It has been only five months since I began this brand new chapter of life in college, in a new home, in a new town, in a new country, continent and hemisphere. In that (relatively) short time I have discovered that human nature, unlike food, remains unchanged across continents. I have discovered that eternal sunshine and seasonal weather changes both have their own versions of bitter-sweet. And I have discovered that culture is the single most colorful global variable.
Ayubowan to you then, from a small yet breathtaking island in the Indian ocean where sunshine is everlasting and culture is rich in customs and traditions, one of which you find yourself wondering about as you stare at the intriguing phenomenon in this image. This is a moment I have been part of every April back home in Sri Lanka, and every single time it has been just as magical, just as symbolic.
What you witness in this photograph is a pot of milk boiling over on a hearth (kiri ithireema)- one of several auspicious rituals celebrating the dawn of a new astrological year. Following time intensive preparation, the Sinhalese New Year (Aluth Avurudda) is typically celebrated by carrying out an array of very specific rituals at the exact time determined by astrologers, of which the kiri ithireema is the first to be carried out after the New Year dawns. The pot of milk is placed on the hearth at the auspicious time, and followed by a smoke-shrouded, patient wait which is then rewarded when the rising milk finally spills over the rim, taking the beautiful guise of a milk fountain. But it isn’t just visual. As milk flows over the rims of pots in a number of houses in the neighbourhood, a continuous thunder-like crackle resonates across the island as every household lights firecrackers (not fireworks — those are reserved for the new calendar year) to usher in a brand new astrological year. Even as a native I will never cease to be amazed by how intricately symbolic each ritual is. In this particular event, which is initiated facing an auspicious direction, the white milk is symbolic of purity, and as it spills over the rims in multiple directions, it signifies good fortune for the household members. There is no decoration, no music, and no drinks, yet the atmosphere is somehow heart-warmingly festive, and the celebrators are blissful.
I captured this moment last April, the last Sinhalese New year I would be celebrating with my family for the next four years. Reflecting now, I realize that it wasn’t merely the rituals themselves or their symbolic subtext that made these occasions so magical. As indigenous practices carried out in the households of today, they do in fact have an air of mystery, authenticity, and timelessness that generate surreal vibes. The real magic lies within the presence of an entire family, however big or small, gathered expectantly in the same room, sharing a significant moment together.
If words, or even pictures, could do this occasion justice, we wouldn’t go to the lengths of lighting firewood to experience it. As I have come to learn through Christmas and New Year’s Eve here in Northampton, the world is a cultural kaleidoscope and this photograph represents only one of its multi-dimensional facets. The richness and depth in this occasion alone, however, are unmistakable, a fact that conjures a vague, large-scale image of the intricate world we live in, and a revelation of the levels of our individual exposures to it.
Mandira Marambe is a Sri Lankan student who is currently a first year at Smith. While her academic interests lie primarily in the STEM fields, she enjoys reading and writing during her free time. She hopes to expand her perspective as well as her horizons during her four years in college.