Avurudu in Times of Monarchy
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Despite being plagued with the ongoing pandemic for over a year and the latest controversies about the quality of coconut oil – a much-needed food ingredient during this time of the year – Sri Lanka is setting itself to celebrate yet another Sinhala and Tamil New year under the ‘new normal’. The eased restrictions on travel and public gatherings have allowed people to celebrate and make preparations for the upcoming avurudu season, more or less how we used to, and making most of it, the commercial aspect of April is almost in its usual swing, although avurudu games festivals are still highly discouraged.
Since last year’s New Year celebrations were almost completely ruined, courtesy the lockdown that was enforced at the time, the progress the country has made in terms of flattening the curve this time around, is pleasantly welcomed, not just by citizens but many businesses of goods and services that ride heavily on the sales of avurudu season.
Another aspect we ride heavily on this season is the auspicious times which are calculated by reputed astrologers in the country. Although they are much publicised today, and given much attention to, it wasn’t quite the case back during the time of the Kandyan Era.
In the times of monarchy, the auspicious times were calculated by the astrologers to suit the king, best. The leader of the country sponsored the New Year celebrations and hence, this special list of auspicious times included lots of activities that required king’s participation or royal sponsorship.
Kings sponsored avurudu in the olden days
The reputed chronicles of ancient Sri Lanka such as Mahawamsa and Deepawamsa however, do not contain much information about royal celebrations of avurudu during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. The British on the other hand documented the celebrations and customs pertaining to the New Year in the pre-colonial era. One such writer was Englishman John Dave, who was in Sri Lanka between 1816 and 1820. As he mentioned in his scripts, the New Year customs, preparations, and events were never forced on people nor were they limited to a specific ethnic or religious group. It looked as if avurudu was a season everyone looked forward to back in the day and partook in celebrations willingly.
The king-centred list of auspicious times was prepared by the astrologers and announced by royal messengers to the general public. The royal abode readied itself for the upcoming avurudu festivities, a few months in advance. Painting the walls, cleaning and gardening, decorating the palace with carvings, and building pandols were carried out by the experts, most of whom rendered their services voluntarily.
Avurudu: a sign of prosperity
The king regarded the New Year celebrations as a way of showing the prosperity of the country and the good reign of his rule. He made it a point to celebrate avurudu not exclusively but as a national festival which everyone can take part in their own capacity and social status. Days before avurudu, the king made his men select underprivileged families who couldn’t celebrate the New Year and presented them with gifts and all the essentials needed to celebrate the festival.
In his book, An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, Robert Knox mentions how the Kandyan king celebrated the New Year. On the day of New Year, at a specific auspicious time, the king leaves the palace in his royal attire wearing all the royal jewellery, to inspect his royal army. The departure to the inspection is announced via a special firing squad. Ministers and adikarams of royal staff take their turn to meet and greet the king and present the king with gold, jewellery, metal utensils, weapons, and clothes. Those who don’t have such gifts offer money, gems or some other rare object of equal value instead.
Knox’s description gives us a glimpse into one of the many customary celebrations the king did during avurudu. The receiving of gifts comes towards the end of the royal celebrations, after many customs which are almost completely non-existent in today’s New Year celebrations.
The royal astrologer called ganithaya compiles all the auspicious times and prepares a list for the king called neketh pathraya. This contains auspicious times for bathing for the Old Year, partaking of meals, activities for the inauspicious time, bathing for the New Year and partaking of first meal, accepting gifts and many other auspicious activities.
King’s way of celebrating avurudu
The New Year customs of Kandyan Era heavily revolved around Natha Devala. This could be because of Nayakkar (Tamil) origins of the Kandyan king. During Kandyan Era, the New Year was celebrated on 11 and 12. On 11 April the royal doctors and astrologers gather at Natha Devala and prepare a special herbal remedy for the king to use in bathing. Leaves, roots, and flowers of selected herbal plants are used in making this herbal mixture and the procedure is carried out under the watchful eyes of doctors and astrologers. Before the New Year, 10 pots of the herbal mixture are prepared at Natha Devala and one such pot is paraded to the royal palace while the others are distributed to the temples and devalas.
On the New Year day, the king assumes the royal throne at an auspicious time while wearing his full royal attire. The seating at the throne is announced to the public via a royal firing squad.
At the next auspicious time, the king stands and applies a herbal mixture on his head and body while facing southeast, marking the bathing for Old Year. At this time, young and beautiful maidens of elite families stand closer to the king with a torch in one hand and a silver plate containing rice and turmeric water, as they chant, “Long live the king” three times. After the maidens, the nilames and adikarams take their turn in greeting the king.
Next comes the royal feast. A special food item called dina bhojami is prepared specially for the king. This delicious meal is not a specific meal but rather a combination of many delicious royal treats. The king tastes the dish at the auspicious time and then serves the nilames and adikarams gathered, a portion of dina bhojami. Being able to enjoy this special meal, being served the meal by the king himself, and being able to have it with the king is considered a rare opportunity and only the closest and most trustworthy are privileged with this opportunity. Dina bhojami is considered a rare and sacred meal and the nilames and adikarams make sure to not consume any cooked meal in between the dawn of the New Year and dina bhojami as a customary measure. Following the consumption of dina bhojami, the king invites all the elite to a special dinner at the palace.
Another major event in the king’s list of auspicious timing is starting work for the New Year. At the given auspicious time, everyone starts their cast-specific industry, followed by a transaction. Unlike the monetary transactions practiced during New Year these days, this transaction didn’t involve any money but rather an exchange of goods which reflected the feudalistic society the kingdom had back then. The elite offer rice, coconuts, grains, and fruits to the royal treasury and in return the king awarded them with goods, usually a few times more valuable than what the elite gift him. On this day, the treasury is kept open for the general public to perform their auspicious-time transaction, which they enthusiastically do. On this special occasion, people were allowed to take goods more valuable than what they give, although they were not allowed to see the king during the transaction. That privilege was given only to a few selected members of the elite.
When bathing for the New Year, the king uses the pot of herbal mixture prepared at the Natha Devala on the day before. After applying the herbal mixture, the king bathes with scented water, cleans himself and wears brand new royal attire with jewellery. Then, a virgin comes before the king and ceremonially greets him for the New Year. This act is considered an auspicious activity to bring good luck to the king, after which the nilames and adikarams take their turn in bathing for the New Year.
As the last of activities performed at an auspicious time, the accepting of gifts is carried out. This is not a transaction and the elite don’t get anything valuable in return. However, a special officer is allocated to calculate the value of each and every individual’s gift and that value is deducted from the taxes they have to pay for the crown. The king also makes it a point to visit the Temple of the Tooth and offer gifts and other valuables.
Kandyan era: shaping New Year celebrations
During the Kandyan Era, the whole month of April was considered as avurudu month and title holders and other servants of the palace were given a special two-week holiday to celebrate the New Year.
These particulars of Kandyan-Era New Year celebrations are further supported by the journal entries made by the first Baronate of Kandy, Sir John D’Oyly.
According to Knox’s notes, the earnings of royal treasury increases during avurudu, courtesy a special seasonal avurudu tax which special tax officers are deployed to collect. Every entrance in the palaces is adorned with pandols and the whole town is decorated with flags and arches, making the whole kingdom effuse a vibe of festivities. The New Year festival in Kandy was called nanumura mangalya and according to Prof, Miniwan P. Thilakarathne, nanumura mangalya is more or less the neketh keliya mentioned in the books Saddharmarathnawaliya and Poojawaliya. He believes the modern-day New Year festival is an evolved version of this nanumura mangalya or neketh keliya which involved the movement of stars and the sun.
The Kandyan Era is considered a time during which a lot of additions to the New Year celebrations were made. Although a time of political turmoil, during which many changes to the country’s governance was observed, the New Year traditions seemingly progressed unchanged while the British influence shaped many other socio-cultural practices of Sri Lanka. This is most likely because the New Year celebrations back in the day was not a strictly religious festival which was limited to a certain group of people but rather a people’s celebration which was welcomed by people of all caste and creed. Perhaps this was the reason Englishman Dave referred to Ceylonese as, “A ceremonious people.”
(Information courtesy Avurudu Siri Asiri by Yasawardana Rodrigo)