New Year celebrations in ancient Lanka
We are amidst another Sinhala and Hindu New Year during which a
majority of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka will participate in social,
cultural and religious observances which have been inherited from
generation to generation over the past centuries. And for a change I
propose to delve into the ways in which the Sinhala and Hindu New Year
was celebrated with pomp and pageantry in Sri Lanka during the ancient
times about which early writers give exuberant details.
John Davy's The Account of the Interior of Ceylon and Its Inhabitants
(1821) gives vivid details about the new year as observed in the Kandyan
Kingdom during the time of the Sinhala Kings.
He writes: “There were four principal national festivals observed in
the ancient times: The Avurudu Mangallaya or the feast of the New Year,
the Perahera, the Kaitiaya Mangallaya or the festival of lamps and the
Alut Sahal Mangallaya or the feast of the new rice... These festivals
seem to have been instituted for religious and political objects.”
The vivid description Davy gives are illustrative of the state of
society, the character of the people of the country and its government.
He says, “Before the approach of the new year, the King's physicians
and astrologers had certain duties to perform. The former had to
superintend the preparation of a thousand small pots of the juices of
wild medicinal plants at the Natha devale from whence, carefully covered
and sealed, they were sent to the palace and distributed with much
ceremony to the other temples.
The duty of the astrologers was to form a Nekat Wattoruwa... At the
time appointed for the commencement of the new year the King sat on his
throne in state, surrounded by his chiefs, and the event was announced
to the public... In ancient times the King himself, as the head of state
and the nation, went to the field and turned the first sod with the
royal golden plough...”
An earlier writer, Robert Knox (1681) writing about the new year
festivities in ancient Sri Lanka says: “In their new year, upon a
special and good day (for which the astrologers are consulted) the King
washes his head, which is a very great solemnity among them.
The palace is all adorned with thoranas, a sort of triumphal arches,
that make a very fine show... On the top of the poles are flags flying,
and all about hung full of painted cloth with images and figures of men,
beasts, birds and flowers. Fruits also are hung up in great order and
exactness. On each side of the entrance of the arch stand plantain trees
with bunches of plantains on them as if they were growing... The things
which the people carry as their rents and taxes are wine, oil, corn,
honey, cloth, iron, elephants teeth (tusks), tobacco and money.”
Regarding their play on new year day Robert Knox writes: “Only at
their new year they will sport and be merry with one another. Their
chief play is to bowl coconuts one against the other, to try which is
There is another sport which generally all people are used to with
much delight, being as they called it, a sacrifices to one of their
The benefit of it is that it frees the country from grief and
diseases. For the beastliness of the exercise they never celebrated it
near any town nor in sight of women, but in a remote place... When they
would be merry and particularly at their great festival in the new moon
they have people that show pretty tricks and feats of activity before
One of the most interesting things he mentions is that “Drunkenness
they do greatly abhor, neither are there many that do give themselves to
it. Tobacco likewise they account a vice, but yet is used both by men
Discoursing on astronomers and their skill he says: “These
astronomers tell them also when the old year ends to the very minute.
At which time they cease from all work, except the king's, which must
not be omitted. They acquaint them also with the good hour of the new
year they are to begin to work.
At which time very man and woman begin to do somewhat in their
employment they intend to follow the ensuing year.