VISHU is the harvest festival of Kerala observed on the first day of the Medam month (April-May) of the Malayalam almanac. Vishu festival is considered as the astrological New Year day of Keralites whereas the official Malayalam New Year (Kollavarsham) starts in Chingam (August-September). Though 1st of Madam is marked on April 14, this year Vishu is being celebrated on April 15. The day marks the sun’s transits to the first zodiac-Mesha Rashi or Aries zodiac and is celebrated with religious ceremonies and rituals. Since Vishu is the starting of the New Year, people believe that it is significant for the next twelve months of the year. Traditionally, Vishu is the harvest festival welcoming the spring season. In olden days, farmers used to start ploughing the land on this day.
This festival is celebrated in Tulu Nadu region in Karnataka and is known as Bisu. Puthandu or Chithirai Vishu is the Tamil New Year celebrated by Tamilians and is the first day in the Tamil month of Chithirai. According to Tamil beliefs, Chithirai Vishu is the day during which Lord Brahma commenced the creation. Telugu New Year and Kannada New Year are celebrated as Ugadi on the first day in Chaitra month. Marathi New Year day is Gudi Padva which is celebrated on the same day of Ugadi. Cheti Chand is the Sindhi New Year day which is also the first day of Chaitra month. Bengali New Year day is Baisakh or Poila Baisakh and Baisakhi in Punjab. Assamese New Year day is Bohag Bihu. The same day is celebrated as New Year in many parts of the country.
Vishu festival marks the day of Mesha Sankranti or Mesha Sankramam. The highlight of the festival is Vishu Kani, Vishu Kaineettam and Vishubhalam. The Vishu celebration commences with the Vishu Kani, the first auspicious thing that people see on the day which takes place during the Brahma Muhurta. Vishu Kani is an auspicious sight which is usually prepared on the previous night. This include Unakkalari (raw rice), Kanivellari (cucumber), Vettila (betel leaves), Pazhukkapakku (ripe areca nut), mango fruit, halved jack fruit, coconut, banana, sandalwood, gold ornaments, coins, brass Valkannadi (hand mirror), Kasavu mundu (traditional dhoti), flowers of Kanikkonna (Cassia Fistula) and the holy text of Ramayana or Bhagvad Gita. All these materials are kept in an Uruli (open-mouthed shallow circular vessel made out of bell metal).
The Uruli traditionally is made of panchaloham, an aggregate of five metals. Panchaloham being symbolic of the universe comprises the five elements-earth, water, fire, air and space. The flowers of Kanikkonna represent the eyes of Lord Vishnu and the gold coins symbolise affluence and spiritual wealth, which the elders of the family must share with the younger generation. Deepams are kept in the two halves of a split coconut. Similarly, Ashtamangalyam may also be kept in the Uruli which is placed in front of an idol or portrait of Lord Krishna besides a lighted bell metal lamp (Nilavilakku).
The Kani is the material representation of the union of Prakruti and Purusha. The Uruli represents Prakruti and it is believed that Kala Purusha, Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna occupy in it. Kanikkonna is His crown, Kanivellari is His face, coconut lamps are the eyes and Valkannadi is the mind. The lighting of the deepam welcomes God into our lives and is symbolic of removing the darkness of ignorance. The auspicious commencement of the New Year comes to us due to the grace of God and it is up to us to spread this love, happiness and hope to the rest of the society. Immediately on awakening from sleep, people close their eyes and proceed towards the place where Vishu Kani is placed which is known as Kani Kanal (sighting of Kani). Usually, the eldest female member takes the family members one by one and shown the Kani. After the family members, it is the turn of the plants and animals. Kani Uruli is taken to show them also the Kani.
Vishu Kani is important in many famous temples in Kerala such as Ambalapuzha, Guruvayoor and Sabarimala. Devotees visit these temples to have a darshan of Vishu Kani on the early hours. It is also considered auspicious to read verses from Adhyatma Ramayanam after seeing the Vishu Kani. It is also believed that the page of the Ramayanam to which you open up will have a bearing on your life in the coming year. Vishu Kani points to a year of abundance both spiritually and materially. Seeing the Vishu Kani, we should pray that the vision remains with us throughout the year. It is not enough that the joy we get from seeing the Vishu Kani comes only to our eyes. Instead, it must reflect in our thoughts and actions. People wear new clothes (Puthukodi) for the occasion and elders of the family give Vishu Kaineettam (gift of money) to children, servants and tenants. Vishu Kaineettam is considered as the blessing of Prakruti, Shakti, and Lakshmi.
Vishu Sadhya (feast) is a major part of the festival when vegetarian food is prepared. Vishu Kanji (porridge), Thoran and Payasam (pudding) are essential items of the feast. The Kanji is made of rice, coconut milk and spices. Fireworks are also an important part of Vishu celebrations in many parts of the state.
Vishu has integrated every thing during this period. There is a migratory bird which normally visits Kerala during this time and is referred to as Vishu Pakshi (Pakshi means bird).
Vishu has immense significance astrologically as the day and night are of equal duration. Major periodicals in Malayalam carry Vishubhalam (astrological predictions) for the next one year. Preparations for the agricultural season also begin on the Vishu day.
(The author is a social activist and Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting. He can be contacted on [email protected])