Alex Van Arkadie
Long before the legendary seafarer ‘Sinbad’ chanced to harbor in waters lapping the little isle of ‘Serendip’, or European colonizers discovered Ptolemy’s ‘Ceylan’, pilgrims from the distant Orient have been visiting here. During the reign of the Indian Emperor Asoka (2nd Century BC), the island’s North Central Province was home to Sinhala Kings under whose patronage Buddhism spread. Following India’s gift of a sapling from the Bodhi Tree under which Sidharta Gautama Buddha attained ‘nirvana’, the ancient city of Anuradhapura draws pilgrims and curious visitors from everywhere. The tree is regarded as the oldest in the world (2,200 years). Similarly, a painting in the office of Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Rome, depicts “Emissaries of the Sinhala Royal Court presenting Credentials to Emperor Claudius” (according to Roman Historian Gaius Plinius Secundas, AD 23-79, pix. below).
Anticipating his Apostolic Visit to Sri Lanka last year, Pope Francis said, ‘Your homeland is called the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, on account of its natural beauty and its shape’. And surely, (see pix.), there was a rich ethnic mixture of a near half million Lankans assembled to Welcome the Pope upon his arrival in Colombo’s Galle Face Green.
Lying 8° North of the Equator by the southern tip of India, this tropical island has a pleasantly regular temperature with December and January being the coolest months at 27°C; and April and May being the hottest at approx. 30°C. From British occupation in the 19th Century, choice ‘Ceylon Tea’ exported from tea gardens surrounding the Central Hills of Nuwara Eliya became world famous.
Today, in a predominantly Buddhist State with over 70% Buddhist, minority groups of Hindus, Moslems and other Christian communities thrive together while practicing and upholding a blend of cultures, languages, traditions and religious belief.
The ancient Sinhalese gave great importance to agricultural farming. They refrained from both animal slaughter and fishing. The monastic ashrams, stupas and temples they built in the depths of the Island were surrounded by acres of paddy fields in which resident farmer families cultivated rice, and varieties of pulses, lentils, fruits, vegetable and tubers. From massive tanks their ancient kings built, water was collected and carefully channeled via aqua-ducts for use during drier seasons. Thus did the country become self-sufficient in food and agricultural production, rice being Sri Lanka’s staple diet. Even the twelve months of the Sinhala Buddhist calendar had been named to capture the essence of a season’s charm to identify each month distinctly from the other.
‘December’ in the early Sinhala calendar was named ‘un-du-vap’. The word ‘vap’ is remembered to this day when celebrating the annual ‘vap-magula’ or harvest festival. Following Christianization by the Portuguese in 1505, December became known as the ‘Nattal masse’ (the month of Christmas).
‘Nattal masse’ for children meant the end of school exams and the start of a near five-week-long holiday leading up to a bountiful season of joyful feasting and exchange of gifts. Around city malls and urban shopping centers, streets overflow with crowds of people buying cakes, biscuits, sweets, wines, new clothing, dainty slippers, firecrackers, and presents for children – most of which arrive in good time from overseas. At bazaars and village fairs in the countryside, vendors gather to entice families who have another good reason to celebrate from their abundant year-end harvests. Sarees of varied texture, colourful fabrics, bangles, bracelets, lunghis, pendants, necklaces, handlooms, shawls, sweetmeats, pottery, kitchen utensils and metallic containers, plastic ware, mats, toys for children and so much more. All are fancifully laid out or mounted neatly on tall wooden racks to attract the attention of the old, the young village maidens, and of course the children. The festive cheer of ‘Nattal masse’ prevails until New Year, penetrating far throughout the countryside to awaken joy and goodwill among all, regardless of religious belief, social level or communal distinctions whatsoever.
Even the air is cool and refreshing at this time of the year. Tropical flowers of diverse hues and fragrances crown the treetops and deck the surroundings with equal grace as the local ‘manels, nelums, and olus’, (water lilies, lotus, etc.) so serenely cushioned upon translucent lakes and interspersed among the plains and valleys. While city church choirs and various other choral groups begin rehearsals for annual open-air X’mas Carols and musical concerts accompanied also by the Army, Navy or Police Bands, faraway in the open fields, men and women chant verses and join in chorus to glorify and praise nature’s rewards. As dusk falls one may catch a glimpse of migrant birds flying in from the Northern Hemisphere seeking seasonal sanctuary and refuge within Sri Lanka’s National Parks and Wildlife Reserves – far from the distant wintry winds, freezing snow, or bland landscape.
Recalling now from over a half-century ago it is undeniable that as children we could never imagine Christmas without snow. An early impression we had innocently got accustomed to from glossy imprints on imported Christmas cards from friends, relatives and expatriates abroad. Even the make-do Christmas trees we used to decorate … at a time when the coniferous type was not easily accessible or affordable … made from slender bamboo twigs, had to have wisps of cotton fluff along their stalks and branches to suggest outdoor snowfall and the wintry breeze.
Preparing for Christmas, decorating the tree, and arranging the household Christmas crib in which the Babe will be born, were special tasks children eagerly looked forward to. Finally on Christmas Night, watching the family Christmas tree brighten up to dazzle and glitter – even in cute home-made paper lanterns illuminated by candlelight – would remain a refreshing memory.
Warmly wishing you dear readers a ‘Subha Nattal’. Happy Christmas.