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The origin of our New Year

Lionel Wijesiri - DN Fri Apr 13 2007

April 14th this year marks the traditional New Year day for the Sinhala/Tamil people in Sri Lanka. This New Year is associated with the Saka Era, a reckoning which commenced in 78 A.D. Saka calendar is widely adopted by the astrologers for calculative purposes. It is held that the Saka Era was founded by King Shalivahana of Satavahana dynasty reigning in 78 -102 A.D. at Pratishthana, which is modern Paithan on the Godavari River.

This article attempts to analyze briefly the Satavahana dynasty and King Shalivahana.

Satavahana Dynasty

The Satavahanas were a dynasty which ruled from Pune over Southern and Central India starting from around 230 BC. Pune is a city located in Maharashtra and is widely considered the cultural capital of the state. Although there is some controversy about when the dynasty came to an end, the most liberal estimates suggest that it lasted about 450 years, until around 220 AD.

The Satavahanas are credited for establishing peace in the country from the onslaught of foreigners after the decline of the Mauryan empire. The first mention of the Satatvahana dates back to the 8th century BC.

In the Indian historical literature the dynasty is variously referred to as the Satavahanas, Satakarnas and Andhras. There is a reference about the Satavahanas by the Greek traveller Megasthenes, indicating that they possessed 100,000 infantry, 1,000 elephants, and had more than 30 well built fortified towns.

Aside from their military power, their commercialism and naval activity is evidenced by establishment of Indian colonies in Southeast Asia for the first time in history. The Satavahanas started out as feudatories to the Mauryan Empire, and seem to have been under the control of Emperor Ashoka.

According to Rock Edict 13: “Here in the king’s domain among the Yavanas (Greeks), the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamkits, the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods’ instructions in Dhamma.”

The Satavahanas declared independence sometime after the death of King Ashoka (232 BC), as the Maurya Empire started to weaken.


Indian historical books list 30 Andhra rulers. Many are known from their coins and inscriptions as well. The historical literature lists suggest that Simukha (221-198 BC) was the first ruler of the dynasty, although on the basis of numismatic evidence some scholars have argued that he was preceded by Satavahana 1 (236-221 BC) after whom the dynasty was named.

After becoming independent from Maurya Empire, Simuka conquered Malwa and a major part of Madhya Pradesh. According to Jain traditions, he grew so wicked towards the end of his rein that he was dethroned and killed. He was succeeded by his younger brother Kanha or Krishna, after whom Simukha’s son Satakarni I (180-170 BC) came to the throne.

He was one of the successful rulers of the dynasty. He wrested western Malwa from the Sungas and clashed with the powerful Kalinga ruler Kharavela. His queen Naganika was a distinguished lady of the Maharathi family, and her Naneghat inscription describes him as “Lord of Dakshinapatha, wielder of the unchecked wheel of Sovereignty”.

The sixth ruler of the dynasty Satakarni II (152-96 BC) had a long and eventful rule. According to the Yuga-Purana he annexed Kalinga after the death of Kharavela. He is said to have extended the Satavahana power over Madhya Pradesh, drove the intruding invaders out of Pataliputra, which he held for ten years

He was succeeded by many small rulers. Hala (19-24 A.D) the seventeenth ruler is famous in literature as the compiler of Saptasati in Prakrit. He married a princess from Sri Lanka.

At this stage, the expansion of the Satavahana power received a setback. The Ksaharatas (Ksatrapas or Sakas) under Bhumaka and King Nahapana occupied Malwa, Gujarat, Kathiawar and Maharashtra.

The Satavahana power seemed to have been practically obliterated in the Western India. The eclipse of their power was further aided by the weakness of their rulers.

(Historians reveal that the Saka dynasties as far back as the 5th century BC had political control over Central Asia and the northern subcontinent up to the river Ganges. Later they extended their control to other tracts of the northern subcontinent.

The largest Saka imperial dynasties of Sakasthan include the Satraps (204 BC to 78 AD), Kushanas (50 AD - 380), Virkas (420 AD - 640) while others like the Mauryas (324 - 232 BC) and Dharan-Guptas (320 AD - 515) expanded their empires towards the east.


Gautamiputra Satakarni, 78-102 AD (also known as Shalivahana) was the twenty-third ruler of the Satavahana family. He won great fame as the retriever of the fallen fortunes of the dynasty. The Nasik inscription describes him as the destroyer of the Sakas, Yavanas and the Pahlavas.

He overthrew the Saka dynasty and wrested their Empire. Gautamiputra Satakarni also defeated Saka king Vikramaditya in 78 AD and started the calendar known as Shalivahana era or Saka era, which is followed by the Marathi people and South Indians today as well.

He also seems to have recovered the territories in Central Deccan, which had been lost to the Satavahanas during the inept rule of his predecessors. Under him, the Satavahana arms have reached as far south as Kanchi.

The manifold achievements and accomplishments of Gautamiputra Satakarni are recorded in glowing terms by his mother, Gautami Balasri in an inscription at Nasik.

The Satavahanas are usually thought to be the first native Indian rulers to issue their own coins with portraits of their rulers, starting with king Gautamiputra Satakarni, a practice derived from that of the Western Satraps he defeated, itself originating with the Indo-Greek kings to the northwest

The Satavahana kings are also remarkable for their contributions to Buddhist art and architecture. The great stupas in the Krishna River Valley were built by them, including the stupa at Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh.

Saka Calendar

In Sri Lanka, Saka calendar is used particularly for astrological purposes. In astrology, the sun is observed to travel along the ecliptic. The ecliptic is divided into twelve parts called rashis, starting from the point of Mesha moving eastwards. The names of the rashis correspond to those in the West, and may indicate a common Sumerian origin.

The day on which the sun transits into each rashi before sunset is taken to be the first day of the month. In case the sun transits into a rashi after a sunset but before the next sunrise, then the next day is the first day of the month. (Minor variations on this definition exist.) The days are then labelled 1, 2, 3.... till the first day of the next month.

Thus we get twelve months with varying lengths of 29 to 32 days. This variation in length occurs because the earth’s orbit around the sun is an ellipse, but also because of some variability in the transit point falling before or after sunrise. The months are named by the rashi in which the sun travels in that month.

The solar New Year commences on the first day of the month of Mesha. This year, it occurs around April 14 on the Gregorian calendar.

An annual celebration of the solar festival

Miran Perera - DN Fri Apr 13 2007

NEW YEAR: The Aluth Avurudda is celebrated in the month of Bak according to the Sinhalese calendar. The name Bak derives from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhagya’ meaning fortunate. The month of Bak corresponds to April in the Gregorian calendar which is commonly used in Sri Lanka as it is in other parts of the world.

The Sinhala ‘Aluth Avurudda’ or the ‘Pudhuvaruddam’ as Hindus call it is based on mythology steeped in customs and rituals to be observed in conjunction with astrological phenomena, conforming to the ‘Uttara Bharatha Shastra’ (North Indian School of thought).

This festival marks the dawn of ‘Saka Era’ when Valagambahu alias Vattagamani Abhaya was the king of Sri Lanka. The Bak festive season centres around a national cultural event which is unique in a number of ways. The Sinhala Tamil New Year is probably the only major traditional festival that is commonly observed by the largest number of Sinhalese and Tamils in the country.

The Sinhala Aluth Avurudda is the only solar festival of the Sinhalese based on the transition of the ‘Meena Rashi’ (Pisces) to the ‘Mesha Rashi’ (Aries) of the Zodiac and hence it is known as the ‘Suryadeva Mangalle’ or festival of the Sun God. The festival cannot be described as ethnic because it is celebrated by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils yet not by all of them. Only Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus participate in it.

The Christians in both communities having little to do with it. On the other hand it is a non religious celebration in that not all Buddhists nor all Hindus in the world take part in it. Only the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus do. Another fact that adds to its secular character is that the festival focuses on an event which has no connection with religion or race.

The reverence for ancestral ways backed by customs, ceremonies, rites and rituals has compelled man from antiquity to adhere to basic principles of morality the way of life possessed with good feelings and the practice of forethought including the maintenance of the social order and the ungrudging cooperation in all matters needed to maintain solidarity peace and prosperity among the community.

Thus this national annual festival in April has made every householder begin a new life with a new outlook in the ensuing year by lulling hatred in fullness of spirit.

The Aluth Avurudda is part of our rich cultural heritage which includes among other treasures the historic dagabas, tanks, sculptures, paintings, and specimens of ancient literature. In terms of traditional astrological belief the sun is said to complete one circular movement across the twelve segments of the zodiac in the course of the year taking a month to traverse each constellation.

The arbitrary beginning of this circular solar progress is taken to be Aries (Mesha) which is conventionally represented by the zodiacal sign of the ram. Having travelled from Aries to Pisces the sun must pass from Pisces to Aries to begin a new year.

The Solar New Year is reckoned from this transit or Sankranti which comes a week or two after the beginning of the new year according to the Sinhalese calendar.

Many traditions have come down to us through the ages because they are ingrained in our history and culture. For thousands of years our ancestors, the inhabitants of this island built up a highly organised agrarian civilization based on the principles of harmonious co-existence with nature, non-violence, tolerance and peace.

The Aluth Avurudda wonderfully demonstrates our national ethos with its characteristic emphasis of the renewal and reaffirmation of goodwill within families and among neighbours and in the series of ritualistic practices and observances that are meant to revitalize an essential link between man and nature.

The sighting of the new moon was the first of the Avurudu rites. Then came bathing for the old year as it was called followed by the ‘Nonagate’ period which being considered inauspicious for any form of work was entirely devoted to religious observances and play.

Cooking and partaking of milk rice, starting work for the new year, anointing the head with oil and leaving for work were the other practices. All these rites were performed at astrologically determined auspicious moments. According to the astrological phenomenon the solar system was in existence in Greece followed by the Romans and the Hindus.

The injunction of the Punya Kalaya is a later innovation which has two phases. The first phase is strictly meant for religious observances and the second phase begins with the lighting of the hearth.

The transition of the sun from Pisces to Aries is known popularly as ‘Sankrantiya’ the holy period when all work must cease. The Aluth Avurudda centres on the transit of the sun from Pisces to Aries.

It is remarkable for Sinhalese Buddhists to thus celebrate the beginning of the solar new year rather than that of their own new year. So the Aluth Avurudda appears to be in homage to the Sun God important for an agricultural people.

Some consider the anointing of the head with ‘Nanu’ and bathing thereafter is the most important injunction for health and longevity. Before the approach of the new year during the time of our kings the royal physicians and astrologers had certain duties to perform.

The farmer had to superintend the preparation of 1000 small pot of juice or Nanu of selected wild medicinal plants. These were sent to the palace to be distributed among the temples in the neighbourhood.

Today the Nanu is made of Kohomba Kola, Imbul Kola, Divul Kola and Amukaha, mixed with either coconut oil or gingelly oil added with lime juice. This Nanu is usually prepared in temples or even at home. Usually a grandfather in good health is selected to anoint the head while saying ‘Kalu Kaputa Sudu Venaturu, Kikili Bijuva Pelavenaturu’ until the pestle bears tender leaves let thy age be increased from 120 to 220 years.

Although belief in astrology and other occult sciences is contrary to the spirit of Buddhism in the villages it was the Buddhist priests who prepared the medicinal oils in the temples and applied these on the heads of people while chanting pirith so as to ensure health for the whole year. These Aluth Avurudu traditions touched every important aspect of lives, health, economy, religion and recreation.

Children and adults walk in gay abandon about the village dressed in their new clothes visiting friends and relatives amidst the cacophony of ‘Raban’ playing and the sound of fire crackers set off everywhere.

The aroma of savory dishes and the smell of sweet meats arise from every household. Visitors are plied with all sorts of sweets. Amidst all this visiting, playing and merry making everybody is careful to be at home for the observance of the rites at the appointed times.

The principal injunctions to be observed during the new year are (1) Looking at the moon to mark the new year (2) Bathing to mark the passing year (3) Punya Kalaya (4) Lighting of the hearth, eating the usual kiribath (5) Transacting business of commencing work (6) Anointing the head with ‘Nanu’ or herbal medicated oil and bathing thereafter (7) Leaving home for work in the New Year. Of these the injunctions compulsorily followed are (3) (4) and (5).

Above all lighting the hearth at the auspicious time is strictly followed by housewives irrespective of caste or religion in order to keep the fires burning without a breach as a sign of prosperity.

During the ‘Punya Kalaya’ or the time set apart for religious observances all mothers consider it compulsory that they should take their children to the nearest temple along with other women of the household. They think that they should spend the time in temples.

But as we usually observe the majority of the males keep aloof and prefer to stay at home, making use of the interval for outdoor activities. The new year has made man to follow certain rituals at different times, to fix him on a time scale based on stars, planets, asterisms etc... prognosticating good and avoiding evil.

Although there is usually little conspicuous seasonal change experienced in the course of the year in Sri Lanka except for a relatively hot August and relatively cool December the month of Bak is associated with a certain vernal atmosphere an unusual freshness in nature enhanced by spring blossoms and azure skies despite occasional showers.

This is also the time the ripened paddy is gathered in which gives rise to a perversive sense of plenty especially to rural Sri Lanka. During New Year children enjoy their school vacation. The elders install ‘onchillas’ and ‘katuru onchillas’ to swing for pleasure which are mostly used by women and young girls. The ‘rabana’ is a kind of drum usually played by elders and old women using different strokes to show how clever they are.

It is placed on three logs with burning charcoal underneath to heat the skin for better sound. Others organise themselves in playing games such as ‘Ankeliya’, ‘Kalagedi Sellama’, ‘Olinda Keliya’, Mewara Keliya, Udekki Sellama ‘Leekeli Sellama’, Polgehima, Katti Penima, Dadu Keliya, Kottapora Sellama etc... which keep the whole village in a happy mood.

The exchange of betel leaves is a way to lull hatred. Children who are employed offer new clothes to parents which are accepted with blessings. Most of those who still follow the Avurudu customs do so as a concession to tradition out of a sense of nostalgia.

The Sinhala New Year festival still remains a powerful symbol of renewal of hope for the future and reaffirmation of our bond with nature and our commitment to the time honoured values of our fore bearers. It is truly a celebration of life.

In the face of the inexorable advance of modernism and globalisation facing our country, making a threat to cultural obliteration and loss of national identity, the adherence to tradition following ancient customs of the Sinhala New Year make survive values enshrined in our society.

Incomparable customs of Hela Avurudu of Sinhala and Tamil communities

By Len Ranjith Mahaarachchi - DM Fri Apr 13 2007


Though the calendar year universally commences on 1st January and ends on 31st December, various nationalities throughout the globe follow different reckonings distinct from this standard frame of 1st January to 31st December. What is currently followed globally is the Christian calendar beginning from the Birth of Christ. This era is separated as BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini).and we are today in the year 2007 AD.

From ancient times, it is the Sun that has been the base on which time and seasons were counted upon. The Sun was God to the primitive races that inhabited planet earth. The ancient Egyptians adored it while the Romans called the Sun God “Ra”. In fact there was festivity when the sun rose to its heights, and a festival titled “Saturnalia” in honour of the Sun God was kept. In fact it was this festival that later came to be celebrated as Christmas by the 3rd century Christian community in Rome.

Though the current 12 months are solar months, what prevailed earlier in most countries was Lunar months and all dating was based on the Lunar calendar system. But from the beginning, time has been measured astronomically according to the revolutions of the sun and moon and to the recurring celestial phenomena. As distinct from the Christian era, we also have now the Buddhist era, Hindu era etc. The Chinese for example have there own New Year not taking the January – December cycle into reckoning.

Just as the Christians count their era from the birth of Jesus, the Buddhists do from the demise of Lord Buddha in 543 BC. The Hindus begin from the Saka era which is the date of the coronation of King Kanishka in India in AD 78. Meanwhile the Muslims count from the flight (Hijra) of the prophet from Mecca to Medina in AD 622, which is called the Mohammedan era. The ancient world counted the years from the date of creation in 5508 BC and calls it the Constantinople era. The Romans counted it from the founding of Rome in 753 BC. The first era made use of by the Greeks was that of the Olympias. All these boiled down to the new Christian era in 394 AD.

Coming to our own country, Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Hindus celebrate the New Year on the 13th and 14th of April. In fact the Jews of the Old Testament counted their new year from the month of Nisan, which is April. We have it in the Bible at Exodus chapter 12, where God Himself tells the Chosen race, through Moses and Aaron, that “ This month ( Nisan which is Bak to us) shall be the first month of the year to you. “ (vs, 1 – 7), They were to sacrifice a lamb in celebration of the new year. This feast is called the Passover. After Christ this date ceased to have any meaning and the Christian community throughout the world celebrate the New Year on 1st January as said earlier.

April 13th marks the journey of the Sun from Meena to Mesha, in the Zodiac. This is commonly called ‘Sankranthiya”.

For us Sri Lankans it is a national event and all Lankans join irrespective of ethnic or religious differences. India and Burma are two countries that celebrate this New Year.

The traditions associated with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year are manifold colourful and meaningful too. Auspicious times take pride of place in the celebrations. All rituals are carried out to precision at times prescribed by astrologers ahead of the beginning of the year. The inauspicious time is time is called the “Nonagatha” which means no nakatha , and hence is prescribed to attend to religious ceremonies. Since we are an agricultural people, the journey of the sun has much significance to our social life. Fortunately the period comes in the wake of the “Maha” harvest, when paddy is collected and stored and it is time for a well earned rest for the farming community. The cynosure of the whole fest, is the getting together of the family members. The father of the family and men folk who are out of the village most of the time during the year, return home to spend the festival with home folk. There is jollity everywhere, the children are the happiest. The women folk are a busy tribe long before the dawn of the great day. They are engaged in making sweet meats.

For us in Sri Lanka it is the cuckoo who heralds the new year dawn. He is the harbinger of the new season called Wasanthaya. It is said that if two swallows do not make a summer, a single koha (cuckoo) will announce the Aluth Avuruddha. Rituals associated with the New Year begin with bathing and end with the first journey to work after the new year has dawned. The bathing is on the last day of the old year.

Viewing the new moon is another ritual. The village temple is the heart of the New Year celebrations, and bells are rung to announce the dawn of another Aluth Avuruddha. The first item in the agenda, is the lighting of the fire place with newly kindled fire. New clothes with the prescribed colours is as important as any else. Gifts are exchanged and old animosities are forgiven and forgotten. The women beat the drum to announce joyfully the advent of the Avurudu Kumaraya. Prime among the rituals is the first meal of the year, where the family gathers and all enjoy the company of each other. Old quarrels are forgotten for a while and children go down on their knees to worship the father and the mother and other elders.

No other society can equal the customs of the Hela Avurudhu of the Sinhala, Tamil communities. New clothes is another marked aspect of the new year celebrations. Games where adults and old men and women too, join are also part and parcel of the celebrations. The anointing with a herbal mixture is performed in the temple or by an elder in the home.

The celebrations terminate with visits to relations with gifts and sweetmeats. Even during the occupation of this country by foreigners, the Lankans celebrated the avurudhu festival, for Robert Knox has said that the “Sinhala New Year is the greatest feast of the Sinhala race.” It is a happy augury that what was exclusively celebrated by the Hindus and Buddhists as New Year, now is being joined by the Christian communities, both Tamil and Sinhala. The mood of the occasion is such that none can stay aloof, isolated or dissociate themselves with the din that is annually made. Today the Sinhala Avuruddha has become a national fiesta engaging all in celebration of family and togetherness and harmony between all communities...