Values behind Avurudu rituals help shape society

(13.04.2014 –

Prof. J.B. Disanayaka said the importance of Avurudu is not the preservation of rituals or customs that had been carried on since the olden days but preservation of their meaning which symbolises certain values that help shape a society.

Young girls playing the rabana

He said customs change from time to time or get replaced by new ones. “In a world of changes you cannot keep old customs alive for ever. Therefore, don’t go by rituals literally but create your own parameters to ensure the values behind these old customs are carried on to the future.”

The Sunday Observer spoke to Prof. Disanayaka, an authority on the subject as to how Avurudu should be celebrated by the modern families, mostly city dwellers who have become atheists and pretend to be culture-less not by choice but for convenience.

Excerpts of the interview :

You cannot go back in time. Things are changing and will change more in the future. the essence of new year is that it is a time of renewal. As long as the ties you share with your families, friends and colleagues are renewed that is all what matters, not being tied up to a set of rituals. If you eat kevum or you avoid kevum for being diabetic or for having high level of bad cholesterol, matters little in celebrating ‘Sinhala Avurudda’.

New Year is a time of renewal. You need to forget and forgive, set new targets, and renew your relationships with family and friends.

But there are certain customs that should be followed than forgotten. When you cook your first meal at the auspicious time the element of milk is vital. Milk is a symbol of fertility, so when the first food is prepared it should be milk rice. When you were born your mother fed you with milk – your very first meal. That symbolises life and fertility. This is why I think the first meal of the New Year cannot be replaced with ‘pizza or hamburger’.

The time of New Year gives a chance for parents including the father to spent time with the children. This is the only time when you can defeat your father in a game of play and have a good laugh over it. This is very important for a child.

Work late

In many families fathers leave home early and come back after doing ‘overtime’ when the children are in bed. He hardly sees his children. Even during weekend, either the father is working late or the children are in tuition classes. With the new trend of working mothers, now even the mothers hardly meet up with their children.

New year is a time where people visit and interact with family and friends. In that context, Avurudu is an opportunity for bonding. That opportunity should not be missed.

If you think looking after the needs of your children through a proxy – a servant or a grand parent- is sufficient in fulfilling your parenting duties. That is a great myth. Children crave for parents’ presence – their attention, love and care. They don’t expect to get their requirements taken care of by a third party.

It has been a custom to visit the ancestral home during Avurudu. The brothers and sisters go ‘home’ with their families to see the parents in the village. This is a time the children cherish. This is the time they get to see and know their cousins. In some families, so rarely they meet up, even the first cousins don’t recognise each other.

Prof. J. B. Disanayaka

The success of the society depend on the family. The foundation of the society is the family unit. If the families collapse, the society collapses. The New Year rituals and customs strengthen the bonds within a family and thus a society.

A popular trend today during holidays is to organise long distance trips. New Year time is no different, people count days for so called getaways.

Renewing relationships

There is nothing wrong in using the avurudu holidays for pleasure trips, provided that it upholds the New Year values. The trip can be a getaway for extended families to get together. The whole idea of avurudu is to meet up and renew relationships. How you get about it is an individual choice.

The rituals have a meaning. We offer betel leaves for elders as a mark of respect. There is no value in betel, it is symbolic. I offer ‘betel leaves’ because we have been offering betel leaves for many years. betel leaves can be substituted by something else but the meaning behind this custom symbolises certain ethical values in our society- respect for elders.

The important thing is to preserve the meaning of your customs and rituals. In a world of changes you cannot get old customs going on like that. That is not to say the rituals should be discarded.

In the olden days we had a kitchen where we had a hearth. Now we don’t have such apparatuses in the kitchen. When you say ‘ Liggal benda. …’ (put up a hearth and prepare milk rice) that means to clean up your kitchen. Have the place you cook cleaned in view of the dawn of a New Year and prepare the place to cook your first meal, not to put up a hearth in the middle of the drawing room.

Making konde kevum

Don’t go by rituals literally, these rituals signifies certain values and this is the one thing that is important.

In the olden days there was a strong relationship between the temple and the lay households. Today the life is so busy, that a visit to the temple is a remote possibility. The monks don’t visit households like the parish priest. During ‘Avurudu’ there is the opportunity which has been made compulsory by a custom called ‘Punya Kalaya’, to go to the temple.

Entire family

As Buddhists we trust that we can acquire merit any time of the day or year. There is no specific period, but here a time has been set as Punya Kalaya to ensure that you will not fail to renew your relationship with the temple. The visit to the Temple is done with the entire family, sometimes with the extended families.

There are some auspicious time customs that are not very practical, such as the time to depart to official duty. Sri Lanka was once an agrarian society.

The farmers used to stop work ahead of the New Year, before nonagatha time. Resuming work at the auspicious time was no major issue for they were mostly self employed. Work meant picking up their mammoty or the axe and walk to the farmland. This custom is not entirely meant for office-goers.

We are living in a world of knowledge and belief. Even the scientists believe in god although the god is not visible. In our part of the world we believe in auspicious moments called Nekath. It is a belief, it may be meaningful or not. But such rituals and customs inculcate values in a society and help shape their future.

Fortunately, by and large, Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils still have a high regard for these customs.

– By Manjula Fernando

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