The Localist

Vishu Festival and the Equinox Day

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Vishu is a traditional festival of Kerala, the part of India where I live. It is the celebration of harvest and regarded as the birth of a new year. Vishu falls on the 1st of the month of Medam in the Malayalam calendar, which is mid April, our summer month, when flowers, fruits and vegetables all experience abundance and bloom. In the old times Vishu was mainly a farmers’ harvest festival that lasted longer than it does today. But farming lands, farmers and local produce are scarce here these days. Some of the traditions have undergone change, yet some Vishu traditions, like those listed below, continue on.

Vishu kani

The Vishu kani (kani means the first sight seen on a day) is an arrangement for an auspicious early morning first sight on the Vishu day. It is set up by the family members the night before Vishu so that every member of the family begins their Vishu day with this visual treat. The main colours in a Vishu kani are yellow, green and gold: these are the colours of harvest and prosperity. A traditional Vishu kani includes the bright yellow-coloured golden shower flowers (pictured), yellow cucumbers, jackfruits, mangoes, ripe yellow plantains and any other seasonal produce and objects indicative of harvest time abundance, such as grains, halved coconuts, coins, gold ornaments, traditional new cloths and a mirror, so you can see your own face in the midst of the plentitude. All the items collected are beautifully arranged before a lit traditional lamp called a nilavilak in front of a statue of Lord Krishna, who is the most popular diety of Indian Hindus. This should be the first sight at the start of a fresh year, so that the rest of the year can be one of plenty, happiness and grace. Kani is also arranged in various temples, meaning there is always a large population of early morning templegoers.

The coin giving tradition

Soon after the Vishu kani in the morning, the eldest family member distributes coins to the younger members. This exchange signifies the auspicious first money received in the year, and it comes along with blessings. Coins are the tradition, however people these days also give notes.

Symbols of Vishu

The abundance of golden shower flowers is the most striking symbol that people associate with the arrival of Vishu season. They are locally called kani konna, and are indispensable in setting Vishu kani. Another representative produce is the Indian yellow cucumber, seasonally called kani vellari. It is said that the cucumber originated in India. Jackfruits, known to be the largest and heaviest fruit in the world, along with mangoes are the most common seasonal fruits during this time. These fruits are reimagined in a myriad of ways in the dishes prepared for Vishu. Vishu lunch includes a vegetarian sadya, the main course with rice and various side dishes and a payasam, the sweet dish.

The relation between Equinox and Vishu

The word Vishu means “equal”. Vishu means an equinox day, when the relative position of the sun is such that every point on the earth has a nearly equal day and night. This is the day when the sun rises exactly in the east, exactly above the equator. Not just that, it also signifies the equal importance assigned to sowing and reaping in this season. No wonder that Vishu coincides with the new year festivals in many other parts of India and its neighbouring nations including Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka. So, we see that the equinox day celebrations are widespread and more than just of regional significance.

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