by Elizabeth Menon

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‘Happy Vishu', 'Shubo Nabo Barsho’, 'Gudi Padwa', 'Thapna'...!

'Vishu' is on 15 April this year, on the 2nd day of Medam, instead of the 1st day of the month, as the 'Spring equinox', sun's entry from Menam to Medam (Mesham), was at 7:00 AM and hence, Vishu could be celebrated only on the next day! The hours of day light and night are equal on this day, and hence called, 'Vishu', which means 'Equal' in Sanskrit. The 'Spring equinox' is celebrated all over India, taking on different names: 'Vishu' in Kerala, 'Ugadi' in Andhra, 'Rogali Bihu' in Assam, 'Gudi Padwa' in Maharashtra, 'Baisakhi' in Punjab, Sankranti' in Odisha, 'Puthandu' in Tamil Nadu, Bisu in Karnataka, 'Pohela Boishakh- Nabo barsho' in Bengal, 'Thapna' in Rajasthan, etc! The celebrations also differ slightly, but it is the day to pay homage to Lord Krishna for all the blessings, and hope for a better future! It is also a day to start agriculture -- however, the Indian Calendar is 24 days behind the Tropical calendar (Gregorian Calendar), due to the precession of the equinox because we still don't accept the scientific approach, and hence out of phase with the seasons, resulting in the flexible dates for the various celebrations!

'Vishukkani', 'Vishukkaineettam' and the 'Sadya' are the crucial ingredients for the 'Vishu celebrations in Kerala, and the houses get a spring clean too! Vishukkani is what everyone sets his/her eyes on first thing in the morning! Setting up the 'Vishukkani' is arranged on the previous evening, which is an elaborate process that has rules set in stones, and those are strictly adhered to, but can be improvised if the items are not available of course! Various items are displayed in a quiet corner or the prayer room, in a round 'Bell metal cauldron', which is placed in front of Lord Krishna's statue: various vegetables: coconut cut in two halves, Jack fruit split lengthways, Yellow gourd, Golden yellow mango, betel leaves, areca nut, banana; raw rice, coins, gold and silver ornaments, New white cloth with gold border, Vaal-kannati (Aranmula kannati--mirror); an oil lamp with odd numbers of light is kept before the deity; The kannati(Mirror) is placed so that one's face can be seen! If this vision of beauty is the first thing seen on waking up on the morning of 'Vishu', it is believed to bring happiness, prosperity and luck in all ventures for the 'Visually Uplifted one'! Lord Krishna takes the centre stage and all the family members get gift from the elders! The day starts with the visual treat, 'Vishukkani' and then the oldest member of the family gives the 'Vishukkaineettam', which is traditionally coins. The 'Vishukkaineettam' can come in different shapes and sizes, and now, it has moved on with the rate of inflation and it can be any amount, though a coin is mandatory! (I was in Kerala for the last Vishu and I got 101 Rupees!)

One shouldn't forget that praying and reading Holy books like the 'Ramayana' also are part of the ritual! This follows the traditional vegetarian feast, 'Sadya' served on plantain leaves, displaying the splendour and the culinary skill of the women -- I don't forget the few men who take pride in showing off their culinary expertise on occasions like Vishu, Onam or any other time, of course! Mouth-watering dishes such as, Parippu, Kaalan, Olan, koottukary, pachaty, kichati, banana chips, various paayasams, along with rice, piclkles and pappatam, and the inevitable delicacy, the ghee make their grand appearance on the plantain leaves! And then, it is time to enjoy the culinary spread!

Bengalees celebrate New Year during the month of 'Boishakh' that is the first month of the Bengali calendar, and this year it is on 14 April – it was on the same day as 'Vishu' last year! ! People clean their houses and they draw colourful designs in front of their houses, using rice four. A red clay pot, which is decorated with ‘Swastika’ in white colour, is kept in the middle of the design. The pot is filled with vermilion and holy water and also has a branch of mango tree that has five twigs and few leaves -- the ritual of placing this pot is a symbol of good wealth for the family. The traditional feast follows the festivities! I am sure most celebrations in different States would follow similar patterns, only with subtle changes in names and coloures, but a new beginning for all!

There are other traditions associated with Vishu, that vary in different parts: Kaniyappam/Unniyappam (delicious sweet fritters made with a batter made of rice flour, small ripe bananas and jaggery), Maatta Chantha (Market run by the 'Barter system', usually held on the day before Vishu), Vishu forecast, etc, are very popular! Talking about 'Vishu' is not complete without mentioning the beautiful 'Vishu Pakshi (Vishu Bird, the 'Indian Cuckoo Bird') This medium sized delightful grey bird, mostly solitary, makes an appearance during Vishu with a distinctive call, that has four notes, which has been transcribed with very little variation between regions.
In Kerala there are a few interpretations: “Chakkaykkuppunto”, which means 'Has the Jackfruit has enough salt” – cooked version/ “Vithum Kaikkottum”, which means “Paddy seeds and spade”, as it is the sowing of the paddy seeds in the fields after the Vishu/ “Kallan chakkettu Kantaal Mintenta”, which means “Thief picked the Jackfruit, but keep mum if seen”! In China, it is interpreted as the soul of the dead Shepherd uttering “Where is my sheep”! And there are many songs written about this delightful bird, which brings musical notes to our celebrations in April for the Spring Equinox! (One example: “Vishupakshi chilachu...”, meaning “Vishu Bird sang ...”)

This is not just a time to get gifts and feast on gastronomic luxuries, but it is also a day to start thinking of our existence, our aim in life and what options we should take for our betterment. A time for new resolutions too, to help fellow beings, especially, the vulnerable people among us, women and children and the elderly, and our 'Mother Earth, our planet', and a time to take new resolutions!
Wish you all, Happiness, Love, Peace and Prosperity for the coming year!

© E Menon



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