Our new staff member Aurelie from France tells us about her incredible homestay with a local family during traditional New Year in Sri Lanka:
I’ve been working in Sri Lanka since February this year. Even though I’ve visited the island a couple of times before coming to work here, I’ve never been here in April. So I was quite surprised to find out about an upcoming “New Year” celebration with lovely decorations everywhere. In April, really? It turns out, the Sinhala and Tamil communities of the island celebrate traditional New Year in April each year. It’s an absolutely fascinating cultural event that I got the chance to witness firsthand. My super-duper colleague Anto arranged a homestay for me on April 13 and 14 to witness the festivities, which mostly take place at home. I want to give a huge public “thank you” to the Samarasinghe (I hope I spelled it right) family who so graciously hosted me.
My host family was located at a Colombo suburb called Ethul Kotte. The neighborhood is so close to the island’s capital but remains quintessentially local without any tourist attractions or ostentatious buildings. The three Samarasinghes—mother, father and 10-year-old daughter—warmly welcomed me into their humble home with a steaming cup of tea. When I arrived, on 13th morning, everyone was busy cleaning. They explained that 13th is “Parana Avurudu”, or the Old Year. It’s customary to give one’s home a “new look” on this day and clean up.
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s economic capital.
I got to enjoy a delicious homemade Sri Lankan rice and curry meal for lunch. Mrs. Samarasinghe served me a pile of rice with like ten different curries. Once the cleaning was done, Mr. Samarasinghe announced that it was time for the Old Year bathing ritual. He referred to an almanac cut out from a newspaper he said contained all the auspicious times and instructions for performing the various New Year rituals. Auspicious times pre-designated by astrologers are ardently followed throughout the event. The bathing ritual was done with special water infused with herbs and wood apple leaves. My host family was kind enough to reserve some special water for me too, and I smelled wonderfully aromatic for the rest of the day. That night, we all gathered in the small front garden to view the moon, another customary practice.
Yummy, the rice and curry meal was delicious!
The following day, 14th, was the important day. Everyone was dressed in brand-new clothes in many shades of red—the color for this New Year. Mrs. Samarasinghe had laid out a shiny white tablecloth on their dining table and had placed a big clock on it. There are strict times to observe for the rituals. Breakfast was served really early at 6.30 a.m. because at 7.23 a.m. the “nonagatha” time would begin, a neutral time without eating, working or studying. 7.23 a.m. dawned with loud noises of firecrackers. Mr. Samarasinghe said in villages the ritual times were announced with drumbeats and the temple bells ringing. But in the city, this has been replaced by firecrackers and the television. After the family lit an oil lamp for the Buddha shrine in the backyard and said some chants, we spent the time talking and watching New Year specials on television (which I didn’t understand but the programs looked nice).
These flowers grew everywhere in the garden.
At 1.47 p.m. sharp loud firecrackers announced the end of “neutral time” and of course, the dawn of the New Year. We all gathered in the living room to see milk being boiled until it spilled over, which indicated good luck for the upcoming year. At 2.05 p.m., Mrs. Samarasinghe rushed to the kitchen to prepare her clay stove. She faced east and began to cook milk rice and “hath maluwa,” a curry with seven vegetables served specially on New Year. The TV began counting down to 2.42 p.m. for the highlight of the New Year—the time to feast. With less than an hour to prepare, everyone hastily helped Mrs. Samarasinghe and brought dishes and dishes of food and mouthwatering traditional sweetmeats to the dining table. The much-awaited time was announced with firecrackers even louder than before. Mr. Samarasinghe lit an oil lamp, also facing east, and fed the first piece of milk rice to his daughter, then his wife and offered me a piece before he ate one himself. Then we all sat down and feasted till our stomachs felt like bursting.
Delicious food of the New Year!
After the meal, many neighbors and relatives arrived bearing plates of food and gifts in brown paper bags. There was a lot of chatter and many questions directed at me. The Samarasinghes were kind enough to give me a gift too (lovely, and I felt pretty bad that I hadn’t brought anything with me to give back). More relatives arrived in the afternoon and more sweetmeats and tea were served. I left that evening feeling very lucky to have witnessed such an amazing event.