Speech by R. B. Herath at the Sinhala-Tamil New Year Celebration

held in Surrey, British Columbia, 26 April 2003

Aryubowan! Oba samata suba aluth avuruddak veva! Vanakkam! Ungal yalperukkum puththandu valththukkal! Hi Everyone! Happy New Year to you all!

It is a great honour to appear before so many members of the Sri Lankan family in British Columbia, and isome dear friends of ours on this auspicious occasion. I have been invited to come and talk about the Sinhala-Tamil New Year, the grandest annual festival of the Sri lankan people, which has a history of more than 2000 years.

Scholars tell us that the Sinhala-Tamil New Year has come about in the form of harvesting thanksgiving. In time, this celebration has developed into a national event of significant social, cultural and religious features unique to Sri Lankan life.

Preparatory works for this event take place weeks and sometimes months ahead of the actual festival. People colourwash and decorate their houses, buy new clothes, at least one suit for everyone. They look for the lucky colour for the New Year when they buy the new clothes. They also buy and stock fire crackers and fire works. As the days draw nearer, they start preparing an assortment of sweetmeats, with a multitude of sweet aromas flowing from every kitchen.

The New Year festival itself lasts for about a week. It signals the movement of the sun from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries). However the conclusion of the old year and the beginning of the New Year do not happen at the same time as the countdowns on December 31st. Instead, astrologers tell us when the old year ends and when the New Year begins, leaving some hours in between. During this period, which is called Nonagathe, all are expected to stop working, fast, and engage in religious activities.

The day before the New Year, paranaavurudda/palaya varasam, is mostly a family day. On this day, people travel to their ancestral homes. There they do, among others, two important things: Exchange of gifts and paying obeisance to parents and elders. This way they try to forget any past differences, if any, and look forward to a new year with renewed family bonds. This is a tradition they can easily extend to their communities and to their country as a whole, the big family, Sri lankan family.

By the time of nonagathe, all cooking is finished, the hearth cleaned, fires extinguished, day to day activities suspended, with fresh pots and pans awaiting the preparation of the ceremonial first meal of the New Year. Everyone is dressed up in new suits in the lucky colour.

When the predetermined time for the preparation of the ceremonial meal comes, someone, usually the matriarch, dressed up in lucky colour and facing the auspicious direction, starts the fire to begin cooking the first meal of the New Year, usually Kiribath (Milk rice) in the Sinhalese tradition, and Pongal in the Tamil tradition. The thunder of firecrackers and fireworks in every nook and corner of the country marks this great occasion.

After cooking Kiribati or pongal, the whole family sits for the first meal of the New Year. Before eating, however, Buddhists normally make a special offering to the Buddha, and the Hindus to birds and animals.

After the meal, comes the auspicious time for Business Transaction. It is called Ganudenu in Sinhalese, meaning receiving and giving. Most commonly, people exchange coins wrapped in beatle leaves, usually the always lucky young getting more money than what they give. In the Tamil tradition, the head of the family or another prominent member distributes money to others. This tradition is called Kaiviyalam in Tamil.

Then comes the auspicious time for initiating work. It is believed that whatever initiated that time will become successful in the coming year. For example, farmers plant a tree. Students read a book or do a math problem. Small children do their first time reading and writing too at this time. Some of these children do their first time writing with their fingers on uncooked rice spread over a flat object. This is called Akuru Liveema in Sinhalese and Ardutuwakkal in Tamil.

The two or three days that follow, mark the most joyous merry making time of the year. Female folks sit around local drums, rabanas, and play beautiful folk melodies. Men and women, both young and old, engage in traditional games such as Olinda Tables, checker boards, chukgudu, pillow fights, three-legged and gunny bag races, walking on stilts, climbing slippery poles, lighting fire crackers and fire works, bull races, kite festivals, and much, much more. In this manner, the entire country participates in one big celebration.

At the end there is a special way to end the festival. In the Sinhalese tradition, the eldest member of the family prepares special herbal oil and anoints the rest of the family members. In the Tamil tradition, a similar event takes place with holy ash, sandalwood paste, and kumkumam. People decorate their foreheads with three lines of holy ash and a beautiful pottu in the centre, after a special puja in their shrines.

Thus although there are some slight differences in their customs and traditions, the Sinhalese and tamils celebrate the same New Year and find amity in their beliefs. This clearly demonstrates the deep-rooted common bond and cultural heritage between them. Let us all, continue to uphold and cherish that common bond and heritage among us, and wish that all our people in Sri Lanka would live in peace and harmony as just one family, Sri lankan Family.

One Lanka-One Family.

I like to end my speech by reciting two short poems from an old book of mine, which I read at the last year's Canadian National Book Fair held in Vancouver.

One poem tells how the Sinhalese and Tamils celebrate the New Year, and the other says, despite the different languages we speak, and different religions we practice, we all Sri lankans are just one family.

"Bak Masa"
"Ratathula sitina."

Thank you.

I love you all!!!

Aryubowan! Vanakkam!

Below are two pictures from the event.


Participants at the speech

R.B. Herath giving his speech.

For more information email: info@rbherath.com

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