In April (the month of Bak) when the sun moves from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries) Sri Lankans begin celebrating their National New Year Aluth Avurudhu in Sinhala and Puththandu in Tamil. However, unlike the usual practice where the new year begins at midnight, the National New Year begins at the time determined by the astrologers. Not only the beginning of the new year but the conclusion of the old year is also specified by the astrologers. And unlike the customary ending and beginning of new year, there is a period of a few hours in between the conclusion of the Old Year and the commencement of the New Year , which is called the nona gathe (neutral period). During this time one is expected to keep off from all types of work and engage solely in religious activities.
This also coincides with the time when the harvest ends, so the colorful fruit from the trees is collected in bulk to fuel the week-long celebrations. Festivities are prepared well in advance and most of the country grinds to a halt as hundreds travel home to be with their families and stores close down in their wake – it can be impossible to track down the simplest of things just before it all starts.
The rituals begin with the cleaning of the house and lighting of an oil lamp, and women congregate to bash on the raban (drum) to warn others of the incipient change in the year. If you fail to hear this, a storm of firecrackers is bound to hammer the point home.
Families indulge in a variety of rituals which are carefully determined by astrological calculations – from lighting the fire to making the kiri (milk rice) bath, to entering into the first business transaction and eating the first morsels.
Once these are done, the partying really begins as families mingle in the streets, homes are thrown open and children are let out to play. The ubiquitous plantain is dished out alongside celebratory feasts of kaung (small oil cake) and kokis (crisp and light sweetmeat, originally from the Netherlands).
Aurudu has become an important national holiday for both the cultures of the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamil Hindu Sri Lankans, and is unique as such, as it is not celebrated elsewhere in the world. Indeed wealthy Sri Lankans make it an excuse to come home from wherever they are to make it a long holiday season.
Those who can’t handle the heat of the pre-monsoon season in the south escape to the cooler hills and indulge in the expensive pastimes of the elite – such as polo, golf, tennis and motor racing.