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A new look at Vishu Celebration –A Festival of Kerala - By Dr.A.Sreekumar Menon

Dr.A.Sreekumar Menon Published on 07 April, 2014
A new look at Vishu Celebration –A Festival of Kerala - By Dr.A.Sreekumar Menon
Vishu is one of the important festivals of Kerala. People belonging to all castes, religions and ages celebrate Vishu with pomp and piety. It is the day when sun starts its six months journey in Utharayana  or northern hemisphere. To put it more correctly, it is the time due to relative motion of earth around the sun, the northern hemisphere  faces the sun and gets light from the sun most part of the day. Sun nourishes all life on earth .It is conceived as the visible God.The sun’s journey towards south is called as Dakhsinayana. Uttarayana period is said to be  auspicious period to those who live in the northern hemisphere of the earth like Bharath. It is believed that people can  gain real knowledge and spiritual awareness during uttarayana  and be able to lead a noble or virtuous life, which brings about eternal joy and comfort. In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Srikrishna asserts that those who lead a virtuous life and caste of their body during uttarayana and merge their souls with ‘Paramathma’ or Universal Soul which is a source of Brahmananda or eternal joy as opposed to experience of joy and sorrow mixed as seen  in the mundane life . So uttarayana reminds us to acquire knowledge of self, understanding of what is real and what is unreal in life and lead a moral, ethical and austere life. It is considered as the period of ‘jnanodaya’ or awakening of knowledge or knowledge of meritorious and virtuous living to those who seek it with earnestness or Shraddha.

 On the Vishu day when sun transits from Meena (Pisces) Rashi to mesharashi (Aries) , first zodiac sign as per Indian Astrological calculation. Astronomically, the nirayana longitude of the sun on that day will be zero. Aries synchronizes with the beginning of the nakshtra Aswin. Astronomically this represents the vernal equinox. Therefore Vishu most probably denotes one of the equinox days. On the Vishu day, both day and night will be of equal duration. So astrologically, it is considered as the beginning of Malayalam New year, although  first of chingam  which falls in September is considered as the official new Malayalam New Year. This time is celebrated as New Year, in other parts of India. For instance, in Assam, it is celebrated as Rongali Bihu ,in West Bengal as Naba Barsha ,in Maharashtra as Gudipawa ,in Punjab as Baisaki, in Orissa asVihuva Sankranti, in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, as Ugadi ,in Tulunadu as Bishu  and in Tamil Nadu as Puthannandu  or Varudapirappu .

 Vishu like any other Indian festivals has much deeper meaning and significance than we  understand. It teaches mankind many lessons of happy living .sathya sai Baba  the renowned spiritual luminary of India and epitome of philanthropy  had said  in his Vishu address at Prasantinilayam  that the inner significance  of Vishu was to cultivate  sacredness and that sanctifying our heart was the true pudding   (feast) rather than elaborate preparation of feast  called Vishu sadhya, which formed a part and parcel of  Vishu celebration. He added that Vishu iwas celebrated in its true sprit only when we tried to purify our heart. Purifying the heart means practicing the five fundamental virtues like ‘satya or truth,’dharma ‘or righteousness, ‘prema’ or universal love,’santhi ‘or peace and ‘Ahimsa’ or not hurting others either by words or by deeds . In this write up, an attempt is made to high light those precious guidelines, which Vishu offers. One celebrates Vishu in its true spirit, only if one understands what is expected of us  and follows those ideals or principles in our life. Vishu reminds us about those principles in life which we are either not aware of or  ignored due to pressures of life of cut- throat materialism
The word ‘Vishu’ means ‘equal’, in the ancient Indian Sanskrit / Vedic language or ‘Devabhasha, meaning divine language . From the day of vishu, sun’s position is such that the day and the night become equal .This fact of equality has wider meaning. First, it conveys that we should maintain the feelings of equality among ourselves and among all the living and even non-living beings. It reveals the upanishadic truth that divinity dwells in everything in the universe. We should maintain  sense of equality in our relations with our fellow human beings, without showing discrimination based on caste, religion, age, nationality, ethnicity, personal prejudice and so on . Sense of equality promotes oneness. United we stand, divided we fall. Rich person and beggar, lord and servant, parent and children , husband and wife  are different roles assigned to the people, which are believed to be the result of their deeds in the past births. One’s status, that is whether one is high or low in social status or in the eyes of others should not depend upon one’s birth, the family in which he is born, his economic condition, the caste he belongs to; but should depend upon his present deeds or how righteously he lives. The word Brahmin means those who follows 'brahmavidya’ or 'Athmajnan', or knowledge of self and leads a righteous or uplifted life. This means that any one irrespective of whether they are born in high or low caste family can attain brahminhood by making his life noble.
 From  our epic Srimad Bhagavata , Lord Narayana took birth as Narasimha ( an unusual form - upper half  in the  form of lion and lower half as man, as neither man no animal ), one of ten Avatars, to save his devotee Prahlada , who was born in an Asura family  and bought up with people belonging to family of demons . Hiranyakaspu had got the boon from Brahma that neither man nor animal   could kill him. So God Narayana had to take a form which was neither man nor animal or half man and half animal, to kill him. These show strange are the ways of working of God, which our limited intellect cannot comprehend. So it is childish to think that one can commit sins of unruly living and still escape from punishment from the divine.  Asuras  or demons  lead  ruthless lives, which are opposite of brahmanic way of living ,that is with pure mind and control over senses .The example of Prahlada  itself suggests that a person though born of evil parents and brought up under evil  influences can still   become  a ‘satvik ‘ or righteous person with  his will and efforts.   This also shows   every one who is noble in character is near and dear to God and that God makes no distinction whether one is high or low in birth, rich or poor and so on for showering his grace and reforming the character.

Another inner meaning of sense of equality  pertains to our attitude that is keeping our mind steady, in equipoise or balanced in both happiness and sorrow, gain or loss, victory or defeat, praise or censure and also being decisive or not wavering in our decisions or not being impulsive. If we guard against being elated, when fortune   knocks at our door  or when good things happen to us, we will be able  to sit back  with forbearance ,when misfortunes befall on us . Our tendency to get excited invariably follows our tendency to get depressed. In addition, as fortunes and  their cousins, misfortunes alternate, we are caught between short-lived joy and irrevocable pain and sorrow. We should be decisive , meaning that  we  should take a decision considering pros and cons of the situation  and once we  take a decision , we should stick to it, come what  may .

 Vishu reminds us of the traditional rural culture or agricultural- based living of people of Kerala. In other words, it is a village festival. It is celebrated during sowing season ,  where as another important festival Thiruvonum is celebrated during harvesting season. People pray to All mighty  during the season of sowing paddy crop for bumper yield and   during Thiruvonum festival or harvesting season, they express their gratitude to Almighty for rewarding their efforts with bumper crops and the attendant prosperity and material abundance . Vishu also symbolizes symbiotic relationship between man and nature or environment and advocates preservation, nurturance and reverence of nature .
 Kerala gets some summer rains prior to  Vishu day; with the result, the soil becomes loose and fertile.The lower layer of the soil comes up .The smell of the new soil wafts through air , after the first rain after prolonged summer . It is the time for sowing paddy, which is the major crop in Kerala. The land is ploughed , green  manure added and well prepared for sowing before Vishu day. This is called ‘Vishupoote’ meaning ploughing on the vishu morning .Peasants  sow paddy seeds in the prepared land. It is believed that whatever activity one starts  on Vishu day will bear fruits during the year ahead. Hence, it is considered auspicious to start agricultural operations. . It is believed that there will be God’s grace and that there would be bumper crop and attendant prosperity.In olden days majority of the Kerala population depended upon agriculture for their livelihood. Therefore, it was common to worship Gods for good crops or agricultural productivity, because their prosperity depends upon the yield they get from the crops .
Vishu is believed to represent, the’ Kalapurusha’ or the lord of time, from whom no one, either rich or poor can escape . With every passing time, living beings move to the unknown final destination called death. It brings the realization that life on this earth is a passing phase and hence it should be used for higher purposes and that we should not show feelings of vanity or air of superiority; on the other hand, we should be humble and humane. As lord Vishnu marks the first day of zodiac, it is considered as a special time for worshipping Lord Vishnu  and his avatars like Lord Krishna or favorite deities in different parts of India. In Kerala , lord Srikrishna in the form of ‘Guruvayuappan’  is the family deity of Keralites.  Sun which is associated with Vishu is  believed to be the eyes of  Vishnu, the supreme power . There is also a belief that Brahma under the order of Prajapathi started creation of life on earth on Vishu day.  Vishu is largely a household festival. It is celebrated in a simple  and not ostentatious manner, which is the hall mark of Kerala culture .  The divine worship is also simple and not many religious tantric rituals are  performed.. No special puja is performed either by the people in the household themselves or arranged with priests. People do visit temples early in the morning as they do on  other days. The most notable arrangement made for Vishnu is ‘Vishukani’,  This is an arrangement of auspices  articles, which are seen first on- post wake up on Vishuday. ‘. It is an auspicious sight. Keralities believe that the fortunes of the New Year depend upon the first thing they see, early morning on Vishu day, as soon as they wake up and open their eyes. They believe that Vishukani will bring luck and prosperity for the full year commencing from Vishu day. It is also believed that missing Vishukani would amount to losing one year of one’s life and it would be inviting some misfortune.

 A well polished and hence shining traditional vessel of Kerala called ‘Uruli’ which is a fine piece of art and also the symbol of family heritage made in Bell metal is taken. First, ‘Onagalari’ meaning raw rice is spread on its bottom. It is decked with golden yellow flowers called ‘konnapoo ‘(Cassia fistula). Konnapoo is  the wild flower meaning not planted,  is a flower  peculiar to Kerala.The konna tree  blossoms and almost the entire tree is covered with flowers only during Vishu season, when the sun is it it’s most exalted position . The flowers have bright yellow color. It is believed that Lord Krishna wore bright yellow colored pure silk and these flowers represent Lord’s robes . It has no aroma or perfume.   This means that we should not be too choosy in our taste and that we should be flexible. The use of wild Konna flowers also is indicative of man’s closeness to nature and its own creations .Normally, only flowers of shrubs and trees, which we grow are used for worship.  In Kerala in few occasions such as Vishu, Onam and so on, wild flowers are used for religious worship. seasonal fruits like  jack fruit, pineapple , bunch of  golden yellow  banana , pomegranate, lemon, vegetables like yellow gourd or vellerikya in Malayalam , gold bejeweled ornaments , mirror with bell metal handle called ‘ Valkannadi’ in Malayalam ,cups . filled with navadhanyas or nine types of food grains like different variety of pulses,  jaggery and betel leaves with areca nuts are placed  inside Urli .  A piece of superfine  starched handloom clothe with golden border pleated like a  hand fan  is tucked inside a bell metal pot  called kindi, a highly polished  brass  spouted  vessel used  for puja to pour sacred water and a bell metal mirror is placed, inside the pot  keeping the clothe, pleated like fan  as the background . This pot is kept inside the bronze vessel. A photo of lord Krishna as an infant called ‘unnikrishnan ‘  with a garland put on  is also placed behind the Urli . Two traditional bronze lamps with fine craftsmanship, lit are placed on either side of Urli. A plate with few silver coins and flowers are placed by the side the Urli.   This spectacular arrangement is referred to as ‘Vishukani’ The sight of reflected dazzling lights of the lamps on the things kept in the vessel and on the face of the lord  is  a spectacular scene of divinity  and material prosperity  and cynosure to the eyes. The works on metal like Urli which is a small vessel with flat surface, Oodu  or Charakku, which is the same type of vessel  which is big , Nilavilakku or bronze lamp, Kindi , a  spouted vessel, chembu , big vessel made of copper  are  cultural symbols of Kerala heritage, apart from being  expressions of fine artistic abilities of local artisans. The bigger vessels are used for preparing‘Sadhya‘or feast for large number of people. Traditional Nair families’ possessed these vessels and these were given to others in the community for Sadhya. This is an example of being helpful the community and sign of co-living, which was the characteristic of Kerala culture. With the invasion of industrial culture, and replacement of joint family system with nuclear family system, the spirit of neighborly relations has become a thing of the past, with the result people living in the midst of people feel lonely and live with fears and anxiety.  In olden days only pots made with the metals like bronze, Bell metal and copper, cooking in which has no ill effect on health, were used. Unlike today Aluminum and plastic vessels, the use of which is shown to have harmful effects were not used for household utensils.   The abundant use of the wild flower called Kanikonna, perhaps conveys the silent message to us that we should preserve the ecosystem, that we should nurture vegetation, not only those, which we plant, but also those which grow on their own and which are the gifts of nature for human welfare .In olden days, the fruits and vegetables used for Vishu came from kitchen gardens and they did not have to be bought. In other words each house hold was self-sufficient and prosperous.  With the invasion of monstrous city culture, this self-sufficiency of villages is lost and they have to depend upon the market for all their needs.  This commercialization also made village folk selfish, the so called village hospitality disappeared. They also gave up their hard toil on land and started leading an easy and sedentary life with the money they received from their relatives who migrated to cities for jobs. Thus the old village economy, along with it the cultural moorings got shattered. Once places which were of scenic beauty and tranquility with abundant greenery and flowing steams became denuded places due to human neglect. Once upon a time, if one wanted to see true life of India, he had to visit villages, brimming with life and prosperity. We were proud of life in villages as show casing India’s culture and spirit.  Industrialization, lack of balanced development between agriculture and industry, and immigration of people to urban centers, in search of better life left the country side orphaned. Festivals like Vishu and Thiruvonum remind us about the lost glory of past life of people. Today we who have crossed their sixties feel nostalgic about the whole some life that was possible in villages half a century ago. What we want is city properity and village culture. We have not been able to see that these two co-exist. We can only repeat the rhetoric that India lives in her five lakhs over villages. It is time to reverse this trend and try for inclusive growth and make every village self-sustaining, without industrial culture polluting traditional village culture of hospitality and comfortable pace of life and contentment.

 According to Indian tradition and culture and particularly culture of Kerala, a bronze lamp is lit before the commencement of any religious and social functions praying Divinity for auspicious beginning and to ensure fulfillment of the objectives of the functions. .  It invokes the presence of divinity and that we are inviting Gods into our lives. It is also symbolic of eschewing darkness of ignorance or avidya in us and allowing the light of knowledge ‘vidya or jnan’ to illumine our minds. The kani or the arrangement referred to above is harbinger of robust health, material prosperity, and peaceful life in the year ahead. Kani is prepared and kept in the family room for worship on the previous night.  In the early morning, all the members of the family are supposed to see this ‘kani ‘first as soon as they get up and open their eyes. Normally the practice is that the eldest in the family, mostly mother wakes up children early in the morning during Brahma muhurtha that is between 4oclock to6 o’clock, gets their face washed and leads them with closed eyes to family puja room. Once they are there, they open their eyes and see the kani first .According to age-old belief, first sight of kani would herald luck and prosperity for the coming year. They see the decked pot symbolic of plenty, Lord Krishna and their own faces on the mirror. People pray to Lord Krishna to grace them with chaste life, prosperity and peace.

Seeing one’s face on the mirror points to the importance of making one’s mind pure in all our daily transactions. It is also symbolic of seeing or being aware of divinity, which is present within ourselves in every creation  that would make us to live in harmony with everything in the universe. After that, elders give some coins to youngsters on bettle leaves with areca nut, which is called ‘kaineettam’ meaning ‘extending hand for giving or being helpful. The belief is that the token money will herald prosperity in the year ahead It is symbolic of wishing o prosperity for others. .Material prosperity is thus given divine attribute. When earning riches is a pious activity, it has to be through honest means .In our epics, Goddess Lakshmi symbolizes material prosperity. This reminds us that we  should not amass wealth by questionable means like cheating ,indulging in corruption like accepting bribery ,  selling for unreasonable profit ,  hoarding  and such malpractices . Giving kaineettam also means sharing of one’s prosperity with others who are needy rather than enjoying oneself leading a extravagant luxurious life or life of excessive indulgence in luxuries. Sathya sai Baba, one of the modern spiritual luminaries and an epitome of philanthropy, who lived till recently  put it thus.’ God makes people rich to help the poor and make them healthy to look after the sick’ . Philanthropy purifies one’s life. We should find joy in giving out rather than in receiving. In giving we enjoy material abundance than in consuming oneself. We can give out anything we have, not necessarily money, which  others  look for  for instance timely physical help.  Vishu kaineettam is given not only to family members, but also to all those who visit the house on the vishu day. After seeing Kani there is custom or practice of following the belief that one’s future could be predicted.  Some read the Hindu holy book Ramayana, after seeing Kani. It is believed that what is conveyed by the material in the first page is predictive whether they would have a bright future or not. Similarly there is another practice. After seeing Kani, one thinks about some  wish for the future, assumes that it will fulfill, if the coin turns head or tail, he takes a coin from the plate , prays for luck and flicks it  and reads the result .  On the Vishu morning , the village Astrologers ,called ‘Panickers’ visit traditional homes  with palm leaves on which the predictions for the families are written with a sharp needle .called ‘Elzuthani ‘ in Malayalam . They immerse the palm leaves in turmeric solution which is symbolic of making the message auspicious. Dry it and write on it.  The Astrologers read it before the family members and in return receive gifts like pair of dothies or dress, money, fruits and so on.  Villiage Astrologers were considered as benefactors of the families and people took guidance from them in directing their lives properly .They suggest remedies like special worship to ward off evil influences of planets.  Whether their services were scientific or superstitious, they served the old society by giving people hope and optimism .Their services were perhaps clearverly thought out social mechanisms, which served useful social purpose. Village Astrologers assured people  to ward off evil influences to them and make  what they want to happen by remedial measures or ‘pariharas’ in Malayalam .Thus they made people to face the future with courage, rather than being apprehensive . In other words what Astrologers were doing in ancient society is similar to modern service called ‘counseling offered by modern Psychologists. Man is uncomfortable to face an uncertain future. So if some one predicts good times and suggests remedy for possible misfortune, we feel secure and courageous to move ahead. This is perhaps the basis of which belief in Astrology thrives even today. Even the so called persons who are highly educated and having scientific bent of mind, show faith in Astrology .Belief in Astrology is deep routed in Indian culture, probably because of the functionality indicated above. We find with large scale migration of people from villages to big cities, cities are haven for Astrologers who have also migrated from villages to the cities and conduct their business in modern style.
On Vishu day, all wear new and colorful clothes, called ‘kodi’, irrespective of being either rich or poor. The symbolic meaning of changing to new clothes is changing old unhealthy habits and starting a new life, apart keeping cleanliness of the body. Another meaning is that our souls change bodies and enters new bodies, as we change our old dresses and put on new dresses, the famous interpretation given in Bhagavad-Gita. One should attempt to reform one’s conduct. Children light crackers, flowerpots, and enjoy doing it. Elders do not light crackers nor much money as in the case of people in other places on Deepavali spend on crackers.Keralities by nature do not waste money  for show  and or based on blind beliefs on any occasions such as festivals , marriages and so on. They practice austerity which is worth emulating.  Moderate feasts are prepared and served to all family members and guests. Preparations include dishes like ‘veppinpoorasam’, a bitter item prepared from neem flowers and sour mango soup. The edibles prepared contain roughly equal proportions of salty, sweet, sour and bitter ingredients, symbolic of the fact the life presents all  shades of experiences like exhalation, happiness, sorrow, dejection and so on and the need to accept all phases equally. . This practice is similar to the one followed in Ugaadi (Uga means year, aadi means beginning) celebrations in Karnataka and parts of Andhrapradesh. They prepare a similar dish called ‘Bevu Bella’, a mixture of neem leaves and jaggery, which is both sweet and bitter to convey the message that there is both joy and sorrow in life and need to face both these experiences  alike.

 Vishu reminds us to practice friendly relations with others. People meet and wish each other. Both elders and children alike engage in sports and games. They play some local games. They feel free and natural to themselves and feel close to nature. On Vishu day, there will be special pujas or worship in all temples .For instance, the famous Sabarimala temple that is kept open only on certain days during the year is kept open on Vishu day for devotees to have first dharshan of lord Ayyapa for a prosperous new year. Similarly devotes go to temples like Guruvayur Sri Krishna temple and others and see the lord first when they open their eyes on the Vishu day .Generally during evenings people organize  celebrations at the community level called  ‘Vishuvela’ where they  sing folk songs and perform folk dances. The local culture and artistic talents and the local art forms come alive, along with the renewed vibrant spirit of the people.Thus, Vishu celebration has in it much more than what we normally understand. An appreciation of the various facets of Vishu celebration    should enable us to celebrate this festival in its true spirit and derive full benefits from celebration.

A new look at Vishu Celebration –A Festival of Kerala - By Dr.A.Sreekumar Menon
മലയാളത്തില്‍ ടൈപ്പ് ചെയ്യാന്‍ ഇവിടെ ക്ലിക്ക് ചെയ്യുക