Happy Vishu  – Part 1 All  About Vishu

Vishu Picture Courtesy Padmaja Pottathil.

Happy Vishu !
Happy Baishaki !
Happy Bihu !
Puttāṇṭu vāḻttukkaḷ !
Happy Ugadi !

Vishu Picture Courtesy Padmaja Pottathil.

My last  few  posts have been  about  food   related  to Vishu   celebrations.  For  Hindus  from  Kerala   Vishu is the  new  year  according  to the  traditional calendar – Kollavarsham. It is the year 1193   according  to this  calendar. Just to be  clear  on Vishu it  does  not  turn to  year  1194. Confused  yet ?

Kollavarrsham   follows  a  solar  calendar –   to be  fair it  is  a  little  more  complicated  than  that.  This calendar   is  organized differently compared to the  Gregorian  calendar.  There are  12  months  in  a  year , but the moths follow the  signs  of  the Zodiac.  On   Vishu the   sun  moves   into the  house  of  Aries  and  it  is  considered to be the start of a new   year.

This occurs  on   the  first  day of  the  month  Medam   and usually  falls  on the  14th  of  April in the  Gregorian  calendar. If  the  sun’s transition to Aries occurs  late  in the  day  the  celebrations  will be  on the 15th.  The  month  Medam  is the  9th month of  the  year and  yes  we  celebrate  new year in the  9th month.

No,  we  are  not  alone  in celebrating  new year  at  this  time!  To put it  in perspective – the  latest  revision of  Gregorian  calendar  is  less than 500 years  old  whereas  we have been celebrating  this  for  over 1000 years. This  solar  new  year  is  celebrated  in many other parts of   Asia  as  well.  In North  India  it is  Baisakhi ,  in  Myanmar it is  Thingyan , in  Combodia it is Choul Chnam Thmey, in  Srilanka it is Aluth Avurudda,   and  there will be  many others  that I am  unaware of ..

Happy new  Year  to you all !!!

Mythology

In a  country with as rich  literature and  oral  traditions  as  India,  one  can  find  stories  that  tie  almost  anything  in the  cultural fabric   to its  mythology.  Here are  the  two  stories  I have  come  across  –   Vishu is the day when Lord Krishna killed Narakasura, a demon, ushering  in a  new  dawn of  peace and growth. Yes  it is the same  legend  as  in  Diwali.   The  second   story points  to  Ramayana. Ravan,  the  Demon  King of  Ramayana,   was  powerful  enough to   control  Surya, the sun god. It  is  believed  that  under his  reign  Ravana  never allowed   Surya  to rise   from true  East.  No, these  two  were  not  able  to amicably resolve   their  differences and  Surya  had  to wait  for Ravan’s  death  before  he  could  resume  his  original  course !

These  stories  seem  a  bit  odd  to me as some one   who grew  up celebrating  Vishu as  new year.   Obviously  Krishna  could not  have killed   Narakasura on 2  different  dates –  or  could  he ? Could it  be  as  simple as  us  following  a different  calendar?  Or  could  it  be a  case  of a  dominant culture   co-opting  another culture’s  traditions ?    At any  rate  for a  vast   majority of  us the  core of  this  festival  did  not  lie  in   religion but   was  one of  the  bond  between  man and  nature.

Kani Konna - Golden Shower - in full bloom.

Vishu In Kerala

Vishukani is  typically a  Hindu  tradition,  other  than that I can  not  recall any   other religious significance to this festival.  Temples celebrate  Vishu  and  present a  kani  for  the  devotees, but  most  celebrate  it  at  homes.  It is a seasonal festival,  an  occasion  when farmers get  ready for the next season.   “Time  to get  the seeds under the ground” as  the  old  timers  put it.   There is   even a tradition of   ceremonial ploughing  of  the    field  in   some  parts  of  Kerala .

This is the  season   when Kani Konna (The Golden Shower Tree in the picture ) is  in full bloom.   It  is    similar  to  the  cherry blossoms in  season –  all adorned  with  flowers  with  very few , if  at  all  any,  leaves. The  color of  this  flower –  yellow (gold) –  is a symbol of  prosperity and  features  heavily in  Vishu celebrations.

For  kids, it  is  the  summer break!  The  text   books are  forgotten  and  everyone is  in a  more  relaxed  mood. The  heat is  still bearable,  the  final  exam  results  aren’t  due   for  another  month  and  everything is  fine  with the  world!   Plenty of  sweet  mangoes  and  jackfruits  to   go around .. and  enough time  to  spare .. that is   the  Vishu I remember.

Vishu Fire works
Traditions

Vishu is a  family celebration.  The  most  important  part of  Vishu is  Vishukkanni. It is the  first  thing that  you see  in the morning – bright, cheerful and  auspicious. The  bright  yellow Golden  Shower  flowers (Kani Konna) are  one of  the most  important  part  of  Vishu Kani.  In villages  and  small towns  if  you happen to  own a  tree  and  it is  in bloom  chances  are  that  you are  popular  guy at  least  once a  year!   Trust  me  when I say  this – we can and  will jump over  fences   and  face  other  obstacles if  you have  a  tree in bloom  and  are  not   willing  to   share !  Luckily   in many big  cities  these flowers  will be  available in the markets  the  day before   Vishu  –  dramatically decreasing  the  incidents of  vandalism !

The Kani is placed  in a common space in the house.  It will be  set  on a  large  tray or  similar  piled  with fresh fruits , flowers , gold , silver,  money,  mirror  and  sometimes  idols  of  Krishna  and  other  gods.  Kani  konna flowers ,  vellari (a  kind of  cucumber),  Kasavu  mundu (traditional  clothing  with  golden  embroidery), gold  mirror  and  lamps  are  all important  part of  the kani.   It is  set  facing  east  and  you see   your  reflection in the  mirror  surrounded    by signs of  prosperity.  The  goal for  the year  is  to  bring that   reflection  in the   mirror –  the  wonder , the  prosperity , the  brightness  –  to  reality.  The  belief  is  that  this  image  is going  to be  the  harbinger  of  prosperity and  longevity.

Usually the  lady of  the  house  prepares  the  Kani the previous  night, lights  it  in the morning and  guides  the  rest  of  the family to it.  In  my family, mom used  to light the kani and  wake  up dad.  It  was  his  job  to lead  us  to the  Kani and  give us   Kaineettam. I remember   squeezing  my eyes  shut  and  covering it   with  hands  as an added  insurance to  make  sure  that  I don’t  accidentally see  anything  else on the  way.  After Kani comes  the most important part  – Vishu kaineettam.  The  elders of  the family  give the  youngsters  money – no strings  attached. If  there is  ever a sure  way to keep a  tradition  alive , this is  it!

I remember  one   Vishu that I and  my toddler had spent  with  my husband’s parents.   It  was  my baby’s first  Vishu  and  MIL  made  sure  that  he  did  not  miss  the kani.  She  set  everything  up in a  small uruli (shallow brass vessel), and  brought it up to our  room.  The little  guy was  fascinated  by the bright  lights  and  colors  and  happily reached  for  the kaineettam,  and  it  still goes  on..

In  many families  there is a  tradition of  giving   Vishukaineettam  to  small kids   and  others in the  neighborhoods  well.   This  goes  on  till day 10 or  pathamudayam (10th  day break).   No, you don’t  have  to  give  the money to the  same  person   multiple  times , but  if you plan on  getting   some   make  sure  you are  there  to claim it  by the  10th  day.

It is  not  just about  money,  but food and firecrackers  feature prominently in the  festivities  as  well.  Many families  start  the  day  with  Vishu Kanji ,   and   an  elaborate  feast  for  lunch.  Unlike  Onam   the  feast is  not  necessarily vegetarian.  Since  it  is a  season of  fresh  fruits  like   jackfruits  and  mangoes   dishes  featuring  these  are  also a  big  part  of  the feast.

Part 2 –  Vishu  Far  Away From  Home

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