Monday, April 14, 2014

Avurudu: Ritualistic fears, histories and competitions

It is that time of year when urban society goes through the rituals of Avurudu (New Year) in an almost mechanical manner, scarcely aware of why they do it year in year out, with a vague sense of unease and a foreboding of bad luck for the rest of the year if the nekath (auspicious times) go unobserved and weird ways of engaging friends and family on that particular day are not adhered to.

Why they do it at all, beats me for this highly ceremonious celebration enacted over days is neither relevant nor valid for urbanites. It is the yearly harvest festival and should be engaged in only by those to whom these harvests are the reason why they are alive – the farmers of our country. It is they who sweated it out in the fields, working the land, planting things and reaping the reward of their labors. It is they who should be giving thanks and giving gifts to one another to commemorate a bountiful harvest, and, for those that way inclined, giving alms to the clergy of their new produce, and transferring the good karma of meritorious deeds to their departed.

When their crops fail, as they did this year, then they are supposed to convert the celebration into an understanding of climate change, failure of science to predict the lack of rain, karmic causality, inability of agrochemicals to do much more than poison the earth, god’s will and other similar religious instruments for dealing with setbacks while resolving to bear the hardship, give and share of what little they have and, either feel strengthened by their sacrifice or, for those that way inclined, hold those acts of merit gained despite of their suffering as their forfeit to create the spiritually valid enabling conditions for better times next year.

Now is about the right time to ask me what I've been smoking and the answer is – history. Nothing special here at all, just a reminder to everyone is all this is.

It is not about auspicious times, it is about thanksgiving: 

The idea of the harvest festival is as old as the land that is tilled and near universal. Each culture, each society and each gathering, from the wiccans, to the celts, to the pilgrims to the Asian feudal groups engaged in this in one way or another. For most, renewal, or, a cycle finished, was rooted in the harvest and from that arose the idea of another cycle or “new” year. It was primarily a societal exercise of relevance to farming societies. In our part of the world it was the avurudu celebrations.

That those so inclined also combined it with spiritual emancipation and the adherence to edicts was secondary. The reason why it became compulsory to tie avurudu to religious observances came from the more recent muddying of the Buddhist and Shaivite traditions with the trantra (yantra+mantra) and the nekath or auspicious times that were the tantric cornerstones. Neither the followers of Lord Buddha or Lord Shiva had such nonsense in their makeup. They simply said “the time to do something good is now, the time to stop doing something bad is now”. They placed a premium on doing something good, not on doing something at the right time. The reason why this impurity became the paramount “requisite” is based on the brilliant bit of marketing by lesser clergy of “fear of the future”. This is why urbanites that rose out of an agro-cultural society still fearfully wait until the right time to fire up the gas cooker and wail at their misfortune that a beggar was the first at their door subsequent to the nekatha for guzzling kiri-bath (milk-rice).

Come good people. Stop this nonsense. Either start growing or stop nekathing.

It is about identifying communal resources, not about destructive competition:

Now, “game avurudu uthsava” (Village New Year celebrations) is something else again .Not because they were sponsored. Not the much hawked, Laoji or Maliban sponsored balderdash that is only ha-ha generating but the real thing. That real deal can teach urbanites a lesson or three.

Before the lessons, let us ask, why do these happen?  As opposed to cricket and ice-hockey which happen only for gladiatorial reasons and self-gratification which amounts to a zero sum for all concerned, these happened for specific community survival reasons.

They happened for the same reasons that hurling happened in Ireland (“yeah, what the hell is hurling?” you might want to ask Google right?)  or awale happened across the planet (“yeah, what the hell is awale?”  you might want to ask Google right? It’s the Olinda Keliya folks but I used the African name for it to mess with your heads *winks*).  The competitions were there for two very simple social reasons. One was to allow men and women to ask each other if they were worthy of each other. The other was to show each community the youth resources they had to work with.

The men showed their masculine prowess and physical might in such things as um… hurling things or bopping thing (shot-putt, wrestling and hammer anyone? Yeah, there was a reason for those that didn't involve gold medals in the not too distant past). The women showed their feminine prowess in their dress, their ornaments, their drumming, their abilities with song and dance, their capabilities in weaving, decorating and cooking.
Strategy and strength

This was the time when young men and women were allowed full sanction to engage each other as potential life partners. Not that they were not allowed to do so at other times but  these times were community sanctioned much like the urban sanction for say the drug fueled birthday parties of 16 year olds from the elite urban schools of the country.

There was something unique about these competitions – they were not there to declare a winner per se although that was done as a secondary measure. They were there to show everyone who would be best suited to do what, where and why and who would bear watching, who would need support, who would require more community resources and who could enhance those.  It showed who was good at abstract strategy (Olinda – both men and women), who possessed physical strength, lissana-gaha (climbing the grease pole – men) and mallava-pora (wresting – men), raban (women), kotta-pora (strategic pillow fights - both men and women), onchili (swinging - display of feminine and masculine charms). This list is literally endless but I am only using the ones that are commonly touted on the TV shows with private sector companies telling us how impossible avurudu would be without either a drink of tea or a biscuit, both of which have nothing to do with our perennial harvests.
Olinda - strategic abstraction

The crowning of an avurudu kumari (queen of the harvest – yeah, wtf are all those urbanites doing parading on a catwalk you might rightly ask) did not mean defeat for the rest of the princesses. The victory did not mean victorinism and defeat did not mean defeatism. They simply showed everyone how each young human resource could be best utilized for the future sustenance of the community. This, folks, is constructive competition. It does not leave the combatants beating their breasts in sorrow or gnashing their teeth in frustration, plotting returns with revenge as motive and no one tried to illegally cut the legs from under someone else or try to use political clout to be a part of the kamba-adeeme pila (tug-of-war team) or become the kotta-pora champion. It never gave champions either bragging rights or one-upmanship. The rationale for these competitions was excellently explained to me by an old-timer a couple of years ago by this example: “Mahaththaya, oka mehema therum ganna. me pol gaha vaththe usama pol gaha kiyala kiyana eka e pol gahata dena asanayak nevey. Eka e pol gahe sadakayak vitharay” (“Sir, try to understand it this way. Saying that this coconut tree is the tallest coconut tree on the estate does not bestow a crown upon that coconut tree. It is merely a fact about that tree”).
Onchili - wholesome display of charms

Urbanites can learn something from this type of constructive competition as opposed to the highly destructive form that is practiced in their communities which try to get to an “individual top” at the cost of a “collective power”. They might learn that their type of competition divides their communities and that the rural version unites their people.

But no. They choose to light a cracker at exactly the right time and kill themselves to ensure that their avurudu table is better than that of everyone else.

By about this time, a lot of people should be saying “yako, thoge mole kachal” (“dude, you seem to be missing a few marbles”). Guess why I have a beatific smile on my countenance at all times?

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