"Sinhala and Tamil New Year" redirects here. For Tamil New Year, see Tamil New Year.
|Sinhalese New Year|
සිංහල අලුත් අවුරුද්ද
|Official name||Aluth Avurudda|
|Also called||Sinhala and Tamil New Year|
Sinhala and Hindu New Year
|Observed by||Sinhalese people worldwide [N 1]|
|Celebrations||Games, family gathering, family meal, visiting friends and relatives, prayer|
|Observances||The observed movement of the sun from Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries)|
Marks the end of the harvest season
|Date||April 13 or 14, an auspicious date in the month of Bak (April) (by the Shalivahana era)|
|2017 date||14 April, Rooster|
|2018 date||14 April, Dog|
|Related to||Bengali New Year, Burmese New Year, Cambodian New Year, Dai New Year, Lao New Year, Tai Khamti New Year, Tamil New Year, Thai New Year|
Sinhalese New Year, generally known as Aluth Avurudda (Sinhalese: අලුත් අවුරුද්ද) in Sri Lanka, is a Sri Lankan holiday that celebrates the traditional New Year of the Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka. It is a major anniversary celebrated by not only the Sinhalese people but by most Sri Lankans. The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the new year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. The festival has close semblance to the Tamil New year and other South and Southeast Asian New Years. It is a public holiday in Sri Lanka. It is generally celebrated on 13 April or 14 April and traditionally begins at the sighting of the new moon.
According to Sinhalese astrology, New Year begins when the sun moves from Meena Rashiya (the house of Pisces) to Mesha Rashiya (the house of Aries). It also marks the end of the harvest season and of spring.
Cultural anthropological history of the 'Traditional New Year' which is celebrated on month of April, goes back to an ancient period in Sri Lankan history. People think that the celebration of new year is the change of thoughts too. Various beliefs, perhaps those associated with fertility of the harvest, gave birth to many rituals, customs, and ceremonies connected with the New Year. The advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC led to a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in the Buddhism light. The majority of the people in the country are Buddhists, and as such, the Buddhistic outlook was predominant in transforming the New Year rites to what they are now.
Hinduism, on the other hand, existed side by side with Buddhism, in medieval times. New Year practices interpreted in the Hinduism way developed among the Hindus. Buddhism and Hinduism were historically connected with each other. Their philosophies were running along parallel dimensions, except for certain ultimate truths concerning the self, the way to achieve emancipation and the nature of a creative god (which Buddhism denies) and nirvana . There was no serious contradiction in New Year rituals that are found among the Buddhists and Hindus.
The mythological backdrop of the New Year is probably based on Hindu literature. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva descends upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness. He comes in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first dips, like a returning space capsule plunges, breaking earth's gravity, into a `Kiri Sayura' or sea of milk.
Modern day activities related to the celebration of the traditional New Year is based on auspicious times given by the astrologers. The New Year celebration therefore can be thought as a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions.
In month of Bak which represents prosperity in the Sinhalese calendar (or in the month of April according to the Gregorian calendar), is when the sun moves (in an astrological sense) from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries) in the celestial sphere; Sri Lankan people of Sri Lanka begin celebrating Sinhala New Year or Aluth Avurudu (in Sinhala). It marks the end of the harvest season and also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka.
However, unlike the celebration of the new Gregorian calendar year at midnight on December 31, the Sinhalese traditional New Year begins at a time determined by astrological calculations. Also unlike 31st night celebrations, where old year ends at midnight and new year begins immediately afterwards; the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart from one another (this span of time is usually 12 hours and 48 minutes, which starts when the sun, as a disk, starts to cross the astrological boundary between 'House of Pisces' and 'House of Aries' and ends when the crossing is complete. The halfway point is considered as the dawn of the new year). This period is, referred to as the Nonagathe (or the 'neutral period' or 'Auspicious Time' ). During this time Sri Lankans are, according to tradition, encouraged to refrain from material pursuits, and engage solely in either religious activities or traditional games.
Cultural rituals begin shortly after the beginning of the Sinhalese New Year with the cleaning of the house and lighting of an oil lamp. In some communities, women congregate to play upon the Raban (type of a drum) to announce the incipient change in the year. All the families as one carries out variety of rituals in exact timings of which are determined by astrological calculations - from lighting the fire to making the Kiribath (milk rice) to entering into the first business transaction and eating the first morsels. The rituals vary slightly based on the locale. However the core of the celebrations remains the same.
The approach of the each auspicious time for various rituvals is heralded by the unmistakable sign of very loud firecrackers. Although loud firecrackers are an environmental concern, and a safety hazard, especially for children, this remains an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
Once the important rituals are done, the partying begins as families mingle in the streets, homes are thrown open and children are let out to play. The ubiquitous plantain is dished out alongside celebratory feasts of Kavum (small oil cake) and Kokis (crisp and light sweetmeat, originally from the Netherlands). However, the extent of outdoor activities depends largely on the neighborhood. The suburban communities tend to have such social gatherings than urban or city dwellers. The blossoming of the flowers of the Yak Erabadu is associated with the advent of the Sinhalese New Year.
Aluth Aurudu is an important national holiday for both the cultures of the Sinhalese people and the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. The celebrations are given wide coverage and patronage from state owned media as well as private media.
The date upon which the Sinhalese New Year occurred, while determined by astrological calculations, also tends to coincide with one of the paddy harvest seasons. For farming communities, the traditional new year is a festival of harvest as well.
A type of cuckoo bird, the Asian koel, has a strong association with the new year celebrations in traditional literature around the festival period. The mating season of the bird roughly coincides with the festival season. The mating call of the male is regarded as a heralding sign of the traditional new year. This bird is known as the Koha (කොහා) in Sri Lanka by the Sinhala language. The melodious call Koo-ooo of the male bird is heard throughout Sri Lanka during the breeding season of the bird that roughly spans from March to August.
Related holidays in other cultures
Aluth Avurudda coincides with the new years in many other Southern Asian calendars, including:
- Assamese New Year, or Rongali Bihu (India'sAssam state)
- Bengali New Year, or Pohela Boishakh (Bangladesh and India'sWest Bengal state)
- Burmese New Year, or Thingyan (Burma)
- Khmer New Year, or Chol Chnam Thmey (Cambodia)
- Lao New Year, or Songkan / Pi Mai Lao (Laos)
- Malayali New Year, or Vishu (India'sKerala state)
- Odia New Year, or Maha Vishuva Sankranti (India'sOdisha state)
- Nepali New Year, or Bikram Samwat / Vaishak Ek (Nepal)
- Vishu (India'sKerala state)
- Tamil New Year, or Puthandu (India'sTamil Nadu state and Sri Lanka Tamil people)
- Thai New Year, or Songkran (Thailand)
- Tuluva New Year, or Bisu (India'sKarnataka state)
- Maithili New Year, or Jude Shital (Mithila)
With the lamprais in the backseat, I could barely focus on anything else. The modest parcel of food wrapped in a banana leaf, freshly baked and still warm to the touch, was demanding my complete sensory attention. The mildly woody smell of the banana leaf mingled with the unmistakable aroma of meat, and like a gentle cloud the fragrance wafted up and settled comfortably in the car for the remainder of my journey home. They say you eat with your eyes first, but in this case it was the aroma of the lamprais in my backseat that had me hooked.
Being led by my nose alone, I was tempted to draw a parallel between lamprais, a rich dish of savory rice and mixed meat (along with vegetable curries and condiments) baked in a banana leaf and another South Asian cult classic that hinges on the same two principal elements—the biryani. Complex, nuanced, and painstaking to prepare, the biryani and the lamprais share several similarities.
But while the biryani is robust in public memory, imbued with the pride of all the communities in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even Sri Lanka who claim it as their own, the lamprais tells a wholly different tale. Gifted to the Sri Lankan food lexicon by the Dutch Burghers, a small group of European-origin settlers who have called the island nation home since the 16th century, the lamprais now serves as a fragile thread that is keeping the once vibrant community from being forgotten altogether.
Derived from the Dutch burg, or city, the word burgher translates to the “citizens” or “residents of a city.” However, sometime during the period between the 15th and 17th centuries, when Dutch ships set forth to establish a mercantile empire in Asia, the word came to be used to describe a new middle class composed of traders.
Many of these merchants, drawn not just from Holland but also from other northern European nations such as Germany, Britain, and France, joined the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, established in 1602. Their first port of call was Batavia—now Jakarta—on the island of Java in present-day Indonesia, which served as the VOC’s headquarters. Having established a strong command center, the VOC eventually wrested control of the lucrative spice trade in Ceylon from the Portuguese in 1640.
Over the next century that the Dutch ruled over Ceylon, the Dutch Burghers came to be loosely identified as a new social group of mixed northern European ethnicity intermingled with strands of Portuguese and Sinhalese lineage, acquired through intermarriage with the local population. When the VOC was dissolved in 1800, a few Dutch Burghers chose to stay behind in their adoptive homeland, negotiating a complex identity that was neither entirely European nor completely Sri Lankan in its ethos. Out of this mash-up of cultural and culinary influences was born the lamprais.
I heard of lamprais during numerous visits to Sri Lanka after I married a half-Sri Lankan whose roots are in Colombo. Many friends there spoke of it with the kind of fondness that you reserve for very special treats, like a delectable chocolate cake your mother bakes once in a while. Yet it wasn’t until five months ago, when I left behind the familiar flavors of my native India to move to Colombo, that I had my first real taste of the dish. Eager to gain some foothold in a new culture, I began my explorations of it in the way that felt most familiar to me—by eating.
It was on one of these culinary journeys that I tried what you could call an authentic lamprais. While my modest appetite ensured that I barely made a dent in the substantial portion of rice, I remember being instantly intrigued by the intense and contrasting flavors that made their way into each mouthful. Together with homemade ginger beer, another Dutch Burgher specialty, it was a meal full of surprises. It piqued my interest enough to want to learn more about the community and what is arguably their most famous dish.
During my travels around Colombo in search of a good lamprais, I was routinely amazed by one fact: the number of elements that are neatly tucked into a packet that is barely larger than an adult’s hand. Inside each meticulously wrapped parcel sits a small mound of unctuous short-grained rice cooked in meat stock. A rich, deep-brown mixed-meat curry, usually a combination of chicken, pork, and beef, moistens the rice. The brown-and-white palette of the curry and rice camouflages the other accoutrements.
There is vambatu moju, a sweet-sour pickled-aubergine dish with the sharp tang of white vinegar; seeni sambol, a condiment made of caramelized onions speckled with bonito flakes and a smidgen of prawn blachang,or dried prawn relish. Two small frikkadels, or crisp-fried meatballs, crown the complex offering. The lamprais doesn’t lend itself to niceties: The best way to savor it is to mix everything well and eat it with your fingers, so that the peppery heat of the curry is undercut by the sweet moju, and the fishy seeni sambol is complemented by the blachang, which packs a mighty umami punch.
It’s clear from its sheer construction that even in a more leisurely era, lamprais warranted sufficient effort to be considered a special-occasion meal. “Lamprais was a Sunday speciality, which all the ladies of the extended family got together to make,” Deloraine Brohier, historian and author of “A Taste of Sugar & Spice,” a rare resource on Dutch Burgher cuisine, told me in 2014. Brohier died in April at the age of 89.
In her 2012 book, the 86-year-old Brohier describes the preparation of almost theatrical scale that went into making each element of the lamprais when she was growing up in Colombo. “The night before, shin and meat were boiled for about two hours; and the meat, we must bear in mind, was not just beef but a medley of meats—chicken, pork, beef, and mutton. The same night the plantain leaves would be washed, cleaned, and left to dry. Some long-grained rice too was cleaned, washed, and set aside.” Lamprais was the social glue that brought Dutch Burgher families together to partake in the communal pleasures of cooking and eating.
It seems counterintuitive that a delicacy that was prepared in such ample quantities should be doled out in snack-size portions. Why couldn’t all the elements just be served individually? I asked Brohier with genuine puzzlement. “But the whole fun of it was to see who ate the maximum number of packets!” she exclaimed, with a mischievous sparkle in her blue eyes. “My cousins and I would count the number of empty leaves—they used to say that the boys could eat up to 12 lamprais each while the girls ate six.” Apart from spurring hunger games, the banana leaves, washed and gently warmed over an open flame to make them more pliable, sealed together the flavors of the constituent elements. The baking process rendered them into a comprehensive whole.
In a more figurative sense, the banana leaf wrapping helped to keep secure the strands of the various cuisines that the Dutch Burghers borrowed from to create the lamprais. Much of Sri Lankan cuisine would qualify as fusion fare, infused with flavors drawn from the many cultures that have had a bearing on the country’s history. It’s not hard to see Indian, Arab, Portuguese, and Malay accents in popular Sri Lankan foods. Yet there is no single dish that paints a picture of Dutch colonial times as succinctly—or successfully—as the lamprais.
With the South Asian staple of rice as its beating heart, it seems safe to assume that the lamprais is definitely not of Dutch origin. “People in Holland to this day are completely ignorant of this savory rice meal, and the average Dutchman would not know should he be asked about the lamprais,” writes Brohier, who was conferred an honorary knighthood by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 2002.
In fact, Dutch colonialists may have built upon a kernel of an idea they first had a taste of in Java. At that time, as it is to this day, lemper was a popular Indonesian snack made of glutinous rice filled with chicken, fish, or meat, encased in a banana leaf. When they brought the lemper to Sri Lanka, the Dutch embellished it with curries and condiments laden with local spices and flavors, including black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cured bonito flakes, traditionally produced in the Maldives. The prawn blachung—or belacan, as it was also known—a pungent paste of dried fermented shrimp, salt, and chilies, was also likely Indonesian or Malaysian in origin. In both countries it continues to be a much-loved relish. The frikkadels (or “forced meatballs” made of minced beef) may have been the only truly European element of the dish. In its entirety, braiding together eastern and western threads, the lamprais was a dish with a distinct Dutch Burgher identity, one the community could consider entirely its own.
For more than a century after Dutch colonial rule ended in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Burghers continued to occupy a happy middle ground under British occupation, which began in 1815. Given their felicity with the English language, they were able to secure plum positions with the British government. Eminent Dutch Burgher artists, lawyers, judges, and authors left their indents on Sri Lankan culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, informally referred to as the “golden period” for the community. Some of these names, such as artist Lionel Wendt (after whom Colombo’s premier performing arts theater and art gallery is named) and celebrated author Carl Muller, whose novels based on the Burgher community have won international acclaim, still form a vital part of the country’s cultural discourse.
In 1908 the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, an umbrella body dedicated to the social, economic, and cultural welfare of the Dutch Burghers, was formed in Colombo. The attached clubhouse served as a venue for special festivities such as St. Nicholas Day, a uniquely European Christmas tradition celebrated on Dec. 5, starring a bishop on a white steed in place of Santa Claus. Brohier vividly remembers the excitement leading up to the big day when the girls of the community were bedecked in dresses made of organdie, the fabric du jour. “All the Burgher girls in school would say, ‘We are going to the DBU DBU DBU!’” Brohier said. “It was such an event for us.” Walking through the colonial-era building with spacious halls and high ceilings today, it isn’t difficult to imagine it as the elegant epicenter of boisterous community gatherings, tables piled high with food and families in their festive finery.
Today, celebrations are more low-key in comparison. For one, the community has significantly dwindled in strength. In 1956, eight years after Ceylon gained independence, the first government of the country passed the Sinhala Only Act, which replaced English with Sinhala as the official language of the country. It was also determined to be the new medium of instruction in schools.
“The Sinhala Only Act was a major turning point for the Dutch Burghers,” said David Colin-Thome, 55, an honorary committee member of the Dutch Burgher Union. “They felt very insecure because they had enjoyed the best position under the British.” Their unfamiliarity with the local tongue and the fear of discrimination provoked a mass exodus of Dutch Burghers to Australia, as well as the United Kingdom and Canada. While their population was approximately 40,000 at the end of World War II, the 2012 census pegged their numbers at approximately 38,000 against a total population of 20 million.
With the large, extended families of the past all but a gilded memory, the lamprais no longer occupies its coveted spot as a Sunday staple in Dutch Burgher households. Too daunting to take on without two or three extra sets of hands to help, it is now reserved for the odd birthday or anniversary. However, having been inducted into the pantheon of Sri Lankan classics, it’s easy to find lamprais—or what passes as the real thing—sold commercially.
Originally meant to have not more than a small cupful of rice, today’s lamprais meals typically pack in a lot more rice. Inevitably, you will find some creative interpretations of the original recipe, including additions such as a piece of bone-in chicken and a hard-boiled egg.
Since pork and beef are shunned by many communities in Sri Lanka for religious reasons, new-age spins on the dish include chicken, fish, and even halal variants. The liberties that people take with the lamprais particularly rankle Lorraine Bartholomeusz, a Dutch Burgher who supplies lamprais to VOC Cafe, a small restaurant run by the Dutch Burgher Union within its premises in Colombo. “The recipe has been easy to misinterpret because people don’t know what genuine lamprais tastes like,” she said. “Anything goes as long as it comes wrapped in a banana leaf.”
In an age of innovation, the question of authenticity is a particularly vexed one. No dish, however iconic, can remain absolutely unchanged over centuries. Yet there is a thin line that separates creativity from confusion. “There is only one specific way of making a traditional lamprais,” Bartholomeusz said. “If any of those ingredients are not suitable to you, then you have to make do without eating the dish. You can’t have versions of it, because then you adulterate it.”
For a recipe to be safeguarded over generations, however, it requires a vanguard of chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and cookbook authors interested in promoting and protecting it. What happens when you run out of arbiters of taste?
“The older generations of Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka are particularly familiar with the lamprais—how it should be made, the flavor, the correct size,” Bartholomeusz said. “But with so many people leaving the country, the younger generations have not been privy to this.”
Many of the Burghers I spoke to showed me their fraying copies of the Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book, a cookbook first published in 1929, which is regarded as one of the few reliable resources on Dutch Burgher cuisine (and a good place to start if you’re looking to make the lamprais at home). However, it’s clear that for most Burghers the lamprais isn’t the sort of dish that you can ever satisfyingly re-create from a recipe book. It is more a legacy to be learned, a gift to be bequeathed.
With few restaurants, even in the nation’s capital, dedicated to Dutch Burgher food and the lack of contemporary chroniclers of the cuisine, the lamprais faces an uncertain future. It may well be in that in a few years its form will be so far from the original as to be entirely unrecognizable. For her part, Bartholomeusz hopes to leave her well-guarded recipe to someone who will treasure it. “I am still in the process of looking for such a person,” she said. “It would be selfish not to share it. But I’m afraid the lamprais will die a natural death.”
This article was originally published on Roads & Kingdoms on Dec. 16, 2014.