Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Sinhala new year in Sri Lanka CCBYSA Amila Tennakoon / Wikimedia

New Year Festival as Living Heritage

In mid-April every year, Sri Lankans celebrate the Sinhala and Hindu New Year with distinctive rituals that fuse Hindu and Buddhist elements. With the introduction of Buddhism in the third century BCE, traditional Hindu New Year rituals were reinterpreted. While historians and sociologists believe these rituals were closely related to sun worship because they coincided with ancient myths about the sun moving from one celestial house to another—the major rituals today embody a sense of cultural heredity and tradition.

Before the dawn of the New Year, people whitewash or color-wash their houses to renew a sense of freshness for the coming year, and they take extra care to ensure that their domestic environment is thoroughly cleaned. This idea of ushering in a cleaner sense of rejuvenation manifests itself through a ceremonial bath that takes place on the last day of the old year.

With the break of the New Year, marked by bell tolls from temples and the scents and sounds of firecrackers, the first fire of the year is lit and families boil milk in a new pot. The milk is allowed to boil over the side of the pot, and the liquid remaining in the pot is later used to make milk rice, which will be included in the family’s harvest feast to be taken at an auspicious time later in the day. Later during the New Year festivities, an elder or priest anoints the young with an herbal oil prepared from nuga leaves.

The theme of renewal and rejuvenation isn’t limited to the intrinsic symbolism of the customs associated with the holiday, as the annual practice of these traditional rituals also serves as a revival of living heritage as a form of transmission.

This same idea of revitalization can also be extended in both a social and familial sense because the holiday provides an opportunity for scattered family members to reunite and reinforce family ties. At family gatherings, children and youngsters make an offering of betel, a medicinal vine, to parents and elders as a token of love and gratitude, and in return, the children are given heartfelt blessings of appreciation and adoration. Women and children often light firecrackers, beat traditional drums (rabana), and play folk games, such as gudu, pancha, damm, and others. Men, on the other hand, participate in competitive folk games that include climbing greased tree trunks, swimming in rivers, and participating in a tug-of-war.

For small children, the festival provides and additional layer of novel experiences and excitement as they have an opportunity to have an extended stay with their relatives. The spirit merriment is not limited to the family; housewives prepare traditional sweets, such as kokis, a dish made from rice flour and coconut milk, and they serve these sweets to visitors and neighbors. The sharing of the sweets has a long history, dating back to the days of ancient Sri Lankan kings.

Another important social aspect of the New Year is that rivals get together and let their bygones be bygones, and with amends made, they step forward with a new harmonious life. The New Year is also a time for believers to reaffirm and strengthen their faith. Buddhists undertake observances such as offering flowers, lighting lamps at temples, and give alms to priests. Hindus conduct a religious ritual called a pooja, an offering of decorative cereals and fruits to their deities to mark a new venture for the future. These religious practices strengthen the minds of believers, enabling them to face problems and hardships with a sense of balance throughout the year.

While the New Year is full of rituals relating to individual and societal rejuvenation, there is also a feeling of rebirth through the environment because the season is full of blossoming flowers, trees full of ripe fruits, and the atmosphere full of cuckoo bird (Asian Koel) melodies. The feeling of environmental enjoyment is reinforced among Sri Lankans because their granaries are teaming with the results of their latest harvest, a tangible representation of their hard work.

In summary, the New Year festival has become an integral part of life for Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus, providing an environment to revive their lives and practice their long-standing traditions and rituals.