The Sri Lankan New Year is just around the corner. It is the biggest festival on the Sri Lankan calendar and is the equivalent of Christmas in the Western World. Although it is going to be a very muted celebration this year due to the Coronavirus lockdown, I still wanted to do this post to celebrate a festival full of customs and traditions unique to Sri Lanka.
When Is It?
Usually the festival falls on the 13th and 14th of April (but sometimes it can fall on the 12th and 13th). Although the dates coincide with new year festivals of many other South Asian countries, the Sri Lankan new year has some unique rituals.
In Sri Lankan astrology, the Sun and all the other planets are believed to move through the 12 zodiac constellations during the year. The Sri Lankan New Year celebrates the Sun moving from the last constellation, Pisces, to the first, Aries.
On a more practical note, this is the time of the year when the farmers harvest the rice, after 6 months of hard work. Rice is the staple food of Sri Lanka and Paddy crops are cultivated in all the districts. There are two cultivation seasons, namely; “Yala” and “Maha” which are synonymous with the two monsoons. Yala season is effective during the period from May to end of August. The Maha Season falls from September to March. So April is the time when the harvest from the Maha season comes in.
Also, Sri Lanka is 7 degrees above the equator, so although the weather is tropical, the spring technically falls in March/April. This is the time when the flowers bloom and trees start to bear fruit. Another sign that heralds the festival season is the arrival of the Koha bird, or the Asian Koel. It’s a type of Cuckoo bird, whose mating season is March/April. Its distinctive “coo-hoo” sounds tells Sri Lankans when it’s time to get ready for the new year.
Traditionally this is the time for spring cleaning the house. Dust off the cobwebs, wash everything, even paint the house if you can manage it. The month of April is school holidays. Most workplaces have a week-long shutdown and everybody return to where they call home. You also buy new clothes and stock up on traditional sweet meats.
Sri Lankans hold auspicious times in very high regard. Anything important – weddings, building a house, first day at school, opening a new business etc. is started at an auspicious date and time drawn up by an astrologer.
Auspicious times take even more significance around the new year. There are times and dates set for the various new year rituals; but additionally, there’s even advice on what colour to dress in, and which direction to face. These times, dates, colours and directions are calculated and announced by the “National Committee of Auspicious Times” appointed by the Sri Lankan government. Times are traditionally published in a booklet called “Panchanga Litha” which has auspicious times for the whole year. Nowadays though, it is more common to get the times from the newspapers or television. For good measure, many companies send out sponsored text messages with the times.
New Year Rituals
There are a number of rituals around the new year and, some are more popularly observed than others. There are some regional variations to the rituals, and in general, those in the villages tend to be more observant of the rituals than the city dwellers.
Sighting of the New Moon
Sighting of the new moon is one of the lesser observed customs of the New Year. This year, new moon was to be observed on the 26th of March 2020.
Bathing for the Old Year
In taking this ceremonial bath on the last day of the old year, people apply “Nanu”; a herbal mixture, on their head and body before bathing. This herbal mix, according to belief has a cathartic effect on the body and the soul. You usually get the mixture from your local temple. This year, the bathing for the old year falls on 11th of April 2020.
(Traditionally, after this point, you wouldn’t wash your hair until the anointing ceremony a couple of days later – but this is not really practical in these days of record breaking heat).
Nonagathaya – The Neutral Period
Unlike December 31/January 1, in Sri Lanka, the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new year take place several hours apart from one another. The astrologers calculate this time span as usually around 12 hours and 48 minutes, which starts when the Sun starts to cross the astrological boundary between the “House of Pisces” and “House of Aries” and ends when the crossing is complete.
The first half of this period is referred to as the “Nonagathaya” or the Neutral Period. During this time, Sri Lankans are encouraged to refrain from material pursuits, and engage in religious activities, or traditional games. In this day and age, watching telly is a popular way to spend the neutral period. At the start of the Nonagathaya, you finish all your work (including cooking) and turn out all fires inside the house. The next time you light a fire inside the house will be in the new year. Those who observe the ritual more strictly, also start fasting, and refrain from eating until the new year (before you worry too much, this usually tends to be about 8 hours).
This year, the Neutral Period starts at 1.59 pm on 13th of April and ends at 2.47 am on 14th April 2020.
Dawn of the New Year
The halfway point during the Sun’s transition (known as “Sankranthi” in Sinhala) is considered as the dawn of the New Year. Many people mark it by lighting an oil lamp outside the house and letting off lots of fire crackers. If you live in a village, you may also hear traditional drums played by locals.
Unlike the Western new year, where midnight on the 31st of December is the high point of the celebration, in the Sri Lankan new year, the dawn of the new year is a milestone on the way to the high points of cooking and eating.
This year the new year dawns at 8.23 p.m. on the 13th of April 2020.
Preparing the Meal
A short time after the dawn of the new year, comes the auspicious time for cooking. You light a fire inside the house, and boil a pot of milk. The pot and the hearth are both brand new and made of clay. You would wear brand new clothes in a colour specified by astrologers. For good measure, there is also an auspicious direction to look at as you light the fire.
You let the milk boil over, as a pot of milk boiling over is said to bring prosperity to the household. Then you prepare the food for eating. Most of the sweet meats would have been bought already. On the day itself, you’d make milk rice (rice cooked with coconut milk instead of water).
This year, the lighting of the hearth is to be at 10.05 p.m. on 13th April, dressed in White and facing the East.
Starting Work, Exchanging Gifts and Eating
Now comes the fun part – time for eating. If you were strictly observing the neutral time, this is when you would break your fast. The table is dressed up with an oil lamp, the milk rice just cooked and other traditional sweet meats. I will do a separate post about all the different foods, but in the meantime, That’s What She Had has a great post about Sri Lankan new year food.
After eating, you officially “start work” for the new year. This means to do something gainful. Traditionally, farmers headed to the field. Or you might do some work around the house or garden, read or write something. If you are a child, you might be encouraged to do some studying. Last year, we planted a tree.
Exchanging Gifts – Or Ganu Denu
“Ganu Denu” literally meaning “Give and Take” is a tradition where to you exchange a gift – usually a token amount of money, wrapped in a sheaf of beetle leaves. This also symbolises prosperity for the new year. You also exchange a plate of food with your neighbours.
This year, the auspicious time for starting work/eating/exchanging gifts is set for 10.43 p.m, dressed in White, and facing East.
There are regional variations when it comes to observing this custom – whilst some prefer to eat first, exchange gifts and start work second, in some regions, its more common to start work, eat and then exchange gifts.
Visiting Friends and Family
With the main customs over, you can start the visiting part. You visit friends and family this season, and exchange presents. It is the time to let go of any past arguments or falling-outs you may have had, and start afresh.
New Year Games
During the festival time, there are also New Year games; organised either by the local community, or at the gathering of extended families. Few are Sri Lankan versions of well known classics: climbing the greasy pole, pin the eye on the elephant, hit the clay pot (think hitting a piñata, but instead of a piñata you have a clay pot filled with water), tug of war, beauty pageants (both male and female), egg and spoon race, sack race etc.
Here are some games the more unusual ones:
- Cross beam pillow fight – where two people have a pillow fight, but sitting on a crossbeam, suspended six feet up in the air. Aim is to knock your opponent off the beam, without falling off yourself – with one hand tied behind your back!
- Find the stranger hiding in plain sight: Somebody designated as the “hidden stranger” will try to mingle with the crowd. From time to time, you get an announcement with a clue to the identity of this stranger. If you correctly guess who it is, then you win a prize.
- Coconut scraping: Race to see who can scrape a coconut fastest
- Weaving coconut leaves: Race to see who can weave a coconut leaf fastest
- Board games – Played using a handful of sea shells instead of dice.
Bathing for the New Year
This takes places a day or two after New Year day and done to ensure good health in the coming new year.
The head of the household would dab a special oil mixture on everyone else’s head and you bathe for the new year. This year, the traditional anointing of oil takes place on the 15th of April (at 9.17 a.m, dressed in green and facing North)
Leaving for work
After a week of eating, playing games and general merriment, it is time to head back to work. But not to worry, there is an auspicious time for that too. This year, it falls on the 17th of April at 7.56 a.m., dressed in light blue and facing the East when leaving the house. Although this is the last of the traditional new year rituals, many people take additional leave and continue to visit family and friends and/or go on holiday.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of the Sri Lankan new year customs. They may appear rather quaint, and even a bit odd, but I do not know any other country in a World that can boast of rituals that brings a whole country together, and they light a fire, eat and drink at exactly the same moment. The traditions have been passed on from one generation to the next for hundreds of years, and long may it continue.
All it remains is for me to Wish You a Very Happy New Year – or as we say in Sinhalese “Suba Aluth Avuruddak Wewa!” (Suba = Happy, Aluth = New, Avudrrudak = Year, Wewa = Wish)
What do you think of the Sri Lankan new year rituals? Do you have any special new year (or any festival) customs? Please leave comment below and let me know.