All you wanted to know about the Vishu festival

-D K Hari

-Hema Hari

 

12-year old Ajai and his grandfather are having a conversation about Vishu, the Malayalam New Year’s Day. It is quite an insightful dialogue that sheds light on the various aspects of this special day. Come and enjoy some very interesting facts about Vishu!

Hello Ajai! ‘Happy Vishu’!

‘Wish me’ what, Achachan (Grandpa)?!

I said, ‘Happy Vishu’, not ‘Wish you’, Ajai!

Oh, you mean Happy New Year, Achachan?

Yes, exactly, except we call it Vishu festival or Vishu Kani.

Why is it called Vishu, Achachan?

Well, ‘Vishu’ means ‘equal’ in Sanskrit. It marks the period when the sun moves from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere. I’ll explain that more elaborately in a minute. ‘Kani’ means ‘that which is seen first’. So, on Vishu, we see auspicious sights first. Do you do anything special this time of year, Ajai?

Well, we play Blind Man’s Buff.

Oh yes! But, do you play it the normal way?

Not really. As soon as I wake up, Amma cups her hands over my eyes and tells me not to open them until she tells me to.

Ah, right. Do you know why she does that?

She told me that I should see good things first on New Year’s, so that only good things happen all year round.

Yes, exactly. It’s a custom we follow for good luck. What auspicious things do you see?

Hmm…Amma takes me blindfolded to the pooja room (prayer room); she decorates it the previous night. She keeps… fruits, coconuts, lemons, cucumbers, vegetables, betel leaves and areca nut, a mirror, a Krishna idol, and money there. She said they are all signs of prosperity.

Yes, they are. We also keep rice, gold, silver and clothes. All the good things of life, basically. You must, also, have seen her arrange flowers in the pooja room.

Yes, she keeps a yellow flower that I have only seen at this time of year.

That is very observant of you, Ajai. Yes, that flower is the laburnum or kanikkonna; it is a golden-yellow flower that is often associated with Lord Krishna. And, you know, it blooms only in this period. That’s why it is special in this period, and why you have only seen it at this time.

We also wear new clothes Achachan, and, sometimes, burst fire crackers (Vishu Padakkam) the previous night, or on the morning of the festival.

Ah, you must like that! But, do you know why we keep an idol of Lord Krishna in the arrangement?  It is because Krishna is an avatar of…

Lord Vishnu, Achachan. I know the Dashavatar story.

Excellent!

Achachan, I think there is also a story behind why we celebrate Vishu, isn’t there? I don’t remember it. Can you tell me?

Yes, of course. There is a legend behind the Vishu Kani festival. It is said to be the day that Lord Krishna killed the demon Narakasura. It is also, perhaps, why young children are dressed as Lord Krishna on this day. You might not remember but we dressed you up when you were very young too!

Oh, really?!

Yes! Now, tell me what else do you relish about this festival?

The food!

Ha ha. For breakfast, your mother must have made some Vishu Kanji – a porridge made of rice, coconut milk and various spices.

Yes Achachan, but…

But, you are referring to the more elaborate meal preparation – the Vishu Kani Sadhya (banquet)! It includes a variety of mouth-watering dishes to tickle your taste buds! Like avial (vegetable stew) , thoran (coconut-based vegetable dish), kaalan (stew of yogurt, coconut and plantain vegetable), pulissery (spiced yogurt and coconut curry) and various side dishes such as pachadi (pounded vegetables in yogurt) and mango pickle, and fried items like papad, along with sambhar, rasam, and rice. Lip-smacking sweet delicacies such as carrot and milk payasam (puddings) are also part of the delectable menu.

Now, I will tell you an interesting fact about Vishu. It will help you understand why we celebrate Vishu every year at this time. Basically, Vishu is the time that marks the spring equinox.

I have read about the equinox Achachan. It means the Sun is exactly over the equator and there are equal days and nights.

That’s right! So, do you know the significance of that in Vishu?

It is very hot near the equator?

Ha ha. That is true, of course. But, also, after this time, the sun begins to move towards the northern hemisphere. So, that point of time when the sun is over the equator is used as the starting point of the year. That is why we celebrate this day as the New Year Day in Kerala, and it is considered the first day of the calendar year for us.

Did you know?

The Indian word for equator is Visvadrutta Rekha. So Vishu means equal or the point when the sun is halfway through its annual journey.

But Achachan, isn’t January 1st New Year’s Day?

That is based on the Gregorian calendar, Ajai. Around the world, for practical purposes, we follow the January-December Gregorian calendar year. But, within India, we have various regional calendars to determine important days in our lives.

Oh really? Is that why New Year’s seems to start in the middle of the year?

Yes. However, according to our calendar, it is, actually, the beginning of the year.

So then, is it New Year’s only for us in Kerala?

Interesting question! No, as a matter of fact, around the same time, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana also celebrate Ugadi (or Yugadi). Tamil Nadu celebrates Puthandu or Pudhuvarsham, Punjab celebrates Baisakhi, Assam Bohali Bihu, Manipur Cheiraoba, and Maharashtra and the Konkan regions celebrate Gudi Padva. Some communities in Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka also celebrate New Year’s at this time of year.

Interesting fact about Ugadi

Ugadi or Yugadi comes from ‘Yuga’ and ‘Adi’. ‘Yuga’ means a long period of time where the celestial bodies and our body, mind and breath are all in alignment. ‘Adi’ means beginning. So Yugadi means the beginning of an auspicious time when the celestial bodies and our physical body, and mind are in harmony or alignment.

Oh, so many states share this New Year all on the same day?

No. They do not all fall on the same day.

How come?

It is, like I said, because we follow different calendars across different regions. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra and some other states follow the Chandramana or the lunar calendar.

That means it is based on the Moon, Achachan.

Yes, exactly! Well done!

So, do others follow calendars based on the Sun?

Yes, some of them! Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Manipur, Punjab and some other states follow a solar calendar called Sauramana. Persia (now Iran) and Europe, (in pre-medieval times), also, used to follow a calendar based on the position of the Sun.

Some calendars are lunisolar (based on both the sun and the moon) and some jovian (based on Jupiter). So, based on the calendar you follow, you have different New Year days. Do you know when Vishu is this year, Ajai?

Yes, Amma told me. It is on Monday, April 15 in 2019. But Achachan, I thought the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere is on March 21st usually.

Brilliant point! I’m so glad you asked this relevant question. A few thousand years ago, the spring equinox was on April 14th.. But, because of the precession of the equinox, we have to adjust one day every 72 years in our calculations. We stopped making this adjustment about 1,500 years ago – during the period of Varahamihira in 530 CE. This has resulted in the gap in the actual equinox date and our New Year’s Day. The Indian Government has, however, officially noted that March 21st is the beginning of the calendar.

Some people even question the relevance of considering Vishu as New Year’s Day because of this gap. However, the popularity of the tradition has ensured that we have continued the sacred custom for centuries.

So, I will ‘wish you’ Happy ‘Vishu’ on Monday, Ajai!

Okay Achachan! Happy Vishu in advance! And, don’t forget!

Forget what?

The Vishu Kaineetam!

Oho, I thought you forgot the tradition of elders giving youngsters a little something! What were you thinking of – clinking coins or crackling currency notes?

Um…notes Achachan! Particularly pink ones!

(The new Indian Rs. 2,000 note is pink in color!)

Ha ha…we’ll see!