By Jehan Perera
Just over a year after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took over the reins of governance, which the 20th Amendment to the constitution has strengthened, the red lights are beginning to flash even as the New Year gets under way. There has been a continuing expectation that the President will be true to his early pledge, made at the sacred site of the Ruvanvelisaya built by the great king Dutugemunu, that he would be the President of all Sri Lankans and to rule justly. The President’s popularity remains high amongst the general population. However, contradicting expectation of enlightened governance there has been a surge in acts and words of hate that are not conducive to a healthy polity that heals itself of the conflicts that have for long held it back from reaching its fullest potential.
As the old year came to a close it seemed as if the country was coming to an adjustment with regard to the divisive issue of the government’s cremation-only policy with regard to Covid deaths which has totally alienated the Muslim community. Increasing numbers of medical professionals and political groups had given their assent to burial as an option. Senior clergy of all religions issued statements that the right of burial on religious grounds should be accepted in view of international practices and the opinions of scientific opinion within the country. In this context it is unfortunate and rationally inexplicable that the government has continued to hold to its rigid position that insists on Covid cremation only.
The government’s decision to postpone provincial elections has offered the country time and space to focus on development issues that can unify the country, rather than on highlighting differences between communities in order to get their votes. Elections have invariably been a source of division in Sri Lanka as politicians seek to generate vote for themselves. The postponement of provincial elections puts a greater responsibility on the government as it has vested the responsibility for controlling the affairs of the provinces to itself. Therefore there is need for a mechanism to be developed to reduce tensions and improve harmony. However, contrary to this expectation, there are efforts being made to take the country deeper on the path of internal conflict.
The spike in internal polarization has been most pronounced in the area of inter-community relations.
An example would be the issue of grazing land in Batticaloa. Thousands of acres of fallow land have been traditionally used by Tamil and Muslim farmers as pasture land for their cattle. However, during the past year or so this land is being parceled out to farmers from the Sinhala community. This is leading to conflict between the communities. The grazing issues have been highlighted for almost a year but do not appear to have received adequate attention of the government authorities, which is unfortunate. The failure of the government to resolve issues as they arises and mitigate the negative impacts will lead to an increase in animosities and misunderstanding between the communities, and an erosion of confidence in the fairness of the government on the part of the affected ethnic minorities.
The increase in internal conflict does not bode well for Sri Lanka with the March session of the UNHRC just six weeks away. The issue of the government’s unilateral withdrawal from the resolution that the previous government co-sponsored in 2015 will figure in the deliberations of that body. It is likely to be a difficult discussion for Sri Lanka because most of the commitments made by the previous government were not fulfilled by it and continue to remain unmet. As the UNHRC resolution focused on issues of the three-decade long war, and particularly on its last phase, the sudden government action of bulldozing the only public monument in the country to the civilians who lost their lives in the last battles, which is within the University of Jaffna will serve to refocus local and international attention onto those traumatic events of the past.
The issue of remembering the past has been a source of division within the country. The government has built many memorials to the military personnel who lost their lives and has set aside days for their commemoration. However, it has been rigid in its stance that the LTTE should not be memorialized in any way, and even bulldozed their cemeteries. The government’s concern about possible bids to revive the LTTE are justifiable. The issue at stake with the Jaffna University monument is that it was for those civilians who lost their lives in the last battle as they were trapped on the battlefield. Those who lost their lives and were buried are the kith and kin of the Tamil community regardless of whether they were members of the LTTE, forced recruits, or just civilians. They needed a memorial and believed that one set up within the university would be safer than one put up anywhere else.
Memorialisation is a part and parcel of any human society. It is the care and concern that family members have for one another that lays the foundation for a healthy and united society. The never dying love of family members for their departed ones is a reason why there are so many monuments for fallen soldiers to be found throughout the country, some of which are put by the government but many more put up by the war affected families. There are also monuments within the universities put up by students for those who lost their lives during the JVP insurrections of the past. Those memorials have been permitted to continue to remain though put up without official permission. The memorial within the Jaffna University that was suddenly destroyed over the weekend can be considered as part of this tradition.
The demolition of the memorial within the university immediately led to a polarizing situation and to a call for a shutdown of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Fortunately, better counsel, even from within the ranks of the government, has prevailed and the Vice Chancellor who issued the order for the removal of the monument has assured that a new one will replace the one that was destroyed. But the hartal that was planned would have already mobilised the sentiments of the Tamil community in opposition to the government and also refocused local and international attention on the issue of what happened at the war’s end. The issue of memorialization is not limited to the university students but affects all in the Tamil community regardless of whether they directly lost anyone in the war. There is a bonding that comes from primordial identities of race and religion that overrides individual differences. The government needs to act urgently to defuse the growing crisis.
The ancient chronicle, the Mahavamsa, records that when King Dutugemunu won the final battle against his foe King Elara, whom he wished to defeat from childhood, he ordered a memorial to be built for him. The great king, and the ancient chroniclers, recognized two millennia ago that those defeated in battle and who lost their lives in large numbers needed to be comforted and given an opportunity to mourn. The tradition was so strong that centuries later another king fleeing from his foes got off his horse and walked past the monument to King Elara as decreed by King Dutugemunu. Sri Lankans are proud of our culture and traditions and rightfully so. The need today, and urgently so, is to draw on the best elements of the past to live better lives in the present and pave the way for a shared future in a country in which every prospect pleases. A new monument that remembers the loss and pain of the past, and which inspires a feeling of never again will hopefully come from the ruins of the old one.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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