By Dr Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia
Across South Asia, spring festivals (March-April), in the months of Phalgun and Chaitra have a special significance as they are agriculture-based. The rites and rituals are shared across borders. Historically, this has led to an amalgamation of activities as well as thought processes, besides creating a strong bond with a common factor – Mother Nature.
The spring festival is observed under many names across India. Nowroz is celebrated by the Parsis at the beginning of the month of Chaitra (March-end). The word Nowroz has come from two words- Now meaning ‘New’ and Roz meaning ‘Day’. The event marks the 1st day of the Spring Equinox and the beginning of the traditional New Year- i.e. the 1st day of the first month- Farvardin– of the Iranian calendar. It also marks the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere and is roughly celebrated around March 19 – 21 and is observed the moment the sun crosses the Equator and equalises night and day.
Chetti Chand is celebrated by the Sindhi community. It marks the first day of the Sindhi month of Chet (Chaitra) (March-end). Interestingly, this also coincides with other spring festivals in March and Apri, including, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Goa and the Konkan in western India, and Ugadi in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana and Karnataka in South India, Navreh in Kashmir and Navratra in Jammu in north India.
By the end of the month of Chaitra (April-end) an year comes to an end. Various festivals mark the occasion with celebrations for sowing of the new harvest for the upcoming summer. In this season April 13-15 there is Vishu in Kerala and Tamil Puthandu in Tamil Nadu, Vaisakhi in North and central India, Poila Boisakh in Bengal, parts of Assam and Tripura, and Bishuva Sankranti in Odisha in eastern India, Cheiraoba in Manipur and Rongali Bihu in Assam in North Eastern India.
Despite the cultural inter connections, the various regions celebrate the occasion in thei own way, with traditional food, sweetmeats, music and dances as well as their own regional clothes. Traditionally these food items were prepared with the freshly harvested winter crops and are mostly made from rice, coconut and various seasonal fruits.
A variety of symbols of thanksgiving to the deities as well as Mother Nature are also seen. There is the Gudi, which is put up in Maharashtrian households. This involves an inverted kalash or pitcher on a long stick, around which is wound a bright saffron cloth and mango leaves and flowers- representing a new beginning. Similar is the Basundhara theki in Oriya households. A small pot filled with pana (a sweet drink of misri and water), hung on a tulsi (Basil plant) with a hole at the bottom of the pot that allows the liquid to drip on the plant. This represents rain, water and life.
A puja is also performed at the occasion of Nowruz. In the Parsi community, a table is set with seven items which all begin with ‘S’- or sin in Farsi. This includes sabzeh (sprouts), an apple (sib), dried fruit of the oleaster tree (senjed), garlic (seer), vinegar (serkeh), a sweet wheat-based pudding (samanu), and the spice sumac.
In Bangladesh there is celebration of Poila Baisakh (first day of the month of Baisakh) and Naba Barsha (New Year) on April 14. The year 2020 is equivalent to 1427 in the Bengali calendar. This also coincides with the celebrations of the traditional New Year in West Bengal, Tripura and parts of Assam. Across all these regions, this is considered to be an auspicious time for trade and commerce. It marks the beginning of a new log book for the year. This is the halkhata (log/accounts book) and is followed by a puja of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha. People partake traditional sweets and distribute them among relatives, friends as well as customers.
The similarities are centuries old. It should be mentioned that unlike Nepal where the calendar starts in 57 BCE, the Bengali regional calendar begins with 593 CE. The Bengali calendar may owe its origin to Emperor Akbar. It combines lunar Islamic calendar and the regional solar agricultural calendar which already prevailed in the region for the sake of collecting taxes at the end of the spring harvest.
It is often stated that Akbar asked Fathullah Shirazi, who was the astronomer in his court, to combine and create a new calendar. This is known as Fawsholi shawn (harvest calendar). Another school of historians argue the calendar began later on during the time of the Mughal Diwan of Bengal- Murshid Quli Khan (who was Diwan during the time of Emperor Aurangzeb). Another study says that the traditional name of the calendar is Bangabda and is also found in two Shiva temples which dates back to a time earlier than that of Emperor Akbar. It could have started in the 14th century the regional ruler Hussein Shah.
Today, the date is celebrated as a national holiday and with pomp and splendour across the country. A special mention may be made about the celebrations in the Bangladeshi capital city of Dhaka as well as Chittagong, where songs of Rabindranath Tagore greet the day and is followed by a ‘Mangal Shobhayatra’ (a rally for good wishes and well-being) by the students of the University of Dhaka and University of Chittagong respectively.
In Afghanistan, Nowruz is celebrated at the same time in which the festival is celebrated in India. This is decided according to the time of the equinox and at the precise moment when the Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the sun’s periphery, making the length of the day and the night equal- generally corresponding to the time between March 19-21.
The year 2020 coincides with the Afghan year 1399. Nowruz is a celebration of spring as well as life, after the harsh winter. Preparations of Nowruz celebrations generally begin on the last Wednesday before the New Year which is referred to as ‘Chaharshane Suri’. The following day is Farmer’s Day and it is celebrated through the display of agricultural products and livestock. Large multi-day exhibitions are held at Badam Bagh in Kabul each year to encourage new products, ideas and trade between farmers.
The celebrations in Nepal coincides with those of adjoining Bengal, Bangladesh, Tripura and Assam and the New Year is celebrated between April 13-15. The calendar followed is referred to as the ‘Bikram Sambat’ and ‘Nava Barsha’ or new year is observed as an official holiday.
The ‘Bikram Sambat’ uses lunar months and solar sidereal years. Various rituals are performed, including the Bisket Jatra, Sindoor Jatra and Bode Jatra to welcome the traditional New Year. The Nepali Bikram Sambat calendar is 56.7 years ahead of the solar Gregorian calendar and it is the dominant calendar of the country though ‘Nepal Sambat’ is accepted as the national calendar of the country.
The ‘Bikram Sambat’ calendar is also widely used by several medieval inscriptions across India and is said to take its name after the legendary king- Vikramaditya. In colonial times, it was believed to have originated from the time king Vikramaditya expelled the Sakas from Ujjain. But this remains to be proven and it is mostly believed that the wide use of Bikram or Vikram Samvat began by the 9th century AD, according to epigraphical evidences.
Buddhist and Jain epigraphy continued to use an era based on the Buddha or the Mahavira. In India, in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the day after Deepavali in October-November is considered as the first day of the month of the ‘Bikram Sambat’ calendar (and also the first day of the regional month of Kartikeya).
In Nepal, the New Year also marks a time to show love and respect towards one’s mother with the offer of sweets, fruits and gifts to her. In memory of one’s deceased mother, people visit the Mata Tirtha in west Kathmandu, take a holy bath and make offerings.
Bhutan, adjoining Himalayan regions and Tibet
The Losar new year is celebrated in Bhutan, Tibet as well as parts of Nepal by people belonging to various communities. People greet each other with the words- ‘Tashi Delek’- meaning a wish for abundance and good luck. The festival falls in February-March each year and is based on the Buddhist calendar. The word comes from the Tibetan words ‘lo’ meaning ‘year’ and ‘sar’ meaning new.
The year 2020 is the year of the Male Iron Rat. Losar celebrations begin with the Losar New Year’s Eve or the ‘Nyi Shu Gu’ and continues for two weeks in some parts of Bhutan. The first three days are observed with grand events. The festival is preceded by cleaning homes and making special offerings at temples called as ‘Lama Losar’. Special pujas and rituals mark the ornately decorated monasteries and the morning of the New Year is marked by eating breakfast at sun rise. Several rituals follow, and then there is a traditional lunch at noon and snacks in mid-afternoon. Later on, in the day, various events take place including singing, feasting, dancing and playing games, including archery and throwing darts.
In Sri Lanka the traditional New Year is celebrated as ‘Aluth Avurudu’ by the Sinhalese and as ‘Puthandu’ by the Hindu Tamils. They follows the Shalivahana calendar. The ‘Puthandu’ celebrations follow the same rites and rituals as found in Tamilnadu in India. The Sinhala ‘Avurudu’ has its special inflections.
It is also interesting to note that while the ‘Vikram Sambat’ calendar is mainly used in Northern India, the Shalivahana calendar is used in the Decsan states of Karnataka, Telengana, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
It is a time for the celebration of a bountiful harvest and to seek blessings for a prosperous year ahead. The Avurudu celebrations are marked by astrological denominations and the exact time is determined by astrologers. The auspicious time occurs when the sun moves from the ‘Meena Rashi’ (House of Pisces) to the ‘Mesha Rashi’ (House of Aries), after finishing a twelve-month cycle. The time falls between April 12- 15th.
The rituals of the New Year include bathing on the last day of the year and observing the moon during the last night of the previous year. Various traditional games follow as part of the celebrations, along with different kinds of sweetmeats and traditional food items. Often women congregate to play the traditional drum, Raban, as a mark of the transition from the old to the New Year. Puja is performed in temples and monasteries and children offer betel leaves to parents, elders and teachers as a mark of gratitude to receive blessings in return.
(The featured image at the top shows traditional Bengali fare on the occasion of Poila Baisakh)