Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The traditional rituals for celebrating vernal equinox, the passage of the sun from Taurus to Aries, symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility, growth and bounty, and is believed to usher in a new year of prosperity.
In Punjab, Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, Orissa, Manipur and Tamil Nadu, the vernal equinox (based on astrological calculations) in mid-April is celebrated as New Year with fun and fervor. Homes are cleaned, special foods are prepared and prayers and offerings are made at temples. In Kerala, it’s celebrated as the festival of Vishu.
Baisakhi, as it’s known in Punjab, marks the harvest of winter crops. Farmers pray and pay homage for a bountiful harvest. As the day progresses, loud cries of “Jatta aayi Baisakhi” reverberate in the sky as men and women move toward the fields to perform the energetic folk dances bhangra and gidda. In Bengal, people gather to see the sacred sunrise and sing songs ushering in the New Year. Offering prayers to the clouds for water is another ritual. People of Tamil Nadu celebrate the New Year with sumptuous feasts and elaborate kolam decorations at entrances to homes. Many famous temples in the state hold their chariot festivals on this day. In most parts of India, neem trees are blooming with flowers and mango blossoms are replaced by tiny budding mangoes. In some regions, this day is celebrated with neem flowers and raw mangoes to symbolize growth and prosperity.
Good fortune for the new year
In Kerala, with the arrival of spring, the landscape is lush with blooms of lovely yellow kanikonna flowers. Houses are cleaned, and children anticipate with excitement the Vishu firecrackers they will light on this auspicious dawn. The most important aspect of this festival is Vishukani, the auspicious first sight of the day. It is believed that the first thing one sees on Vishu morning influences one’s fortunes for the rest of the year. Vishukani is a pretty display of rice, coconut, betel leaves, areca nuts, various vegetables and fruits, jewelry, coins, and brilliant kanikonna flowers. The traditional gift on this holiday is a simple, unwrapped gift of cash from the elders to the youngsters.
According to Indian astrology, the solar event on Vishu is believed to be the ideal time to commence rice cultivation. Kerala farmers observe a ritual called chaal (furrow) on Vishu morning marking the auspicious commencement of rice farming. On the eastern corner of the rice field, they light oil lamps and decorate with flowers and rice flour designs. They pin up leaves in the shape of bowls and fill them with nine different kinds of grain seeds and place them near the lamp. They bathe their oxen and wash and clean their plows and bring them to the rice field. After praying for a good harvest, the farmer plows a portion of the rice field and sows the grains.
No celebration is complete in Kerala without a sumptuous feast around noon. The menu for this feast includes rice along with several accompaniments and one or two puddings. All dishes are prepared with fresh spring vegetables and fruits such as various squashes, large cucumbers, mangoes and jackfruit. And there can be jackfruit chips and fresh green mango pickle to add crunch and zest to the meal. For dessert, there are creamy puddings made with homemade jackfruit jam or mango jam cooked with jaggery, ghee and fresh coconut milk. In some parts of Kerala, a special dish called Vishu Kanji (rice soup with coconut milk) is also prepared for this festival.
Vishu, like any other festival, is rooted in myths and traditions. People in my hometown observe a strict rule of not buying anything on Vishu day. All shopping must be done either before or after. On the day after Vishu, the first thing to buy is salt — beginning the new season with the purchase of a basic culinary essential.
The vernal equinox, representing the rebirth of nature, is also celebrated as New Year in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Yunnan, China. Many Southeast Asian countries celebrate it in the form of the Water Festival. People pour water at one another as part of the cleansing ritual to welcome the New Year. The date of the festival was originally set by astrological calculation, but it is now April 13-15.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photos, from top:
Vishukani tray with symbols of good luck for the new year.
Credits: Ammini Ramachandran