Today, is the traditional New Year of Sri Lanka (celebrated mainly by Sinhalese and Tamils – hence’ Aluth Avurudu’ as it called in Sinhala). Except for the song of the Koel – all the other Nature’s symbols of Avurudu including the crimson blossoms of Erabadu, ripen Kadju Puhulam, Olinda and Panchi games are now getting a rare sight. Likewise traditions related to water has become another set of customs that has been faded away.
I still recall my childhood where Avurudu was different than today. It was changing times in early ‘80s, yet many of the Avurudu customs were practiced in my village. With few days to Avuduru our houses have been washed those days as a custom. Mopping with wet broom has become the way to clean your floor nowadays, but the whole house has to be washed by water before the Avurudu on a self-imposed Avurudu ritual of our village community. The floors were either not tiled those days, so washing the whole floor infact meant ultimate cleaning to welcome the prince of Avurudu.
The kitchen which was already been heavily used in the making of Avurudu kevili and also a centric piece of upcoming events was the place lots of cleaning required. There were no fancy chemicals available for cleaning that time, so Coconut husks are been used to wipe out the patches and layers of dirt accumulated in the floor over last year. Though it could have been a difficult task for my parents, this ritual of washing the house provided us play time bringing first cycle of avurudu fun. We didn’t have pipe-bourn water on those good old days, so had to use the hand dug water well for all the household water needs. Usually our task was to fetch water from the well and bring them to the house.
The well was located about 30 feet away from the house, so we get soaked when the task is still halfway. Sometimes we make nasty throw splashing water all over at the time we had to take a shout from parents. But parents who shout on other days for playing with water are tolerant on getting ourselves soaked, so we enjoyed this watery custom very much.
‘Ganu-denu’ with water
Washing of the house was only the first direct Avurudu ritual been practiced with water, but there were more to come. Soon after finishing the eating at auspicious time brings the ‘ganu-denu’ tradition of doing the first transaction of the New Year. I can still recall I went to our dug well with my father, throw a coin to the well and fetched a bucket of water to mark the ‘ganu-denu’. Few jasmine flowers too has been thrown into water to mark the occasion. Though mother earth would not expect any payments for the service it rendered, this has symbolized our gratitude to the well which is the most important lifeline that helps to quench all our water needs through. So getting the well too into the Avurudu rituals was a really meaningful tradition.
But then, we had moved to Colombo. There were no water well, but we had the luxury of the pipe-bourn water in the city. Last year when made my Avurudu visits to meet relations, I’ve visited our well that has been a center of Avurudu activities long ago. My heart sank seeing the neglected state of water well which was once a lifeline. There were wild shrubs surround it. The petals of flowers and dried leaves seeped through the mesh that has been put on top covering it. There were dengue inspectors looking for mosquito breeding grounds, so my neighbor has put some ‘guppy’ fish who had multiplied in numbers.
Our water well just reminded me a retarded, unshaven old man that has been completely neglected. I remember how much we care about the well those days. We used to completely empty the water well during dry season when water is limited and cleaned it properly. The sand in the top layer of the floor bed that contains particles accumulated over the year too has been removed. A freshly prepared charcoal and few jasmine flowers were put down into the well as we believe those had water purification qualities. After this cleaning, the well looked like very clean like giving its annual shave and haircut.
I had second thoughts last year that we should do this cleanup again. But neighbor stopped us. “Water in our wells is polluted. So these are now not in drinking conditions” he said. It was found some chemicals from a nearby paint factory have been carelessly released to the bare soil contaminating the ground water. Water wells dug by hand draws water from the first layers of ground water which could be the most affected with pollution. So this should be the case in many areas in Sri Lanka too.
Many of us had made the water wells into garbage pits, when pipe-Bourne water reached our houses. It was sort of a marking of the development for and filling-up the well symbolized some sort of a step up of the social hierarchy for many. But there is also some traditional knowledge linked with water wells. Our grandparents knew how to find the best location on their lands to dig the water well. They came to this conclusion by looking at specific plants grown in different areas in the garden. They knew trees like Kumbuk makes the water more purify and keeps water cool. They also knew that charcoal has water purification qualities. And they also had the techniques to dig the ground and make its walls safe. So it is not only the water well that disappears with our change of livelihood. It is whole traditional knowledge too will be lost from next generation.
Avurudu traditions moving away from our traditions with water always make a void. So perhaps, Avurudu season could be the best time to pass this knowledge to the next generation – perhaps that could be the least minimum we could do to preserve these changing traditions..!!
(The New Year dawned few hours ago and this is my ‘First Post’ for the New Year)