Hindu Festivals of Eelam
from 'Short History of Hinduism in Ceylon'
Sri Samuganatha Press, Jaffna 1964
Nallur Festival turns Jaffna into Spiritual Town]
The Hindus in Ceylon who are mostly Tamils celebrate their
national festivals in the same manner as the people in Tamil Nadu.
The ancient Tamils lived in close touch with nature.
Astronomy and astrology very much influenced their lives. With regard to the
year, the Tamils started it with the Vernal Equinox. In ancient days the sun
entering Aries and the Vernal Equinox, that is the day when the sun rose exactly
in the east, coincided. With the lapse of centuries, the New Year falls now,
about three weeks after the Vernal Equinox. The Hindu solar year is sidereal,
and since it is in excess of the tropical year by twenty four minutes, it does
not keep step with the seasons. The seasons fall back one and half days for
every hundred years...
The Hindus divided the year into "Uttarayanam" the first six
months after the winter solstice and "Dhadshanyam" the second six months after
the summer solstice. The former was considered health-giving, bright period for
man and animals for during that period the days became longer and longer. Thus
"Uttarayanam" was celebrated by Thaipongal and Paddipongal (the cattle
festival). Most of the temple festivals in the Tamil country were also fixed for
this bright period. The beginning of the "Dhadshanayam" was marked by
"Adipirapoo" (July 1- Hindu calendar). These six months were considered not a
very bright period for men and animals because the days became shorter and
The ancient Tamils like the Romans of old were a nation of yeomen. They had
their temple festivals, their marriages and other celebrations in the bright
summer months after their harvest in February and March.
Thaipongal (January 13 or 14)
The annual festival the "Thaipongal",
is also the time for the householder to cast away his pots and pans and to get
new ones. After the wet months of October, November and December, the
householder renovates his house. It is similar to the spring cleaning in some
temperate countries. The farmer, after seeing the first ears of corn in his
fields, celebrates a thanks-giving ceremony in honour of the sun-god. He as the
priest and his wife as the priestess, prepare their offerings of milk-rice
amidst the din of lighted crackers. They offer their salutations to the sun-god
for giving them the rains and for ripening their corn. A spirit of genial
comradeship prevails amongst the whole community. The following day is the
Paddipongal in honour of the cattle which has helped the farmer and his family
throughout the year. On this occasion the cows and bulls get a holiday.
Maha Sivarathiri (February/March)
The Maha Sivarathiri is the most auspicious of the "Punnyakalams". It mostly
falls in the ninth of Masi (February--March). The day is dedicated to fasting
and prayer throughout the night in honour of Lord Siva. Special "poojas" and
services are conducted in temples right through the night. Sacred scriptures are
read and interpreted. Devotional songs are sung to music. The devotees end their
vigil by bathing in a sacred river or spring.
In ancient Ceylon the temple was the pivot of the social life of the people.
Religion, education and art had their main inspiration from these centres. Hindu
temples in Ceylon as in South India are the expression in stone and brick of the
profound thoughts embodied in the Saiva Siddhanta philosophy. The ceremonies and
festivals at these centres of worship demonstrate the unfolding of this
philosophy.... All rites and all modes of worship serve one purpose that is to
help the individual to lead a "Divine Life" and attain salvation (moksha)
New Year (April 13 or 14)
In the morning of New Year day, the householder and his family have their
ceremonial baths and attend the "poojas" at the nearest temple. On returning
home the whole family partakes of meals consisting of milk-rice, delicious cakes
and fruits. Then the head of the family gives cash presents to his juniors and
his dependants. As a sort of pastime men play cards and boys play national games
like "Thadchy" and "Kiddy".
Several old customs are observed on these occasions. It is the time of great
rejoicing and feasting, but above all, of family re-union. The house and
surroundings are cleaned several days before the event so that everything looks
neat and pleasant. The elders of the family read the forecasts for the ensuing
year with the help of the Panchangam (Hindu Calendar). They also note the
auspicious days and hours for social visits, for "Arpudu" (the first ploughing)
and "Kaiveshasham" (the giving of cash presents)
The girls in the villages go up and down the "Anna Unchal" to the rhythm of
the "Kappalpaddu". There is much fun and frolic throughout the month of Chitrai
(April - May)
Kataragama Festival (June)
Among the Hindu festivals of Ceylon the Kataragama festival is looked upon
with great veneration. The annual festive season takes place on the New Moon of
June and lasts a :fortnight. Hindus and Buddhists gather there in thousands
either to fulfil their vows or to seek knowledge and guidance from, the Lord of
Soon after the evening "pooja" to the god by the Kapurala, the festival
procession takes place at night from 7 p. m. to 10 p.m.. Long before the
appointed hour the premises are full with devotees carrying on their heads
earthen vessels containing holy ash and burning camphor. With clothes just
enough to cover their nakedness the men in hundreds roll on the ground. Besides,
there are the thundering of drums and the playing of flutes.
At the same time the shouts of " Haro Hara" drown the chorus of " Bajana "
parties. In this din and commotion, the Basanayake Nilame and and Kapuralas with
other temple officials take the casket of the god in procession on the back of
an elephant with chamera, damps and flambeaux. First the procession proceeds at
a slow space round the three temples within the walls, then it proceeds to
Valliamma temple. Thereafter, the procession goes by Meda Vithiya and back to
the main temple.
On the last day at the precise hour of the Full Moon the water-cutting
ceremony is enacted. The holy casket is taken in the usual manner to the Manica
Ganga. Here placed in a palanquin and covered with a cloth it is dipped in the
sacred waters. Then amidst the shouts of "Haro Hara" and the beating of drums
thousands of pilgrims with upraised hands bathe in the consecrated waters of the
The highlight of the festivities, however, is the exciting fire walking
ceremony. This is usually done on the last day of the festival in front of the
main temple. Before the appointed hour a large area is covered with a few cart
loads of tam rind firewood and set ablaze. The red hot cinders keep on glowing
in a trench along a course some twenty feet long by fifteen feet broad.
At about 4 a.m.. the performers, after finishing their religious ablutions in
the waters of the sacred river, walk with wet garments towards the temple for
worship. Having had the divine blessings, they stand with joined palms before
the fire, making a last entreaty for additional strength of mind. The spectators
become intensely excited.
Then with the shouts of " Haro Hara" they walk bare-footed over the red-hot
cinders not once but many times without even the faintest trace of a burn. Some
years ago a padre to belittle the performance attempted to do the same but got
himself severely burnt. It is best to state in this connection that victories
are won not only by science, but also by faith.
In the Kavaddy dance at Kataragama one may see how the dancer in his dance
forgets himself... It was in this ecstasy that Swami Rama Thitha, one of the
foremost disciples of Swami Vivekananda met his end in a stream in California.
Thus the soul of India and Ceylon chose the art of dance as a medium to express
their eternal craving -- the search for Truth...
Vel Festival (July)
Kandy has its Perehera and Colombo has its Vel Festival. The latter is held
in honour of Lord Murukan popularly known among the, Sinhalese as Kataragama
A day or two before the water-cutting festival of Kataragama, a gaily
decorated silver plated chariot drawn by a pair of snow-white bulls carrying the
statue of Lord Murukan leaves the Pettah Kathiresan temple to the shrine at
Bambalapitiya. This is the beginning of the Vel Festival which is held every
year to commemorate the victory of Sri Murukan over the forces of Evil.
The procession proceeds along the accustomed route with multi-coloured
umbrellas, caparisoned elephants, dancers and oriental musicians through a mass
of worshippers and sightseers. It moves slowly while the drums throb, the bells
tinkle and the Tanjore band plays till it reaches its destination. A "Bajana"
party singing divine songs follow the chariot. After a journey of six miles the
pageant enters the temple where thousands of devotees flock to pay their homage
to Lord Murakan by breaking coconuts, lighting joss sticks and burning camphor.
The temple with its pageantry and panorama of twinkling illuminations attracts
the religious and non-believer alike.
In the temple precincts and along both sides of the Galle road traders of all
races sell their merchandise—food-stuffs, clothes, brass-utensils, camphor,
beads, bangles, toys, earthen ware, sweet-meats, pictures etc. The juicy
sugar-cane dealers have brisk business.
When the illuminated Vel car returns on the evening of the third or fourth
day along the accustomed route the crowd swells to immeasurable proportions. The
Galle road for many miles is a sea of heads, and when the Vel car arrives at
Galle Face green, the pageant becomes grand and imposing. First-class fireworks
specially made for the occasion continue to illuminate the night sky with their
multi coloured lights. There is much fun and excitement. Bullock carts of all
sizes and shapes line the roads, for the occupants have come from distant
villages to see their war-god taking a drive through the city. The roads become
impassable for vehicles, but everybody is happy and smiling. With the deafening
shouts of " Haro Hara,, the Vel car moves slowly to its destination. Today the
Vel Festival has become a National Festival of the Island. Man does not live by
broad alone, happiness is also a necessary attribute for the health and
development of the mind.
Today, "Adipirapoo" (July 1, Hindu Calendar) is immortalised by the popular
poems of Somasundara Pulavar. On this day Hindu schools usually close early to
enable children to partake in domestic festivities. The traditional menu on this
occasion is sweet porridge and this is supplemented with "Kolukoddai" and other
delicacies. Friends and relations make exchanges of their delicacies.
The Saraswathy Pooja or "Ayodha Pooja" is celebrated in September-October in
honour of Saraswathy, the goddess of learning. It is the period when children
are first initiated into the mysteries of letters. It is also a festival of the
The annual festival in Hindu temples mostly takes place between March and
August. The festival usually lasts for ten days from the hoisting of the flag to
the lowering of the flag on the metal-plated flag-staff. The principal deity,
decorated with flowers and jewels is taken out in procession with dances and
music right round the temple on mounts (vahanams) that are specially related to
the deity. The most pleasant day of the season is the car festival which is
usually on the last day when the presiding deity is taken out in procession in a
gaily decorated wooden chariot with music provided by the traditional nageswaram
through the main thoroughfares of the town or village. Nobody fails to attend
this grand occasion.
Adi AmAvasai (July/August New Moon)
The New Moon in the month of 'Adi' is also the last day of the festival at
Mavittapuram Kandaswamy Temple. In the early hours before sunrise an
insignia of the presiding deity is taken in procession with the beating of drums
and the playing of music to the shores of Keerimalai for the water-cutting
Throughout the night preceding the festival and the New Moon day streams of
pilgrims come pouring in front all parts of too peninsula to this holy centre to
partake in the ceremonial ablutions and to make religious offerings to their
dead. Year after year for hundreds of years the pilgrims had marched in this
manner to Keerimalai. It is fascinating to think how the
tradition is preserved by the power of faith.
Among this great concourse of people we can see the family priests who have
assembled here from distant places occupying advantageous positions on the sandy
beach to help the pilgrims in their offerings and salutations.
When at an auspicious hour the image of the deity is given a dip in the
consecrated waters, thousands of men and women uttering mystic "mantras",
immerse themselves in the rolling waters. There is an intense religious
atmosphere pervading this holy place. For the time being these pious pilgrims
become saintly characters. There is no privacy for the bathers in the beach. For
here man looks upon woman as mother or a sister, nay, as the Divine Mother
The vast crowd of pilgrims disperses soon after attending the " poojas " to
the gods. In the evening the festival ends and Keerimalai resumes its calm
for another year.
festival on a national scale is the "
Deepavali " or the Festival of
Lights. It signifies the triumph of goodness over evil, light over darkness. The
festival brings forth a universal spirit of gaiety and rejoicings among the
Hindus. At a time when the cold winter season sets in with the North-East
monsoon in October—November, the Tamils celebrate this festival with the wearing
of new clothes. They attend to special services in temples. Children have a lot
of fun throughout the day. "Deepavali" s also the beginning of the new financial
year for Hindu business men. Merchants and shop-keepers open new account books
with religious ceremonies.
Society according to Hinduism includes not only living men but also those who
have gone before us, those who will come after us, all beings above us and all
beings below us as birds and animals. We have our duties not only to our
neighbours, but also to our ancestors. The conception of society is not limited
by space nor is it confined to men... In this manner most of the Hindu festivals
became popular. These special days were like shade trees for the weary traveller
in life’s common pathway. Right through the centuries these festivals were
reminders of the moral and spiritual laws that were embodied in the sacred