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 shorter.
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 Katargama.
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 river.
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 deviyo.
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 artisans.
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 ceremony.
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 Herself.
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.
Another 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 Vedas.