This was the day the child of the house always looked forward to, for it was the only successful day in a monetary sort of way, the only time money was given to the children in older days, days when terms like pocket money were not in vogue in Kerala. So when your pocket bulged with coins by the end of the day though not liberal in a value sense, coming from various uncles, aunts and elders of the family, the child had a beaming smile on your face for the next few days. The following days were spent in animated discussions with cousins as to who got how much and from whom and what was to be done with all the money.
But then Vishu was more than the ‘kainettam’. It started early that morning and had so much going on for the rest of the day. Starting with the Vishu kani, then the ‘chal pooja’ at the Chira, the fireworks, the sumptuous lunch followed by all kinds of happenings at home and the temple, the day was a joy for any Malayali, though it differed a bit from location to location. For us in Palakkad, it was a little bit more complicated with the field, farm work, many workers and so on. Let us go back in time take a look at how it all was; for those days are gone, replaced only by fond memories and just a quick and clinical Vishu kani and a lunch or dinner these days, if even that were possible.
As the article goes on, you will notice my veering away from the festival itself and go far away from the land, to lead you into other places, but for that you have to see how Vishu was some decades ago. First, thanks to Vijay Balakrishnan my friend, for sending me on this delightful quest and later Bernand Rajeev another friend, for making me embark on another but related project.
Malayalees have two main festivals, the Vishu and the Onam. The rest are celebrated somewhat half heartedly, in comparison, typically Aryan festivities such as Deepavali, Navarathri etc. Many question why the land was always so different, why the Malayalars did things a bit differently. Could it be that the separation by the Western Ghats and constant influx of foreign culture from the western visitors influenced the land so much? We shall see.
Vishu as they explain is usually on the day of the vernal equinox. Now what on earth could that be? The equinox occurs typically in March, marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere and fall (autumn) in the southern hemisphere from an astronomical viewpoint. During the equinox, the length of night and day across the world is nearly, but not entirely, equal. The vernal equinox occurs in the spring while the autumnal equinox occurs during fall (autumn). Vishu however follows the sidereal vernal equinox and generally falls on April 14 of the Gregorian year in Kerala, one of the few festivals based on the solar calendar. The word "Vishu" in Sanskrit means "equal". Therefore it is supposed that Vishu probably denotes the equinox day. Vishu is also considered as a harvest festival. Note however that although Vishu (first of Medam) is the astrological new year day of Kerala, the official Malayalam new year falls on the first month of Chingam (August - September).
Anyway while it is New Year ’s Day in neighboring Tamil lands, it is a harvest festival for the Malayalees, the day after which the hot season abates. The previous night is the important night when the older women on the family (those days we had joint families in the Tharavadu – ancestral house) got together to arrange what is known as the Vishu-Kani or what one sees as a good omen, early the next morning. Depending on what one saw, the year will turn out good or bad, but before we get to all that, let us see what the Kani is all about.
In some houses, you took a dip in the pond in darkness, wore fresh Kodi clothes and then came in to see the Kani making sure you do not come across any bad omens on the way, but it was not so with us . In our house, it was straight from bed to the Kani room after a quick face & mouth wash, eyes closed. After all that was done and you have had a bath and wore fresh new clothes, you go around to the elders who are always seated and then humbly accept (actually a gingery smirk remained on your face) the monetary presents (vishu kainettam – new coins or crisp notes) of money from them after touching their feet and seeking blessings which they solemnly doled out. For the next one or two hours that morning, you make sure that an otta pattar (lone Brahmin) or a buffalo or a cleaning woman with a broom or a nayadi or a cat are not sighted nearby for they are bad omens.
Then all the seniors, youngsters and the servants trooped off to our Chira farming lands under the mountains, again in darkness where the chal ceremony takes place (this is only in Palakkad), where a spade furrow is laid and token ploughing conducted by the Kariasthan himself. A pooja is done and the spade decorated with Konna flowers is used to lay the furrow. After which a number of Ola padakkam or leaf crackers are lit and amidst the unearthly din, the new day is ushered with the hope for a lucky harvest in autumn. There is more to this, like the involvement of kanians or astrologers, forecasts of weather for the next season and all that, sowing of many types of seeds and farming jargon and the symbolic splitting of a coconut, but it would be too complex to the uninitiated, so I will leave it here.
The children returned to the house to continue the lighting of crackers and all kinds of fireworks while the older people sat on chairs and watched and doled out liberal doses of advise relating to health and safety and talked among themselves on how much more louder and bigger the crackers of their days were and how such and such an uncle did this or that. Much vettila and adakka is consumed, with permission given to the kids also to indulge in this activity and in which I gleefully partook.
But then you wonder why the malayali vishu is somewhat different from all the other New Year days in the neighboring states. Have you asked a question why? A mountain separation cannot give rise to a totally alien system or then again could it? Was there something else to it? And that was the question Vijay asked me, pointing towards the similarity of the Kani festivities in another place conducted during the same time of the year. Bernard pointed me in a diametrically opposite direction and I will leave that for a second detailed study. Now where could we see the similarity? Well, for that you have to go westward, to the Iranian Scythian regions and observe how they celebrate their New Year day or Nau Roz. Interestingly they have a very similar function on their New Year dawn and it is called Hafta seen or Hafta Sin.
As I explain the event, you will see the remarkable similarity, though we know now that the early settlers in Malabar around the end of the Perumal era were a handful of Syrian Catholics, some Jews and some Armenians, and of course the Arabs and Moplah’s amongst the Nairs, Namboothiris, Pulayans etc. All this is clear but for the one aspect which continues to fascinate writers and researchers as to where the Nairs came from and also questioning their ‘different’ customs. Did they arrive with peculiar customs or did they adopt these customs from somebody else? Why so? Does this coincidence of customs in the Persian regions and Malabar have anything to do with each other? As I said before, we shall endeavor to see if there is a link by studying the similarities.
So as you can imagine, the astronomical Persian calendar begins its New Year on the day when the equinox occurs before apparent noon roughly around the 21st of March.
While the equinox is in March (based on tropical astrology) in Europe the Vishu is in April in Malabar and the difference is explained by the fact that Indian astrologers use what is known as Sidereal astrology based on true constellations – now that is a rather complex subject by itself which I will not drag you, the reader into, so don’t be alarmed..
The main Haft Sīn items are: wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth, a sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence, the dried fruit of the oleaster tree - symbolizing love, garlic - symbolizing medicine, apples - symbolizing beauty and health, sumac berries - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise, vinegar - symbolizing age and patience. The Haft Sin table again is prepared only by women. Nowadays they have many more items, like the holy books, flowers and so on, listed below making the table look quite similar to the Vishu Kani in Malabar. Now they include the fragrant hyacinth flower - symbolizing the coming of spring, coins - symbolizing prosperity, Pastries such as baklava , toot white berries, dried nuts, berries and raisins, lit candles symbolizing enlightenment and happiness, a mirror, Sweet mint syrup, decorated eggs, water with a bitter orange in it symbolizing Earth "floating" in space and a poetry book, such as the or a religious text. As you can see, the flowers, the seeds, the mirror, the coins, the gift giving, the new cloth etc are striking similarities.
And we could compare the Chal Pooja of Palghat which I mentioned before with the different types of seeds etc, to early nau roz celebrations in Persia, where twenty-five days before New Year, 12 large cylindrical shaped containers made from raw brick were erected in the city centre. Different seeds were planted in each including wheat, barley, lentils and rice. On the sixth day of Farvardin, the new growths were pulled out and scattered around with music, songs and dancing. Abu- rayhan Biruni the celebrated Iranian scientist in his book; Asar al-Bagheyeh states, that this was done to estimate the growth of various seeds for the new season and to know how good a crop they could expect in the coming year. All the people also used to grow seven seeds in their own homes. Pretty much similar in concept with the Vishu Chal furrow celebration.
But then all this provides is an obscure link between Zoraster, early Persia and a the Vishu in early Malabar. We see that the new cloth, the seeds, the mirror, the fruits, the flowers (though a different color) the money giving after the kani, the holy book etc are pretty similar. So is there a connection? Well, Nau Roz or new day became popular in the entire Scythian region, a place Nair’s as some historians say are said to originate from. To sum up that theory, the Nairs have also been classified as of Indo-Scythian (Saka) origin. After the Saka or Indo-Scythian people invaded India in the second century BC, some Nagas mixed with the Scythians in North India. They adopted the Matriarchy, Polyandry and other Scythian customs. They migrated southwards and reached Malabar, where they fought with the Villavars and defeated them. Later they established their own kingdoms in Malabar and Tulu Nadu. The Nagas finally reached Travancore, the Southern most part of India.But this is all quite tenuous, and difficult to establish even with some genetic pointers. People who are interested in such matters may read my article on the ‘origins of nairs’.
The tree and its flower are so essential on that Vishu day and mostly useless for the rest of the year these days, though it did have some pharmaceutical (laxative) uses once upon a time. A tree that was called rajataru or kings tree, uncommonly beautiful when in flower, few surpassing the elegance of its long pendulous racemes of large bright yellow flowers intermixed with the young bright green foliage (Roxburgh – Flora Indica). This is the Konna, the golden shower tree or the cassia fistula - the Indian laburnum. Interestingly the tree is mentioned in ancient Chinese and Japanese texts, and also in Arab books as the Indian Carob – Xarnub Hindi. Well, it appears it has been very common in Egypt in olden times (taken these from India), and the Persians imported the pods both from Egypt & India. Was it perhaps far more important an export then than today? It is certainly mentioned in ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, Chinese & Persian medicine. Was it perhaps a source of much revenue to the ancient people of Malabar, in addition to providing the bright spark on the New Year day for a relatively serious group of people? I would not be surprised.
explained in a paper set by Dr Samar Abbas. According to him and other researchers the ancient Pallava dynasty is considered to be of Persian decent. As it goes, the Pallavas were a northern tribe of Parthian origin constituting a clan of the nomads having come to India from Persia. Unable to settle down in northern India they continued their movements southward until they reached Kanchipuram. But the Pallava people as such had nothing to do with Vishu celebrations anyway and there were no Persians in Malabar to create a significant influence. So the origin of Vishu remains elusive though there are significant similarities between Haft Seen and Vishu kani and Zoroastrian NauRoz and Vishu. Or could it have been that one group settle ddown in Kachi whereas the other veered through and down the Northern mountain passes into what is Malabar? Likely as well, if the above theory holds forte.
HAPPY VISHU TO ALL OF YOU
Part 2 will check out the similarities of Vishu with the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Pics - from the web, thanks to the owners.