Annual serenity: the new year celebration in Sri-Lanka

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Photo courtesy of O. Amandhi Mathews

While the rest of the world welcomes a new year on Jan. 1, I celebrate the new year on April 13-14 in Sri-Lanka. The season of Aluth Avurudu is the most important time of the year for the Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus of Sri-Lanka. This happens in the month of “Bak,” which is derived from the Sanskrit word “Bhagya,” meaning “fortunate.”  It signifies the reaping of the harvest and weeks of celebration and thanksgiving that are highlighted by customs and rituals that originated in the Sinhala and Hindu agricultural community. 

As the old year ends on the 13, Sri-Lankans enter a quiet period of religious reflection on the past year. At an auspicious time determined by astrology, the country then enters the Aluth Avurudda or the Sinhala and Tamil new year. It is a moment harmonized by bells, crackers and celebrations in every home.  

Even with this cacophony of sounds, there is still a beautiful serenity attached to the dawn of the Aluth Avurudda. It is a time of rekindling love, offering thanksgiving and putting behind the chaos of the old year. As the new year dawns, every family member sits around the hearth, usually at the entrance of the house, which includes an earthly pot filled with milk placed on bricks. The hearth is lit with the first fire of the new year amidst loud firecrackers that were picked up at the train station. Every news channel telecasts a countdown for this. The beauty of this moment comes from the realization that every single household in the country strikes the hearth together. It is one single moment that is so special to every Sri-Lankan, both those within the country and overseas. 

As the hearth burns, there is always the worried mother keeping her toddler away from the flames, the brother setting off more firecrackers and the sister complaining about the smoke. The milk boiling over on the hearth symbolizes the prosperity and abundance that the new year is to bring. It is usually followed by the father trying to decipher which direction the milk seemed to spill first and then disagreeing with anyone who suggests it was to the west because apparently that’s not too good. 

Aluth Avurudda is a new start not just in homes but also outside. The grass is greener and every tree blossoms, bearing fruit. There are six different piles of mangoes and bananas in the storage room, green to red, sweet to sour and petite to large. The birds come back in flocks, loudly singing every morning and the Asian koel asserts its dominance with the signature mating call of the season. 

Every house begins to re-paint, re-model, clean and welcome back family members from different parts of the world. Grandparents are back on their signature rocking chairs on the front porch and cousins are reconnecting. Time seems to slow down as grandmothers and their children make sweetmeats. 

The air is warmer and sweeter as the day gets darker. These sweets are distributed from home to home on beautiful platters, signifying the burial of any past disagreements. 

Aluth Avurudu rituals have their roots in Buddhism and Hinduism. Being born and raised Catholic, many question why my family lights the hearth or follows astrological timekeeping. My answer to this is simple, Aluth Avurudu is about my people; it is about community and togetherness. There is joy and goodness in that special moment and there is hope for prosperity in each heart as they strike that hearth. In my home, as my father lights the hearth, I light the candles below our altar and as the milk boils we pray for ourselves and for our country welcoming in the joy of a new beginning for our nation. 

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