Festival Fever: Bihu, Vishu and Varsha Pirappu, Poila (Pohela) Boishakh, Puthandu and Sri Ram Navami

  

Yesterday and today are the days of many New Year festivals and celebrations here in India. There is a lot going on and it’s difficult trying to keep up. That said there is palpable excitement in the air and much discussion as to which temples are offering the best juices and snacks for believers. It is truly lovely to see so many excited and happy people.  I’ve tried to consolidate into bite size chunks each of the festivals, who is celebrating and how.

Bihu

What is it?

Bishnu is a spring festival celebrated in Assam.The name is derived from Sanskrit meaning ‘vernal equinox ‘.it is originally a fertility ritual. The festival represents the arrival of seeding time, the completion of sowing and transplanting of paddies and the end of the harvesting period. 

How is it celebrated?

It is celebrated across the state with exuberant singing, drumming and dancing. It is a secular and universal festival without any sectarian bias. Ladies perform the dances and men accompany them on horns and drums.

Vishu and Varsha Pirappu

What is it?

Vishu is the first day in the first Malayalam month of Medam (March-April). Varsha Pirappu is the Tamil New Year.

How is it celebrated?

Vishu is celebrated in Kerala with much fanfare. The traditional rituals followed are believed to to bring in another prosperous year for the Keralites. On the night before Vishu fresh agricultural produce such as rice, cucumber, jack fruit coconut etc are decorated and placed at the feet of lord Krishna. The yellow flowers of Konna Poova are also considered to bring prosperity. Believers also attend the Temple for prayers / puja.

Varsha Pirappu is the Tamil New Year and people decorate the entrance to their houses with Rangoli (or Kolam). To mark the holiness of the occasion mango leaves are also used to decorate the entrance. Early baths are taken and the whole family perform puja / prayers together. The lord Ganesha is offered fruits, sweets and flowers. Food has an emphasis on pulses and cereals and in the afternoon believers attend the temples and exchange gifts.

Poila Baisakh

What is it?

It is the Bengali New Year and is the first day of the Bengali calendar and celebrated on 14th or 15th April in Bangladesh, West Bengal and Tripura. The traditional greeting is “Shubho Noboborsho” meaning “Happy New Year”. 

How is it celebrated?

At dawn families and believers gather together to watch the sunrise usually at the bank of a river or lake. Any artists present will sing the new year song “Esho, he Boishakh”. The day is marked with singing, processions and fairs; visiting relatives, friends and neighbours preparing special dishes for any guests.

Puthandu

What is it?

Puthandu is the Tamil New Year and is celebrated in mid April (in keeping with the Hindu solar calendar) by Tamils in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Reunion and Malaysia. The traditional greeting is “Puttantu valttukkal”. In 2016 that is 14th April. (It is also known as Chittirai Vishnu in southern Tamil Nadu.)

How is it celebrated?

On the eve of Puthandu a tray is arranged with three fruits – mango, banana and jack fruit- betel leaves, are abut, gold/ silver jewellery, coins/ money, flowers and a mirror. This is viewed upon waking in the morning. The entrance to houses are decorated Kolams (Rangolis) and in some communities Neem flowers and raw mangoes symbolise growth and prosperity.

The first financial transaction of the year is traditionally with children or unmarried young as elders gift money as a token of good luck. It is also the first ploughing of the ground to prepare for the new agricultural cycle and is known as ‘arpudu’.

Sri Lankan Tamils begin the new year with a herbal bath to bring good health. ‘Coconut wars’ is played between youths in villages and cart races are also held. It is also a time for family visits.

Sri Ram Navami

What is it?

It commemorates the birth of lord Rama on the ninth day of the ‘Shukla Paksha’ (waxing moon) in the month of Chaitra. It marks the end of the nine day Chaitra-Navaratri celebrations. In 2016 that is Friday 15th April. It is believed that lord Rama is the seventh avatar of lord Vishnu and one of the oldest avatars of lord Vishnu having human form.

How is it celebrated?

Eight ‘Prahar’ fasting is suggested during Ram Navami which means devote believers should observe the fast from sunrise to sunrise (ie a full 24 hours). 

Puja is performed and devotional hymns are recited continuously (‘Akhand Paath’). Music is played (‘bhajan’) and songs of praise are sung (‘kirtan’). Images of the infant Rama are placed in cradles and rocked by devotees. Temples and family shrines are elaborately decorated and families gather at Noon (believed to be the time of birth) for prayers, chanting and offerings of fruits and flowers. At the end of the day the diety is taken into a procession in the streets.

 After puja the ‘Prasad’ is distributed (‘gracious gift’). This is edible food first offered to a deity or avatar and then distributed in their name to followers or others as a good sign. The Prasad is considered to have the diety’s blessing residing within it. The desire to get prasada and have darshana (the auspicious sighting of a diety) are the two major draws to temples and pilgrimage motivations. There is certainly frantic phone calls and moped trips between temples to discover which temple is offering the best juice (‘Panakam’ – a sweet juice prepared with jaggery and pepper) and food (community meals are often organised).

In Ayodhya, the birthplace of lord Rama, there are celebrations and functions held. It is regarded as one of the seven most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus.

Festival Fever

There is a lot going on at the moment. Yesterday and today there are a lot of people on the streets and at Temples. Parades are being arranged and dirties being prepared. There will be much celebrating later. Especially since this is the last festival until August – a long gap in celebrations here. 

Wherever you are – enjoy the new year celebrations if you can.

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