April 14, 2001
Days start getting hot during the short tropical spring, but the aridity of summer is still to come. The landscape of Kerala is beautiful with blooms of lovely yellow kanikonna flowers and mango blossoms are replaced by budding mangoes. Jack tress are laden with giant green jackfruits. Preparations for the coming Vishu, the festival of promise, of expectation, and of the hope of another good harvest season, fill the land with joy. Houses are cleaned and children anticipate with excitement the Vishu firecrackers that they will light on this auspicious dawn. Sometimes even the sky resonate the children’s mood, unleashing the sparklers of nature, the thunder and the flashes of lightning, and drenching the dry fields and drying water wells. Mothers get organized for the beautiful display of Vishu Kani, which every Hindu Keralite wishes to see before the first rays of the Vishu dawn.
Vishu celebrates the bounty of tropical spring. It is always celebrated on the first day of the Lunar month of Medam (April-May). Vishu represents the passing of the sun from Taurus into Aries, a solar event that marks the beginning of a new astrological year. Based on ancient astrological calendar it was considered our New Year’s Day. However, our New Year’s Day was changed to mid-September in 825 A.D. (Whether it was changed to celebrate our king’s victory over neighboring kingdoms or was it to mark the establishment of the new major seaport Kollam or was in honor of Adi Sankaracharya remains a topic of debate among historians). Vishu is the celebration of hope and expectations of a new dawn. The traditional rituals followed in the festival are believed to usher in a year of prosperity.
The most important aspect of this festival is Vishukani, 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 very pretty arrangement of rice, coconut, betel leaves, areca nuts, various vegetables and fruits, gold jewelry, coins, white cloth with border (mundu), bright yellow kanikonna flowers and Valkannadi (bell metal mirror) all arranged in a large bell metal pan called uruli. The uruli is half filled with raw rice and a large yellow cucumber is placed in the middle. The cucumber is draped with gold jewelry and all other items are displayed beautifully around it. A coconut is broken in the middle and the two halves are filled with Kanikonna flowers, and fresh puliavaraka, a type of seasonal beans similar to lima beans. A nilavilakku (oil lamp) filled with coconut oil and a wick and a small bowl filled with coins are placed in front of the uruli. All these things are assembled on the previous night itself. The lady of the household wakes up way before dawn and lights the oil lamp and views Vishukani. After that she wakes up others in the family and with their eyes closed, leads each one to the Vishukani. One by one they sit in front of the arrangement with folded arms to witness the Vishukani. Then they pick up a coin and touch both eyes with it and put it back. After everyone has seen Vishukani, children celebrate Vishu by lighting firecrackers. Famous temples of Kerala like Guruvayoor and Sabarimala are filled with devotees on Vishu morning to pray and view the Vishukani at these temples.
The traditional gift on this holiday, Vishukainettam, is a simple, unwrapped gift of rupee bills or coins from the elders in the family to the youngsters. In old days, when the country was ruled by royal families, state officials used to pay respects to the reigning king to wish him a Happy New Year, to offer gifts, and receive Vishukainettam from him.
No celebration is complete without a sumptuous vegetarian sadya (feast) around noon. The dishes for this sadya include rice and the traditional four curries along with several accompaniments and one or two puddings. All dishes are prepared with fresh summer vegetables and fruits like various squashes, large cucumbers, mangoes, and jackfruit. The fruit curry, Kaalan, would be prepared with ripe mangoes in a creamy coconut sauce while the mildly spicy Erisseri would be cooked with small chunks of green jackfruit. Aviyal, the mixed vegetable medley, would have all types of summer vegetables in it. And there would be jackfruit chips and fresh green mango pickle to add crunch and zest to the meal. For desert there would be Chakka Pradhaman or Mampaza Pradhaman, creamy puddings prepared with homemade jackfruit jam or mango jam cooked with jaggery, ghee and fresh coconut milk. In some parts of central Kerala special dishes called Vishu katta (rice cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with cumin) and Vishu Kanji (rice soup with coconut milk) are traditional Vishu dishes, prepared only for this festival.
Ancient agrarian practices of Kerala depended solely on the movement of Sun. According to Indian astrology, the solar event on Vishu is believed to be the ideal time for commencing rice cultivation. In the rice producing areas of Kerala where cultivation begins after monsoon, farmers observe a ritual called chal (furrow) on Vishu morning. It marks the auspicious commencement of rice farming. On the eastern corner of the rice field they light oil lamps and decorate with kanikonna flowers and rice flour designs. They pin up leaves in the shape of bowls and fill them with navadhaanyam, nine different kinds of grain seeds. And these bowls are placed 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.
Several village temples in central Kerala celebrate a festival called Vishuvela either before or after Vishu. In my hometown the festivities begin a few days before Vishu. It is a seven days long competition of parades between the two sides of the town, the east side and the west side. Every day during this week both groups organize colorful parades that begin late in the afternoon. Each parade moves at a very slow pace along the dirt roads, and eventfully arrives at a temple on the opposing side. During the first four to five days the parade would feature children dressed as Hindu mythological characters. There would be both children and adults dressed as tigers who would dance to the tune of the tribal bands. As days go by the parades also picks up momentum. They become more colorful, start later in the day, and include more adults. The festivities culminate on the seventh day procession that often involves large decorated floats set up on bullock carts and pickup trucks, and several bands. Men dressed in mythological costumes would ride on the floats. Spectators and street vendors that sell toys and snacks crowd the streets. The processions make several stops, especially while passing through the streets of the opposing side, and the bands and the tiger dancers would put together a terrific and boisterous show. On the eighth day the two sides end their rivalry by jointly lighting a bonfire at dusk in front of the temple of Chittur Bhagavathi, the patron goddess of our town.
Vishu, like any other festival, is rooted 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 Vishu. The day after Vishu the first thing we purchase is salt – begin the New Year by purchasing a basic essential. I remember as a child I used to wake up at the crack of dawn to the loud calls of street vendors selling salt.