By Lakruwan de Silva
The Sinhalese Buddhists are heirs to an old hydraulic civilization. We were the sole custodians of Theravada Buddhism after it had ebbed in India and transmitted it to Myanmar and Thailand. It is interesting therefore that we now celebrate the Hindu solar New Year as our new year. We have forgotten our own lunar calendar.
April 14 does not mark the Sinhalese New Year! It is the Tamil Hindu New Year instead. Our new year falls on the new moon of the lunar month of Bak. This happened to be on 19th March, 2007 this year. Let me refer you to the traditional Sinhalese almanac i.e. the Lipa.
The Theravada Buddhist calendar is a lunar one. Each month starts with the new moon, peaks at the full moon and then wanes until the next new moon which signifies the start of the succeeding month. The first month of the Buddhist lunar year is “Bak”. The first day of the lunar month of Bak fell this year on 19th March, 2007. 14 April this year happens to be the 27th of Bak! It is clearly not the start of the Sinhalese calendar! Further the 17th of April marks the first day of the lunar month of Vesak – the second month in the Sinhalese calendar.
The Hindu solar calendar by contrast follows the signs of the traditional zodiac and commences when the sun enters the sign of Mesha or Aries on the 14th of April each year.
It is ironic that the Sinhalese now observe the Hindu solar calendar where the first day of the first solar month i.e. “Chitterai” falls each year on 14 April. This is the Tamil New Year! The Tamil Hindu calendar is a solar one. This explains the auspicious times, the punya kala, the precise time that the traditional new year dawns, the head annointing ceremony with herbal oil, the ganu-denu/kaivishesham etc which have more to do with Hindu tradition than Buddhism. Buddhism has no concept of auspicious times – all times in fact are auspicious for the Dharma.
14 April is also observed as the traditional New Year in Assam, Bengal, Orissa, Kerala, Nepal and Punjab. This is in keeping with their solar Hindu traditions.
It is ironic that the Sinhalese people celebrate the New Year on 14 April and failed to observe 19 March this year as the start of the lunar calendar.
It is evident that the Hindu solar calendar, not the Buddhist lunar calendar, is now used to calculate the Sinhalese New Year. The Sinhalese seem to get more enthusiastic about the traditional Tamil New Year in a manner that even Wesak does not witness. I explain this with reference to the Nayakkar interlude in the Kandyan kingdom that commenced in 1739 AD when the Sinhalese people adopted South Indian customs and traditions wholesale. The Nayakkars had their origins in Tanjore in South India. This could also be due to South Indian influence during the time of Gampola dynasty when Generals like Alakeshwara who had their origins in Kerala fought the Kingdom of Jaffna between 1396 and 1408 AD. This led to considerable Dravidian influence on the Sinhalese cultural matrix.
It is time to acknowledge the Tamil Hindu roots of the current Sinhalese festivities be it the traditional New Year on April 14, the Kandy Esala Perahera (Adi Vel) and the Aluth Sahal Mangalya (Pongal).