Vishu — The Tradition and The Symbolism
The more we understand our religion — any religion — and the true philosophies behind the traditions associated, we learn to see beyond the obvious. We start looking at the values that these traditions try to teach us. The myths, the legends are often nothing but means to enable us to better accept the values they represent in an easily digestible format.
Today is Vishu — The Hindus of Kerala celebrate this as their New Year. In Sanskrit, Vishu means “Equal”. Vishu was historically celebrated on that day of the summer solstice when the day and night were equal. In mythology, this is also the day Lord Sri Krishnan killed the demon Narakasuran and we therefore celebrate his victory. It has always been my favourite festival of the year.
Even when I was a child, I had a tendency to dissociate religion from festivals and their celebrations. So while I diligently follow the rituals for the sheer beauty of tradition that some these rituals embody, for me, there is always more joy in what each festival symbolizes.
So, as I was saying, Vishu is my favourite festival (and trust me, we Indians have quite a few of them)! As I look deeper to understand what Vishu really means to me, I am also able to see why I have always loved this festival.
Why Vishu is my FAVOURITE festival
In the past decade , there has been a lot of talk around “New age” philosophies that encompass the Visualisation, Gratitude, Positive Thinking, and such stuff. Well, Vishu proves that our ancestors were the original proponents of much of these philosophies that fuel a favourable confirmation bias including positive thinking, gratitude, and visualization.
The traditions of Vishu and what they symbolize
For the benefit of my non-Malayalee friends, allow me to explain how Vishu works:
As with any festival mired in tradition, Vishu too has its set of rituals — the importance of each of them changes depending on your age.
“Kaineettam” & the Art of Giving
“Kaineettam” which involves elders in the family giving money as a gift was a clear favourite of mine from the age I figured that these wonderful coins allow me to be the proud owner of coloured glass bangles or if I am particularly lucky and the bounty is high enough, a book, a doll even.
This particular tradition stayed the favourite only till I started earning. Being the eldest in a big family of cousins and now aunt to their off springs, the tradition now brings reminders from each outstretched arm and expectant grin of a cute little devil that I am a responsible adult… you get the picture right?
Jokes aside, with the gift of money the significance is never on how much is given but on the symbolism of distribution of wealth from the more privileged with an open mind to the recipient who accepts it with reverence.
Vishukkani — The most important Tradition of Vishu
Let me get back to the topic on hand. Vishu kick starts with “Vishukkani”… Translated it means, the first thing you see in the morning.
Given below is a picture of what an ideal Vishukkani looks like. (Courtesy Google, mine never looks this good)
This beautiful arrangement is usually put together by Mom or Grandmom. In my house, it was always my Mom. She would start working on this only after the whole household has retired for the night.
Every year, she would sleep right there after the arrangement is done — so that her first sight upon waking is that of the Lord with all his bountiful blessings.
Then she goes from room to room waking up each one of us. We are reminded over and over again not to open our eyes. She would hold our hands and guide us to the Pooja room. We open our eyes and with great reverence view the God and thank him for the abundance spread before our eyes. As for me, I used to immediately turn and look at my Mom. For me, (then and even now when she is not with us physically) she symbolized everything that is good in this life.
Now let’s take a closer look at what is kept on display, shall we. As far as possible I will also try and give a brief description of each item. And if I have to guess, I will let you know where I am doing so 🙂
- The Cynosure, of course, is Lord Krishnan. For believers, he is the one who takes care of all the needs of us in this mortal sojourn. Krishnan is the playful avatar of the Supreme Power. I believe (and this is just my version) Vishu is always about Krishnan just to remind us to love and be happy and NOT to take life so seriously
- Then comes the Mirror. While we use any mirror, tradition demands that we use the “Aaranmula Kannadi”. Very expensive and made in a remote homonymous hamlet in Kerala called Aaranmula, this mirror does not use glass. The reflective effect comes from special technique by which the metal alloy is polished. The mirror is a symbolic representation of Bhagavathi (female form of divinity). I strongly believe it is a call for us to look into ourselves to find God. Because She is omnipresent and reflects off all of us.
- The Lamp is lit — spreading the light of true knowledge and driving away the darkness. In addition to the brass lamp, the coconut is cut into 2 halves and pour oil into each half. A “thira” which is a wick made of cloth is lit and placed in the coconut.
- Rice in a bowl, Silver coins, Gold Jewellery ,Betel Leaves, Yellow Cucumber, Jackfruit, and kanmashi ( eye kohl) — all elements symbolising prosperity and material joy
- We use a special flower called Kanikonna (Indian Laburnum) which is SUPER mandatory for the ‘Kani’ (which literally means, “the first thing you view”). This plant blooms in the peak of summer. This flower represents the Sun, in the early morning hours when we see the ‘Kani’, or so I believe.
- A ‘Kasavu mundu’ (traditional Malayalee attire — an offwhite material with a golden border)
- The predominant colour in any Vishukkani is Yellow ( supposedly the favourite colour of Lord Krishnan).
As you move from the northern parts of Kerala to its Southern tip, these customs and rituals will change slightly, as they should. Because rituals, are after all not created by God, but by man as a means of giving thanks and expressing gratitude as he knows best and his circumstances allow him.
A special symbolism
There is a special ritual I have heard about in some parts of Kerala (also In Karnataka as part of Ugadi festival) — a bittersweet preparation of neem leaves is made and everyone is given a bit to taste after the morning Pooja. This is to remind them that in life you should learn to take the sweet with the bitter experiences and that both doesn’t last forever.
So we do see that as we introspect into our traditions and rediscover meanings behind rituals, there is a lot of the so called ‘new age’ philosophies that shine through age old festivals and that the human spirit has always held on to optimism through expressing gratitude and generosity of spirit has kindled hope for better times ahead as we celebrate a new beginning. A whole new year to look forward to.
The whole point of celebrating Vishu — the new year — is to say Thanks by celebrating everything that is important to lead a happy & successful life.
But most importantly, the very first thing that you see is glory, abundance…. even the yellow colour indicating happiness and prosperity. If that isn’t the best example of Visualization… what is!
The other stuff that is great on Vishu
One of the joys of childhood was the fire crackers we burst on the eve of Vishu. As we grew up and more aware of the environmental, health and safety hazards, most of us have started saying no to this bit of the tradition. But those olden memories, they still bring a smile
Just look at this Amazing vegetarian feast. All the flavours you can imagine are served in front of you.
With that I sign off — to go have my awesome Vishu Sadhya!
I wish everyone one of you a Very Happy Vishu to all you — Love, Peace and Happiness from my family to yours, as always!
I would love to hear from my friends in Kerala about any specific ritual that I may have left out — and from my friends from other parts of Indian and the rest of world, do tell us about any similar customs you have in your part of world. Do drop in a comment below 🙂
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