiosity; and soon realized the folly; the organisers were in a quandary; they were arguing which direction to face; almanac says South, but the ramp has been constructed facing the opposite direction. The elephant’s head cannot be reached and the next nearest spot accessible was the tail, the Nayaka priest obviously was not happy, he vehemently opposed.
“No way, I will apply oil only on the head of the tusker, like in previous occasions”, he was adamant. However the businessman, the owner of the proboscidean reluctantly agreed, no options but the never-say-die Bandagarika would attend to the task.
“Kalu kaputa sudu venaturu—Molgahe dalu enaturu, Hal essa pela venaturu—Ekasiya vissata desiya vissak ayu bo weva” –(Until the black crow turns white--until the rice pounder sprouts buds-- until the rice ‘seeds’ germinates-may your life be as long as two hundred and twenty, instead of the hundred and twenty)
He recited the verse reading a note prepared by a student and applied Nanu just above the giant’s tail—abittaya inviting the devotees for cries of Sadhu..Sadhu. In fact some very old ladies were seen worshipping the tusker who carries the relics casket during annual perahera of the temple.
A village octogenarian said, in the good old days the Nanu was prepared in the temple ten days prior to the Avurudu while the monks recited Pirith throughout the long process. Are they following these traditions now? Do they use the correct ingredients to say the least?
Oil Anointing is an age-old avurudu ritual, the last, and an integral part of the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, which is gradually diminishing in value, hijacked by ‘temple politics’?
However, I was relieved, on our return to see Tomiya relaxing at home.