Tomorrow will fade off giving way to the New Year that begins a day after Sunday, April 14. In between, there is a “pause”; a sort of empty space.
In Sinhala, it is called Nonagothaya and also Punya kalaya.
A short period that allows People to leave aside all routine work and maybe if they wish to, attend quiet religious practices. In 1953 when the Samasamaja Party decided on a Harthal protest on August 12, the question was, what they should tell people to do during harthal.
Dr Colvin R. de Silva then said Harthal is like the Nonagothaya.
People should leave all routine work and indulge in nothing. This year Nonagothaya is from morning 7.45 hours till 20.33 hours in the night, when it precedes the arrival of New Year.
The Sinhala and Hindu New Year is not Sinhala and TamilNew Year. Even though Sinhala Catholic and Christian communities do not practise New Year rituals as Buddhists do, it is yet Sinhala. But for the Tamil people, it is Hindu New Year.
Over the past two decades or so with an emphasis on peace-building and national unity, there was some effort to name it Sinhala and Tamil New Year.
That nevertheless is not how the Sinhala Buddhist society accepts this New Year. It is still Sinhala New Year for them. There is certainly a historical reason for such ethno-religious demarcation while sharing the same Sun, as the common factor of the New Year.
Within the Sinhala Buddhist community, it is the Lunar Calendar that still prevails in socio-religious events and festivals. Sinhala Buddhist culture is fundamentally a Lunar Based culture. Thus, all full moon days are declared public holidays as Poya Days.
Months are decided from one full moon to another. Horoscopes are etched according to the Lunar Calendar. Auspicious times are also calculated on the Lunar calendar juxtaposed with the Gregorian Solar calendar.
Often the mother is compared to the Moon (T.M. Jayaratne’s popular song “Mother is the moon in your world, where I remain the Sun) in this culture. The stepping stone in temples is the Moonstone.
Yet, the New Year on April 14 remains the only nationally accepted popular festival of Sinhala Buddhists that is based on the Sun, moving from the House of Pisces (Meena) to the House of Aries (Mesha), heralding a New Year.
The question that still remains without a clear answer and with many hypothetical conclusions is how and when this Sun festival came to be part of the Sinhala Buddhist culture.
There is no evidence of this type of a popular festival with the Sun at its centre being held in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa eras.
This Sun festival has been in ancient South India as a Dravidian culture associated with agriculture and harvesting. From around March, they begin their major harvests no different to our Maha harvest during the same period.
In ancient traditions where scientific understanding and logical interpretations were not the order of the day, nature was a key factor in life.
The Sun was unexplainable in its impact on people who knew no major discipline in life other than agriculture. That created the Sun God and the festival with traditions and rituals to end harvesting.
This also provides people with a break from the long toil before the next round of cultivation begins. With time, they created their own traditions and rituals to usher in the New Year before life once again begins its routine. This perhaps was the same among agricultural communities in ancient Ceylon, where they may have organised festivals around harvesting and ushering in the New Year though without Royal patronage.
In the 17 Century Kandyan kingdom, there seems to have been some Royal recognition for the New Year, from what Robert Knox has written with his long experience as a captive living in the Kandyan kingdom.
There he has made mention of the King and festivities.
“His great festival is in the month of March at their New-years tide”.
-An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies - Part III - Chapter IV, page 81
And then later adds:
“These Astronomers (he perhaps means astrologers) tell them also when the old year ends to the very minute. At which time they cease from all work, except the Kings, which must not be omitted. They acquaint them also with the good hour of the new year, they are to begin work. At which time every Man and Woman begins to do somewhat in their employment they intend to follow in the ensuing year.” (Ibid – Part III, Chapter X – page 111)
- "Within the Sinhala Buddhist community, it is the Lunar Calendar that still prevails in socio-religious events and festivals"
- "This Sun festival has been in ancient South India as a Dravidian culture associated with agriculture and harvesting"
This is certainly the influence of the Tamil speaking South Indian Nayakkars of Telugu ancestry, who dominated Kandyan palace politics even before the Nayakkars took over the Kandyan throne in 1739 with the death of King Veera Narendra Sinha.
King Narendra Sinha’s first queen was a Princess from Madurai Nayakkar dynasty. With no son as heir to the throne, her brother was crowned as King Vijaya Raja Sinha giving way for the last four Nayakkar kings in the Kandyan kingdom.
Even before Narendra Sinha, it was a tradition for the Kandyan Kings to have their consorts from the Suriyawamsa lineage to grace their coronations.
Thus, the introduction of Dravidian Hindu culture to Kandyan life over a long period of time assimilating with the Sinhala lifestyle with Royal patronage.
Accepted by the nobility, this gave way to mixed traditions and rituals both within Buddhist temples and in community life. Thereupon, the Sun festival in April as the “New Year” is perhaps the most popular community-based tradition that became “Sinhalised” and is now owned by Sinhala Buddhists as their national cultural event with State patronage.
That has its evolution. When the Sinhala society was religiously an unmixed Buddhist society before the Portuguese and the Dutch landed, all traditions were “Sinhala” traditions. The New Year for them was “Sinhala” New Year. So was it with the Tamil society in the Vanni and the North? They were all Hindu Tamils and they called the New Year the “Hindu” New Year. Though both societies became “multi-faith” societies subsequently with Christian and Catholic conversions, the New Year remained as it was; “Sinhala and Hindu New Year”. Meanwhile, the British trying to appease the Kandyan Sinhala nobility after the 1817 and 1848 rebellions, the New Year was declared a holiday in 1885 by the British colonial rule. But what they called this New Year is not quite clear. What is clear is the fact that all through Colonial rule, the Sinhala Buddhist urban elites tried using the past, glorifying its history against colonial rule.
That resulted in a common Sinhala social psyche, and not anti-colonial nationalism the Indian freedom movement was enriched with. Within that social psyche, the Sinhala New Year was the most privileged festival that drew Sinhala families and communities into collective celebrations with entertainment for the young and the old alike.
We are now living with this Sinhala New Year with pride as a tradition the Sinhala Buddhists have created by itself. We have turned everything related to the New Year into a Sinhala national event among the Buddhist society and left Tamils for themselves.
Even the best performers at the Grade V exam in Sinhala medium would not know that Tamils celebrate the same New Year as the New Year.
Most in the Sinhala South would not bother to know the link between Sinhala and Hindu New Year.
It is time for those who live on funded Reconciliation projects and Media Programmers looking for colourful events to at least begin an open discussion about the richness of the Sinhala Buddhist culture due to assimilations from other cultures.
It is a wonderful and entertaining exercise to get into such discussion while it gives this insecure Sinhala Buddhist psyche the confidence it could be richer and the gainer with cultural exchanges and assimilations. To sum up this short essay for the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, let me produce in English an excerpt from a Sinhala essay of mine.
“At times I go through crazy thoughts. Once I thought if we did not have our own Tamil society in the North, if the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British did not come, and if the Malays were not brought, how could we be Sinhala?
If those Europeans did not come, we would not have bread or parippu. No cars and no buses.
We wouldn’t have Celestinas and Siyadorises in the village carrying gossip. We wouldn’t have the Kamise or the Shirt nor the Kalisama.
Without Malays, we wouldn’t even have the Sarong. If they did not come, Sinhala New Year would not have Asmee and Kokis.
There would not be Rambutan, Delum and Mangostein.
Thanks to the Tamils, end of the month we get our Padiya and then go to the Kadey.
We who had very liberal shared marriages, now register the marriage to live as a nucleus family or depart with a divorce. It is now like a Malay pickle.
Well, if none of them happened, whom do we call a Sinhalaya?”
The Postwar Reconciliation is wholly absent and is meaningless without any of these discussions to open up the rich Sinhala culture as one that had remained to gain from many cultures including much from Tamil. And that is best discussed during this New Year if Reconciliation is to de-polarise Sri Lanka.