The way Avurudu was

By D.C. Ranatunga

Those were the days when no one went to a supermarket to buy kevum and kokis for Sinhala Avurudda. To begin with, there were no supermarkets then! Nether were there sweet shops where one could buy them.

Avurudu in the good old days was essentially a 'home do'. It was a family affair. Everyone in the family – young and old alike – gave a helping hand for the Avurudu arrangements. The voice of the koha (cuckoo) was the first sign that heralded the Avurudu time. The erabadu trees with their red flowers would be in full bloom.

It was a real busy time for the housewife – the mother in the family. In addition to the normal chores, she had extra work. Cleaning up the house, getting ready to cook the Avurudu kevili, a trek to town to buy gifts, stitching new clothes, picking the pots and pans — these are all her responsibilities. Of course, unlike today, she had the support staff, particularly for work in the kitchen. And there were enough and more willing hands from the neighbourhood to help. That was the tradition.

Ganu-denu, an age-old tradition continues to this day

Invariably, every garden had a few banana trees. The head of the household would see to it that ripe bananas picked from the garden would be ready in time for Avurudu.

If he was not sure of getting ripe bananas from the tree itself, he would dig a pit, lay the combs of plantains in it, cover them with biling and other leaves and blow smoke through a tiny opening. The pit was kept closed for a few days.

After the paddy harvest, a portion would be set aside to cook the first meal for Avurudu. The kitchen staff would boil the paddy, dry it on a maagala — a large long mat — and pound it to get the rice. Flour to make the sweetmeats was also prepared at home.

It was fun for the young ones to join two or three paddy-pounding women in the kitchen. It was even more enjoyable to help them pound kurakkan seeds in the specially designed kurahan gala. This common household item today adorns most Colombo houses as a showpiece.

In the meantime, the hearth would get a fresh coat of a mix of cow dung and clay after a full year's use.
Once the ingredients were ready and the making of sweetmeats began, the juniors would hover around to taste them. Mother would give them one or two and chase them away because she wanted to ensure that there would be sufficient quantities for the table on Avurudu day as well as to offer the visitors and distribute among the neighbours in keeping with an age-old tradition of give and take.

The range was vast. Atirasa, konda kevum, mung kevum, kokis, aggala, aluva, dodol, peni valalu — the list was virtually endless. Aasmi was the most difficult sweetmeat to make. It required special skill. Once prepared, the stuff would go into fresh clay pots for safe storing.

The Avurudu customs would be gone through strictly according to the times set by astrologers. A litha — almanac — was prominently displayed on the wall. It not only gave the auspicious times for the New Year, but also the days and times to observe sil on the Poya days, among other information. As Avurudu approached, the household would check the litha to partake in numerous sirith virith.

One of the first tasks prior to the dawn of the New Year was the auspicious time to have the final bath for the old year. Known in the early days as the naanumura mangallaya, the idea was to be fresh and clean. Naanu — a paste made of a mix of lime juice, sandalwood and other ingredients — was applied on the head before the bath.

During the nonagathe that signified the period when there was no nekath — auspicious times — all activities were stopped. Nonagathe is the transition period between the old and the New Year. The hearth was put out, water was not drawn from the well, no meals were cooked, even partaking of food was suspended and all transactions were stopped. The children were advised not to read or write. They were allowed to play, however. A popular game was panchi demeema. Martin Wickremasinghe described this game vividly in his novel, Gamperaliya in these words:

"Each of the players of two groups alternately took turns to toss the seven lead-filled little cowries held in the hollow of a small polished coconut shell, onto the polished convex surface of a larger inverted half of a coconut shell. After each toss of the cowries, those that had come to rest with the flat surface upturned scored a point. The points scored by each side were registered by moving one or more of a set of pawns along a pattern of squares outlined on a wooden board, towards a home-base. The first team to take all the pawns to the home base won. Moving the pawns in the most advantageous way and avoiding elimination by pawns of the opponents, requires foresight, experience and shrewdness."

Vala kaju gaseema was a game we played as children using cashew nuts — a crop which flourished during the Avurudu season. Draughts was another popular indoor game. The traditional outdoor games were played once the Avurudu ceremonies were over. They were organised at community level.

The nonagathe also referred to as punya kaalaya was the time to take part in religious activities. Time permitting, the village folk would go to temple, offer flowers and recite stanzas. Some preferred to make the first visit after Avurudu to the temple, carrying a tray full of sweetmeats, offer betel to the loku hamuduruwo and get his blessings. He would chant pirith, tie a pirith noola and bless them.

The time to cook the first meal was observed with great care. Today with the lighting of crackers, the message is given. It did not happen in those days. A sharp eye was kept on the clock and the housewife, clad in new clothes in the specified colour was given the signal to light the hearth and boil the pot of milk facing the stipulated direction. She would worship the pot thrice before lighting the hearth. After boiling the milk, she would prepare kiribath.

Prior to the partaking of the first meal, the family would gather to observe pan sil, worship the elders, begin work and engage in ganu denu. Children are made to read and write thereby symbolizing a good year for studies. Elders who were involved in agriculture would use their equipment in a symbolic manner. They would chop a branch with the knife usually used by an elder and cut a sod of soil. It was customary to plant a sapling. The family would then sit down for the meal.

Much attention was also paid to the first transaction. Often by mutual agreement, two friends would meet for the transaction, each one considering the other person as a lucky one. One would visit the other by prior arrangement before a third party arrived. It was generally money that was exchanged. Money wrapped in a betel leaf was kept on the betel tray and offered. The other person reciprocated.

Meanwhile, the housewife prepared the trays of sweetmeats for the neighbours and the children were sent to deliver them.

Then it was time to get ready to greet the relatives who start paying the Avurudu visits. The juniors were obliged to visit the seniors as a gesture of renewing relationships.

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