Monday, 11 April 2016 11:51

Seize The Moment

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We can all do with luck and prosperity. For many Sri Lankans, April is the time when the universe is all set to make their aspirations come true.

The New Year is always an opportunity for makeovers - but never more so than at the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year when help from the universe is at hand to power up aspirations. The New Year period in April is when Sri Lankans traditionally synchronize their activities with planetary configurations. Whether we are talking about domestic harmony, marriage, children, business or education, it is an opportunity to secure heavenly assurances of success in important earthly undertakings. That might just be too good a prospect for even those who scoff at superstition to pass up.

Soothsayers turn to the panchanga litha, an ephemeris that sets out precise planetary positions at any given time or day. Not only do they pinpoint neketh (auspicious times), but also list other positive factors such as which direction to face during an activity and what colour to wear - details said to make success twice as likely. Nekath are similar for both Buddhist and Hindu communities. So important is this auspicious schedule that a copy, known as the nekath seettuwa, is ritually presented to the Head of State each year following ancient tradition. Households secure a copy of the litha for themselves, although it is also announced in all media.

April in Sinhala is Bak, derived from Sanskrit bhagaya meaning ‘fortunate'. The roots of the New Year celebration are the Maha harvest festival, rooted in the island's ancient agrarian past. You could call this time of year Sri Lanka's spring - even though the country enjoys an endless summer - because it's when the trees burst into blossom and bear fruit, and the air fills with birdsong in a sort of reawakening. With a new crop cycle on the horizon, it seems natural to stop, celebrate, take stock and plan ahead. So, across the country, Sinhalese and Tamil households spring clean, ridding themselves of the unnecessary. Houses are given a new coat of paint; new clothes are bought to wear in the New Year. Delicious auspicious dishes are prepared so that the New Year sees a table laden with goodies. Special decorations are made at the threshold of Tamil homes to welcome God Ganesha, destroyer of obstacles.

As the New Year follows a solar calendar, calculations are based on the position of the sun as it transits from Meena (Pisces) to Mesha (Aries). It is a period of non-activity called nonagatha in Sinhalese said to be unfavourable for any life-supporting activity. During this time, work grinds to a stop, the kitchen is inactivated, water taps closed, and even studies are put aside. In villages, houses are shut and time is spent in the yard, playing Avurudu games. Many visit the temple or kovil to accumulate merit through prayer. Gazing at the New Year moon is one of the first rituals of the old year, some say for good health. The nonagatha marks a pause between the new year and the old one.

In Tamil culture, Vishu Punyakalam begins before the dawning of the new year, with the herbal water shower - this year it starts at 2.36 pm.

At the designated time, the New Year bursts into life, welcomed with the crackle and pop of fire crackers and merry raban pada. Thereafter, the auspicious punya kalaya where many ritiuals are observed commences. 2016's new solar year dawns late in the day this year, precisely at 7:48pm on 13 April. Joyful songs will be sung to rhythmic beats on raban, large one-sided drums throughout. Timing is of the essence and everything that happens thereafter must be executed precisely for luck to follow - not easy for a laidback folk who like to take their time. Fortune is a powerful incentive. Television programmes remind people to carry out their rituals, while in the villages, temple drums and bells confirm auspicious times.

April in Sinhala is Bak, derived from Sanskrit bhagaya meaning ‘fortunate’. The roots of the New Year celebration are the Maha harvest festival

This year's litha has given a single moment, 8:54pm, as the auspicious time for a number of important rituals: lighting the oil lamp, eating the first meal, paying respect to elders, performing the first monetary transaction. Lighting the lamp is important for the sake of keeping culture alive. Beautiful brass oil lamps are lit, fire being symbolic of the sun and illumination. The first meal is always milk rice. Sinhalese homes prepare it with rice and coconut milk while Tamil homes make a richer preparation, pongal rice, that includes lentils, nuts and raisin. Younger members of the family prostrate to elders, touching their feet and offering them sheaves of betel leaves in gratitude and respect. In return, they receive cash gift and blessings. Business owners resume work (weda alleema) by enacting a token transaction (ganu denu kireema) involving a monetary exchange with a client. Doing so at just the right moment will ensure a healthy cash flow and prosperity. In villages, a transaction is also made with the well, source of life-giving water. The lady of the house drops in a coin tied in clean linen and draws some water. She keeps the water in a bottle, treating it as a barometer of the family's fortune. Falling water levels signify falling fortunes, and rising water levels prosperity. To start work, farmers often make an incision or slice off a small branch of a jack tree. They may also cut a sod of soil or plant a sapling.

Hisa thel gama bears the promise of good health and is usually carried out in the temple by a monk or by the eldest or most senior member of the household. The head is anointed with the juice of various leaves such as nuga, while the anointed stands on a pile of karanda leaves. This year, they should face west and wear blue. If you visit a temple, you may see a monk apply oil on the crown of the temple elephants.

Rituals such as the ahara anubhavaya (partaking of meals), ganu denu kireema and hisa thel gama are symbolic of renewal and revival. Despite the frenzied nature of modern life, many take the time to carry out at least some of the rituals to keep traditions alive. But above all, it's a time of reunion when the extended family gathers together under one roof. Differences are set aside as loved ones joyfully celebrate their culture while creating conditions for auspicious beginnings.

Auspicious times

Bath for the old year: April 13th before New Year dawns, with a mixture of kohomba (Margosa) and nuga (Banyan) leaves.

Dawn of the New Year: Wednesday April 13th at 7:48pm.

Punya Kaalaya: 1:24pm on April 13th - 2:12am on April 14th. The first part is devoted to religious practices, the second to rituals.

Lighting the hearth: Wednesday April 13th at 8.06pm.

First meal, paying respect to elders, transactions: April 13th at 8.54pm, dressed in green, facing south.

Anointing oil: April 16th at 10:41am, wearing blue, facing west.

Setting off for work: April 18th at 6:27am, wearing white, facing east.

Words Daleena Samara Photography Rasika Surasena

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