By Kelum Bandara
With the pulse and smell of New Year or Aluth Avurdu is in the air, people get nostalgic about celebrations, observation of rituals and all. It is noteworthy yet to throw some light on the origin of this festival and its uniqueness with the Sinhala Buddhist culture. According to Prof. Nalin de silva who did extensive research into the astronomical and astrological aspect of Avurudu, it is very much linked with Nekath system followed by people here from time immemorial.
In a discussion with Daily Mirror, he said the sky is divided into 27 Nekaths, Sinhala people had made use of the motion of the sun through Nekaths. He opined that the origin of Aluth Avurudu could be traced back to the days of Naga people who inhibited the island even before the advent of Buddhism.
“Naketh is a word derived Naka. Naka is ‘Naga people’. There had been various Naga people from Assam in India to Sri Lanka. These Naka people were navigators. When you navigate, you have to form an idea of the stars or the planets or Grahayas move. They are the people who divided this into 27 Nekaths. My view is that Sinhala people developed this New Year system from these Nekaths. Originally, my understanding is that the Sinhala New year dawns when the sun passes from one Nekath to another, “he said.
In a mathematical calculation of planetary motion linked with New Year, he said it was the time taken by the Sun to move from Pisces to Aries. This time period is 12hours and 48 minutes. It is the transition (sankranthi) period.
He said, “However according to western Astronomy Sun moves to Aries (Mesha) not on the 13th or 14th of April but few days after that. This discrepancy could be explained if we consider the Neketh system where the particular disc of the Celestial Sphere, in which the grahayas move relative to Earth is divided into 27 Nekethas instead of the 12 constellations. The New Year dawns when the sun moves from the Revathi Neketha to Asvida Neketha, and the beginnings of the Asvida Nekatha and the Aries constellation do not coincide.
The ecliptic, the path of the Sun relative to Earth in the Celestial Sphere intersects the Celestial Equator of the Celestial Sphere at two points. The Sun passes through these two points on the 21st of March (Northenwards) and the 21st of September (Southernwards). The western new year is the time interval between two consecutive March 21st s.
The axis of the Earth is inclined to the ecliptic at an angle 23.5degrees and further the axis precesses. Due to this precession the point at which the ecliptic intersects the Celestial Sphere goes “backwards” roughly about 1 degree in 71years.
The Sinhala new year is the time interval between two consecutive transitions from Revathi Neketha to Asvida Neketha (or from Pisces to Aries). Due to the precession of the axis of the earth this day advances relative to the western calender roughly about 1 day in 72 years. In the beginning of the 20th century the dawn of the New Year has fallen on 12th and 13th of April. These days it falls on the 13th and 14th. In twenty to thirty years’ time it will be on the 14th and the 15th.
Prof. de Silva said, “Actually in history, the Sinhala people celebrated the New Year on a date in the latter part of March. That was according to the old calendar- the Julian calendar. It was changed with the Gregorian calendar.
For example, the Russian revolution took place in October. According to the new calendar, it was in November. If you add that. During the time of Robert Knox, the Sinhala New Year was celebrated somewhere around April, 7, 8 or 9. That is with the change of calendar.
Now we have it on April 13 or 14. Once in 73 years, the New Year advanced by one day. It will dawn on April 15 in future. The Sinhala people used a different calendar altogether. The western calendar says the New Year starts on the midnight of January 1. There is no physical significance attached to this date. It is a date fixed by westerners. In respect of the Sinhala New Year, it is fixed by the motion of the sun relative to the earth. These are all relative motions. There are no absolute motions as such. There are no absolute concepts. All concepts are relative. We are concerned with our fate on the earth, whether astrologically or not. We do all these things relative to the earth. Here we observe the motion of the sun relative to the earth. Even the sun moves in the Milky Way. The Milky Way also moves within the local group of galaxies. The local group of galaxies also moves with the expansion of universe. All these measurements are relative.
If you ask me the length of Mahaweli River, I do not know. What are the two end points? These two end points change with the low tide and the high tide. All you can do is to take the average. There is no absolute way of measuring these things. What is the tallest mountain in the world? Somebody can say Everest. Another will say something different because the height of it is measured relative to the sea level or to the centre of the earth. If you measure it relative to the centre of the earth, then Mount Everest is not the highest. The sea level is also changes.
Relative to the earth, the sun moves in ecliptic which is the word used in western astronomy. The path of the sun relative to the earth is not fixed. We know that the earth is inclined at an angle of 23.5. Because of this, the path of the sun intersects the celestial horizon. The point of intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator changes. Because of these change, the date of the dawn n on the New Year advances. That is the reason. During these days, it is on April 14. Then, in the case of Sinhala New Year, we find Punya Kalaya or Nonagatha. There is no such thing observed in India. But, there is Punya Kalam observed among Jaffna Tamils. Though they do not celebrate the New Year to the extent of the Sinhalese people, they also have Punya Kalam. In India, there is a New Year on April 14. In Tamil Nadu, it is holiday. That is not in fact the dawn of New Year. It is to celebrate the dawn of Chitraya month. It coincides with the Sinhala New Year.
The intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator advances in one degree in 73 years. We have divided the sky in to 12 constellations. The sun passes through all of them. The annual motion of it passes through it. This concept comes from Babylonia. In the Sinhala system, yet, we have used the concept called ‘Nekath’.
*If the New year advanced by one day in every 73 year period, there should be people remembering the celebration of the event on a different date in April during their lifetime. How do you support that argument?
It is good that you asked it. In fact, I have mentioned in my writing earlier about the celebration of New Year on April 12 in one year at the beginning of the 20th century. If not for leap years coming after every four years, this would have advanced less than 73 years.
*How did it become a matter for celebration?
Buddhist rituals have been introduced later. I feel that from Naga days, it should have been celebrated. We have this Nekath Keli. It is something to do with this. Also, we know King Devanampiyatissa went on the hunting expedition on a Nekath day. These are rituals not associated with Buddhism. Even before the advent of Buddhism, people would have incorporated some Buddhist rituals into the practice like going to temples. Punya Kalaya is a concept introduced by Buddhists. Naga and Yaksha people would have introduced Nonagatha period. During the Nonagatha period, we have two parts. During one part, people go to temples.
*How is it different from New Year celebrations of other countries in the region?
We have fixed physical things here. Compared with the westerners, they have an idea – the midnight of December 31. This has something to do with.
The Sinhala Buddhist culture would have been taken to Theravada Buddhist countries- Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand. That is the Sinhala Buddhist culture imposed on the Chinese culture. During the 12th century, the Sinhala Buddhist culture had been imposed. There were good relations with these countries through Theravada Buddhism. In Thailand, they use the word ‘ Sankranthi’.