Avurudu next door

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By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Every country has its own New Year traditions. Although the world celebrates the first of January as the beginning of a New Year, which is based on the Gregorian calendar, many countries have their own traditional New Year celebrations, deeply rooted in their traditional cultures. For us, in Sri Lanka, the April New Year is celebrated as the traditional New Year. This revolves around the age-old folk beliefs based on the veneration of the Sun God and of other natural elements. 

Just as we in Sri Lanka celebrated the traditional New Year on 14 April, there are other countries and cultures in the world that celebrated their New Year on similar days in April. These countries that celebrate the traditional New Year in April are mostly from the South and Southeast Asian region. This festival is believed to mainly revolve around the worshipping of the Sun God. 

Why do people celebrate New Year in April?

One reason for these cultural similarities is the geographical location and similar natural environments of these countries. One of the major factors that shape and decide human culture is the natural environment. These countries which had agricultural economies in the past developed their cultural practices and entire social system based on agriculture and related practices. 

The natural environment played a crucial role in their lives as agriculture entirely depended on nature. Hence, these communities considered natural elements sacred. Nature was personified and venerated. They also paid close attention to the natural cycles and the characteristics of plants and animals. Eventually, religious and cultural practices, rituals, and festivals were given birth, mainly around these natural elements.

The sun was the most important deciding factor for these agrarian communities. Among the many divine powers they worshipped, the sun was considered the mightiest and the main life-giver. Therefore, the dawn of the New Year in this region was based on the circulation of the sun and the growth of crops. The harvest season is known to be the dawn of the New Year and new life and it generally falls during the month of April.  This period of the year is known as the spring in these countries.

Those communities who worshipped the sun celebrated the dawn of a new year based on the sun’s transition from the Meena constellation to the Mesha constellation; thus this is also known as the Mesha Sankranti. 

Let us take a tour around the world to experience how other countries celebrate the April New Year. Many of these cultures are in our neighbouring countries such as in many parts of South India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.  

South India

In certain parts of South India, certain cultures celebrate New Year in April such as people in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka. This festival is known as Ugadi or Yugadi or Samvatsaradi. Usually, this date falls in early April.

On New Year’s Day, people decorate the floor with beautiful rangoli or kolam designs which are also known as Muggulu. Rice, flour, or flower petals are used to do these colourful designs. 

Home doors are decorated with Mango leaves, which is also an age-old decoration style of the Hindus. They also wear new clothes to celebrate the day and give new clothes as gifts to each other, along with sharing food with each other. They also apply oil which is followed by an auspicious bath, signifying purification and the dawn of a new beginning. 

Special foods are made for the New Year including traditional sweets. People also visit Hindu temples to perform religious rituals and to get the blessings of the gods. 

Vishu or Bisu is a Hindu festival celebrated in the Indian state of Kerala, Tulu Nadu region in Karnataka, Mahé District, and some neighbouring areas of Tamil Nadu and among the Tamil communities all over the world. This festival falls on 14 or 15 April every year.

People give great importance to the family during this festival time and they have a practice viewing some auspicious objects as the first thing on this special day. This tray of auspicious things is prepared the day before New Year’s Day and on the next day, it is the very first thing they view. They also wear new clothes on this day. Apart from New Year, the festival is also related to the god Krishna. Therefore, his images are made and people visit Krishna temples during the early hours of the day. This is because devotees believe that Krishna killed the demon Narakasura. 

The auspicious items are usually rice, lemon, cucumber, coconut, jackfruit, betel leaves, areca nut, a mirror, Cassia fistula flowers, an idol of Vishnu, a traditional brass lamp, and so on. Usually, the lighting of this brass lamp is done by the elders of the family.  

Other parts of India 

Vaisakhi, also pronounced Baisakhi, is known traditionally as the month of the New Year which falls on 13 April. This day has been considered the first day of the traditional solar calendar and is also as is culturally known as a harvest festival. 

In the Punjab region, Vaisakhi is celebrated as the traditional New Year. Vaisakhi is known to be the traditional Hindu Solar New Year and is celebrated in many parts of Northern, Eastern, North-eastern, and Central India. In Nepal, Baisakhi is celebrated as their traditional New Year. 

Vaisakha Sankranti is celebrated by performing ritual bathing in sacred rivers, visiting temples and taking blessings, performing almsgiving and spending time with family and close friends. 

Bengali New Year: Pahela Baishakh

In Bengal and modern Bangladesh, the traditional New Year is celebrated on 14 April as Pehela Baishakh. In the Bengali language, it is called Poila or Pohela Boishakh as it is the first day of the Bengali calendar. People in Assam, Tripura, and Jharkhand celebrate this festival. 

Like any other traditional New Year celebration in the region, this festival too is celebrated with family being the most important aspect. People wear colourful new clothes and prepare sweets. Their attire for New Year is traditional and they are red and white in colour. Women decorate their heads with flowers. 

The festival times start with people cleaning their house and engaging in shopping. During the New Year’s Day, they visit families and friends and exchange gifts. 

They also have a day to freshly start their business, or trades, which is similar to the ritual of ganu denu kirima, that the Sinhalese people do. Another similarity between the Bengali New Year traditions and ours is the traditional rice-based dish they eat on the New Year’s Day. It is called Panta Bhat or Poita Bhat. This is a rice dish prepared by soaking the leftover rice in water  overnight. It is eaten with fish and curries. This is similar to the diya bath we eat in Sri Lanka. However, we do not associate diya bath with our New Year traditions. 

Thai New Year: Songkran

Thailand New Year is celebrated on 13 and 14 of April and is known as Songkran which means, ‘approaching’. This is derived from the Sanskrit word Sankranti which means, transition or change. In Thai New Year celebrations, water plays an important role. 

In the morning they engage in religious customs such as visiting the temples and giving alms to the Buddhist monks. They also pour water on Buddha statues as it is considered a meritorious act. Water is also poured on each other as a symbol of purification and washing away sins. During these religious customs, the deceased and the ancestors are remembered and reverence is paid to them. Also, people make donations to the temples for work such as repairs and construction. 

As it can be seen in Sri Lanka and Thailand too, people visit their hometowns and spend time with family and friends. 

The water festival which is very entertaining is the most noticeable part of the Thai New Year. They gather on the streets and splash water on each other. Young Thai girls are all adorned in traditional Thai attire in parades and one is crowned as ‘Miss. Songkran’ or ‘Landy Songkran’. This reminds us of the traditional beauty pageant in Sri Lanka, which is called the Avurudu Kumariya. 

Another interesting thing that can be seen in the Thai New Year is that they free animals such as birds, fish, buffaloes, and cows as a meritorious act. 

Traditional folk dances add colour and sound to the Thai New Year. The Thai New Year is also greatly fashioned by Buddhism. The free animals, practice nonviolence with conscience, make sure not to hurt others and not to tell lies, and make offerings to the Buddhist monks, and so on. The temple plays a vital role in the Thai New Year. 

Burmese New Year: Thingyan

Another country that celebrates New Year in April is Myanmar or formerly known as Burma. This is also a festival full of colour, dance, music, and essentially water. Just as in Thailand, Myanmar also has fun-filled cultural water festivals, where they splash water on each other and these festivals continue for days. 

The words, Thingyan or Songkran or Arakanese, have a Sanskrit origin. This means the transit of the sun from Pisces to Aries. 

Myanmar’s New Year has many Buddhist practices such as visiting the temple and making offerings to the monks, pagodas, and the Buddha statues. They also release animals such as fish. In Particular, they look for fish that are dying in drying lakes or rivers and save them into large clay pots or jars and once they are doing fine, they are released into large lakes or rivers. While doing so they chant prayers and wish for good karma to fall upon themselves. 

Also, Myanmar males enter the monkhood for a period of time, during this festival season. 

Laos New Year Celebrations: Pi Mai 

The Laos New Year is known as Pi Mai and Songkran, which again is derived from the Sanskrit word, Sankranti. The festival is celebrated on the 14 April and the celebration lasts for about a week or more. 

They clean their houses and purify them with water. According to Laos’s tradition, the first day of their celebrations are the last day of the old year, while the last day of the celebrations is the first day of the New Year. 

Once again, like in Thailand and Myanmar, water plays a significant role in Laos New Year. Buddha statues are washed and water is splashed on people. Youngsters splash water on their elders respectfully and on monks, for blessings. After the religious aspect of this is done, the fun begins. 

Another interesting practice is that they bring sand to the temple and make small sand stupas and decorate them with flowers, paint, fabric, and scented with perfumed water. Then they offer it to the monks. 

Laotians free animals as a meritorious New Year ritual. 

In the evening Laotians visit the temple and offer flowers to the Buddha statues. Monks and people together participate in flower picking and then washing them, before they offer them to the Buddha. 

Just as we have Avurudu Kumari competitions, Lao people also have traditional beauty pageants. Their traditional beauty pageant is connected with their history and folk beliefs. 

In Laos, temples are not only for religious rituals. They also provide entertainment, which is associated with religion. For New Year, they have special entertainment performances including their dances and music where many people participate. 

Cambodian New Year: Choul Chnam Thmey

Also known as the Khmer New Year, or Choul Chnam Thmey, Cambodia celebrates its traditional New Year in April. This is known as the Moha Sangkranta which means the Great Transition. This falls on 13 and 14 April which is associated with the harvest season. 

Cambodians wear new clothes and visit the temple where they light candles, burn incense sticks, and worship in front of the Buddha statues. They also pay homage to their ancestors and also help the poor as a New Year celebration. 

Buddha statues are being washed with perfumed water. This symbolises washing away bad karma (sins) away. Young people also wash and clean their grandparents and parents. 

Like Laotians, Cambodians also build a small stupa in the sand, which they believe symbolises the sacred stupa at Tavatimsa heaven. This big stupa is surrounded by four small stupas which symbolise four great disciples, Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda, and Maha Kassapa.