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Sinhala New Year and Traditional Food Culture By. Kusumalatha Lankamulla.


In accordance with the Astrology, we the Sri Lankans used to celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year annually.  As explained in the Astrology, it is believed that the sun moves from the house of Pisces to the house of Aries in the Celestial and the dawn of new year occurs during this transitional period.

Usually, the new year is celebrated on 13th and 14th April (Bak) of every year.  This month is considered as a prosperous period, since people live leisurely after harvesting.  During this period, the climate is so hot since the sun moves straight over the country.

The new year commences during the first part of the Sinhala month called Bak.  Another name for this month is Bhaga.

There is a famous word among the public related to new year celebration called “Avurudu Kema” (Enjoying food).  This is a good evidence to explain the relationship between the Sinhala New Year and enjoying food.  Since there is a close relationship between the Sri Lankan food culture and the housewife, she is given a prominent place in the Sinhala-Tamil New Year.

After dawn of the new year, the first task of the year is lighting the hearth according to the auspicious time and boiling milk.  Subsequently, people used to prepare milk rice (Kiri Bath) from the harvest obtained from their paddy fields.  Through these rituals, people believe that there won’t be a food shortage in their houses throughout the year.  In this task, all family members customary assist the housewife (mother) to do everything in perfect manner.

In the preparation of milk rice, the directions and advices given in Astrology need to be adopted properly.  The other main items that mix with the milk rice include sesame, green gram, jaggery and honey.

In some areas “Hath Maluwa” (curry made with seven vegetables) is mixed with milk rice.  The varieties of vegetables used for Hath maluwa are different from area to area.  In common, Hath maluwa includes vegetables, cereal, yam and cashew etc.

According to Sri Lankan custom, people are not confined to eat only milk rice.   The Avurudu table which comprises a number of sweet items, is a major decorative part of the new year festival.  Among the sweet items of the Avurudu table Konda Kevum, Kokis, Asmee, Mun Kevum and Athirasa are prominent.  In addition, it can be observed that there are sweet items which are particular to different areas.  For example, Unduwel or Pani Walalu and Naran Kevum in Kandy, Kalu Dodol and Mungedi in Dakunu Giruwapattu and Ruhunu Magampattu areas, Kiri Roti and Amara kevum in Sath Koralaya, and Thala or Kaju Aluwa in Nuwara Kalaviya can be especially cited.  In Chillaw area, house-wives used to prepare Meegamu Aluwa for the Avurudu table.

Once the Avurudu table is prepared in accordance with the rituals, the food items are consumed by the family members at the auspicious time.  The bread winner or father of the family feeds his wife and children, adhering to directions given in the Astrology.  Once the consumption by family members is over, spouses mutually exchange money (Ganu-denu) using betel leaves.  However, in some areas this ritual is different and family members invite an elite of the village to open the Avurudu table and do monetory transactions or Ganu-denu.  The whole objective of this new year rituals is managing the year with good harvest and income, without any economic difficulties.

Traditional Sinhalese people did not celebrate the new year in isolation.  The main reason associated with this practice was their livelihood in agriculture on which mainly based on mutual labour exchange.  Since the traditional agricultural activities were collective effort of the villagers, they used to celebrate the new year in harmony.  This was evident from the practices related to food culture in the country.

According to the folk song called “Avurudu Malaya” there was a strong relationship between the Sinhala new year and food culture.  After harvesting, the economy of the villagers was prosperous and their homes were full of home grown food items.  As explained in the above folk song, although, the Sinhalese villagers used to consume Sinhala rice, Samba rice was also given a prominent place in the Avurudu table.  The verses of the Avurudu Malaya tell that a wide range of items namely betel, areca, lime, tobacco, salt, chilies, fish, pork flesh, beef, chicken, rabbit flesh, and venison were bought by villagers for new year celebration.

According to the same source, the other food items associated with new year celebration included Alukesel, Navari, Bathala, Arthapal, Arisi,  kohila, Murunga, Thumba, Batu, Annasi, Pathola, Labu, Puhul, Dun Thel, Hun Kiri, Sukiri, Siyanseeni, Galkandu, Belimal, Koopi and number of fruits.

Avurudu Malaya tells us that beef was consumed by villagers during the new year season.  This food item was introduced by the Portuguese.  However, before arrival of the Portuguese, Sinhala people strongly condemned the consumption of beef, labeling it as “geri mas”.

It is obvious that Sinhalese people have used to include a lot of food items in the celebration of Sinhala new year.  According to traditional folk songs, a large variety of food items (fruits, vegetables and beverages) were consumed by our ancient people.

In Sri Lankan culture, it was apparent that different foods were distributed among different strata of the society.  The ancient village comprised different types of people and they provided different kinds of services to the society.  As explained in Avurudu Malaya, different foods were used to provide among different service providers.  For example, a native doctor was offered food items such as fish, salt, undu and green gram during the new year season.  The service of the exorcists was also very important in the traditional village.   Therefore, he was given special food items to compensate his service to the society.  Oil cake and plantains were provided to exorcists.

The astrologist was also similarly important character in the traditional village, because he provided a special service with regard to preparation of Avurudu Seettu.  To compensate his service, food items like rice, coconut, salt, chillies and sweet items were offered to him.  These food distributions were called “Dakum” in the traditional Society.

Traditionally, there were different professionals who dealt with different crafts in ancient villages.  The villages provided “Dakum” for them as well.  Among these items salt, tobacco, rice, paddy were important.  Linen washers (Redi Nanda and Mama) were also very important service providers in the traditional society.  Their services by way of providing clothes (Priuwata) for social events like funerals, weddings and puberty were essential in the traditional society.  During the new year season, they were provided with food items and money by the villagers who obtained their services.

As explained by the verses in Avurudu Malaya, it is obvious that there was a strong relationship between traditional food culture and human culture.  Traditional Sinhalese people did every thing in collective manner with the support of family, village and temple.  The main bridge of this collective life was a food culture, inherited by the traditional villagers.


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