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Sunday, 15 April 2012

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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.

Preparation

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.”

Robert Knox

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 the hardest.

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 gods.

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 them.”

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 and women.”

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.

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