The Sinhala & Tamil New Year explained.
This is Sri Lanka’s single largest celebration and festival and usually takes place on the 13th and 14th of April every year. It is also one that is celebrated by both of the island’s main races, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Sinhalese refer to it as ‘Aluth Awurudda’ and the Tamil community refers to it as ‘Puthandu’or ‘Puthuvarudam’. It can be said that the festival combines aspects of astrology, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is also a harvest festival.
Astrology is at the heart of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year
The sun has been worshipped by the people of this part of the world from time immemorial. And the origins of this festival can be traced to this connection. Today every aspect of this festival is interpreted through Astrology and in simple terms is all about the Sun moving from the house of ‘Meena’ (Pisces) to ‘Mesha’ (Aries). This celebration also coincides with similar celebrations of many traditional calendars in South and South East Asia.
Lead up to the festival
Sri Lankans start preparing for New Year as early as February. The radio and TV stations start promoting the New Year with traditional music and reminders. Shopping picks up and houses are colour washed. New clothes and gifts are purchased. As the dates get closer you will also hear the call of the ‘Koha’ bird fill the air. This bird call is synonymous of the coming celebrations. As the days get even closer the roads get busy. So do the markets and malls. By about the 12th of April, the locals take leave from work and travel to their hometowns and villages. By the time the first auspicious time descends the country comes to an almost standstill.
If you are travelling to or in Sri Lanka this time, it is best to avoid the direction of travel of the locals. Catching a train or bus out of Colombo from about the 10th should be avoided. But transport towards the city will be relatively easy and less crowded. The opposite happens after the New Year. While most places of tourist importance will remain open, most food outlets will be closed and transport will be difficult to find at the peak of the holiday. This may last for a period of 48 hours. Most Sri Lankans take about a week off and so it will also take time for life to return to normal after the holidays. If you are travelling without the assistance of a tour company, you should plan your travel and meals in advance. It would best to book hotels with all meals.
Auspicious times and the sequence of events
Unlike the celebration of the new Gregorian calendar year at midnight on December 31, the Sinhalese traditional New Year begins at a time determined by astrological calculations. Also unlike 31st night celebrations, where old year ends at midnight and new year begins immediately afterwards; the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart from one another (this span of time is usually 12 hours and 48 minutes, which starts when the sun, as a disk, starts to cross the astrological boundary between 'House of Pisces' and 'House of Aries' and ends when the crossing is complete.
The auspicious times are published in advance and can be found online. As each time comes and goes, the locals light crackers and engage in a specific activity. The first auspicious time to be celebrated is the one for bathing for the New Year. This involves rituals of cleansing and spirituality. Next up is the actual dawn of the New Year. The inauspicious time is a period of no festivities or importance and most people use this time to visit temples or to reflect on their lives and plans. The lighting of the hearth puts the festivities into full swing as the fires are lit and the food is prepared. Next is the time to partake in meals and transactions. All of these times will happen at different intervals and is different every year. The anointing of oil happens a few days later and the auspicious time for leaving for work can happen a full week from the first auspicious time of that year’s festivities. So as you can see it can be all very confusing for a person who is used to a countdown on New Year’s Eve.
Is there an actual festival?
Technically the whole duration from the first auspicious time to the last is a time of the festival. But you may not see much happening other than people walking about. In that sense, it is more a holiday. You will see people attending temples and Kovils, and then visiting friends and family. They will also be wearing the auspicious colors of that year. Most villages will also hold ‘Aluth Avurudu Uthsawa’ meaning New Year Festival. Here you will see people playing traditional drums, engaging in sports activities, song contestants, cooking feats and even beauty pageants. Bicycle races, cross country running and musical shows also happen. So it really is a lot of different activities happening at different times.
As a tourist, the best way to experience this is to be invited to the home of a local. Most large hotels and even the smaller ones will also conduct their own festivals.
Should you avoid this time as a traveller?
Absolutely not! In fact, it is one of the best times to travel to Sri Lanka because everyone is on holiday mood and happy to welcome you to their homes or play traditional games. The days are usually the hottest of the year and fair weather is common. Although the occasional April Shower will come down and cool everything down in the late afternoons or evenings. If you are travelling on your own then it may be advisable to spend the peak festival time chilling out in one area without travelling around too much. But if you are travel with a tour company like Foozoo Travel you can count on having all the fun aspects of this unique holiday explained and included as fun activities.
Aluth Avurudu with Foozoo Travel
This tour package lets you spend 2 days and nights with a local family and experience the various festival highlights. It can be incorporated into an existing tour or enjoyed on its own as a special experience.
Image credits: Sri Lanka College of Journalism
Image credits: Kingsbury Hotel
Image credits: TimeOut