Indian New Year festivities across Different Regions

Delicious food, new clothes and a fresh start – traditional Indian New Year festivities are about all this and more. We discover what the different traditions are about and how you can celebrate.

Indian New Year festivities across Different Regions

"Coming to England has strengthened my urge to go back and revisit our traditions"

Several regional communities in India are welcoming spring and the harvest season with their New Year celebrations.

From Tamizh Puthandu and Vishu in the south, Bihu and Boishakhi in the east and Vaisakhi in the north.

The Indian diaspora, both back in the subcontinent and in Britain celebrated the start of a New Year on Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th April 2018, following the Hindu lunisolar calendar.

DESIblitz explores the best of these regional traditions and how you can join in the Indian New Year festivities.

Vishu, Kerala

 Indian New Year festivities across Different Regions

Any Malayali in India will be familiar with the midnight blindfold ritual that accompanies Vishu, the traditional start of the New Year.

Elders quickly rush to the side of their young ones, gently covering their eyes and bringing them to the prayer room.

What awaits them is a spread, a tray consisting of a range of items from a vilakku or diya (lamp), the ‘kanni konna’ (a yellow flower native to the Indian subcontinent), fruits, vegetables, rice and pulses, to kohl, new clothes and currency notes.

The idea is to have a setting of abundance – of food, clothing and monetary means, along with an image of Lord Vishnu. Yellow dominates the palate, as a sign of spring and bounty.

“It is our New Year. The women arrange this the night before so that the kanni is the first thing we see when we wake up on Vishu,” says Radhika Nandakumar, a Chester-based Malayali.

She adds: “We also take one piece of gold that we own and place it on the deity. Our New Year exemplifies a gratitude for all the abundance we have and a prayer to always have those privileges.”

Being a Desi Malayali in Britain, she waits for these occasions to pull out a treasured family heirloom, the kasavu saree.

This ivory colour and gold-bordered cotton fabric can be paired with blouses of any colour and cut.

“The origins of this fabric are what we often call set-mundu. It is a two-piece attire, with one mundu (cloth) meant to be draped around your waist and one to cloak your front.”

It pays to be younger, quite literally, especially if you’re ‘Mallu’ thanks to the Vishu Kaineetam tradition. The elders in the family have to give monetary gifts to the younger ones in the house.

This is usually given in the form of new coins often in even numerations.

“I remember running around my tharavaad (ancestral house) on Vishu and touching all my elders’ feet for kaineetam,” says Sreejith Menon, a student in London.

“When I was younger, I would collect huge sums of money from my elders. My mum would often take it to be put in a “bank account” for a rainy day. I have not seen it since,” he reminisces, a hint of sadness at the how the privilege doesn’t spill into adulthood.

All the sulking is forgotten when the banana leaves come out and the sadhya (feast) is served. Family and friends, irrespective of community, congregate to dine together.

“In the villages in Kerala, everyone is present in everyone’s celebrations. I have always headed to my friend’s houses for the kanni and the sadhya. It’s become a tradition for me too every year,” says Aisha Basheer, a Birmingham-based postgraduate student.

Preparations for the feast go on all morning. The banana leaf waits, with drops of fresh water lacing its contours, for the long list of dishes to be served. The staples begin to arrive. Kanji (porridge), avial and thoran (flavoured mixes of vegetables and coconut), chakka (jackfruit) curry, mampazhapulissery, a sour mango curry and the quintessentially Malayali pappadam.

Many Malayalis are also starting to induct non-vegetarian dishes into their sadhyas – fish fry being one of the more popular options.

No sadhya is complete without the pal ada pradhaman (rice dessert) and a cup of tea if you’re up for it.

The state’s government took the opportunity to make some critical announcements surrounding pension schemes in the state.

Twitter has decided to launch emojis to join in the South Indian New Year celebrations this year.

Puthandu, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

In 2008, the state government of Tamil Nadu (then run by the Dravids Munnetra Kazhagam party) declared that Tamil New Year would be celebrated around the same time as Pongal in January.

“I remember wondering what that was all about,” says Varun Iyer, a Manchester-based accountant.

“I am glad that little idea was nipped in the bud and we have the extra holiday,” he adds.

For true-born Chennai residents, the sight of trucks and autos lined on the sides of roads, all with a fresh coat of paint and garlands adorning their rims are normal sights this time of year.

The huge banner ads from the local fashion giants dominate roadside hoardings, scream out their attractive new year discounts.

Flower vendors sit with their baskets with renewed vigour, the rates skyrocketing closer to the New Year.

The concept of kanni, an auspicious plate symbolising abundance is common to Tamil and Malayali culture:

“We do have the Kolam (rice powder designs on the house entrance)! Our best artists usually come out during these festival times. I remember always competing with the neighbours on who drew the best kolam,” says Anita, a Birmingham-based Tamilian.

Family and friends then congregate for the mandatory feast:

“My favourite is the mangai pacchadi – a sweet and spicy-sour chutney-like dish made from raw mangoes, jaggery and chillies. I absolute having this with rice and yoghurt,” says Rubin as he reminisces family meals back in Chennai.

“I don’t know much about how my ancestors in Madurai celebrated this. The temples have chariot processions that the locals don’t miss, come what may. For my generation though, the day is about watching our favourite Vijay movies and pulling out that silk shirt and veshti for some great photos,” he adds.

Sri Lankans also celebrate their new year around this time, as do other countries like Cambodia and Myanmar.

The Sinhalese and Tamil community both observe this auspicious day, which symbolises the sun’s transit from the house of Pisces to that of Aries.

“Coming to England has strengthened my urge to go back and revisit our traditions,” says Mohanan, an Uber-driver based in London.

“I do miss my grandmother’s kiribath. It’s a traditional Sri Lankan dish made from rice and milk. Simple but yes, that perfectly reflects life back there,” he continues.

“We have their own tangerine version of the konna poo. We call it the yak erabadu,” he adds.

Vaisakhi, Punjab

For the Sikhs, Vaisakhi marks not just the beginning of a new year but also the anniversary of when their religion was formally established.

“My grandmother would very fondly tell me this story each time I went back home for holidays,” says Manu, a Canadian Sikh.

“In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh came out of a tent wielding a sword and called on any Sikh who is willing to give his life to enter the tent with him.”

“Five men volunteered and walked in. After a while, the Guru came out, his sword smeared in blood. That was enough to freak out people in the area.”

“Nothing happened to them though,” interrupts Parminder, his grandmother.

“Instead, they were given turbans and declared the Panj Pyare – the beloved five. That is where the Khalsa started,” she says.

“Nagar Kirtans (community processions) are a very important part of the festival for us,” says Sahib Singh, a student at Birmingham.

The community heads out led by five Sikhs dressed up as Panj Pyaras: “We cite hymns from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib,” he adds.

Incidentally, Birmingham has a nagar kirtan coming up at the end of April.

Vaisakhi is, at its very core, a harvest festival. Sikhs congregate to express their gratitude for the rabi crop (winter harvest) and pray for abundance in the coming months.

“In our village, usually several people come together to harvest wheat. It is one of my fondest memories as a kid. I still treasure a handful of wheat I saved from the last harvest I attended at home,” says Manveer Singh, a Canada-based arts student.

“Being a Sikh outside Punjab, a main thing for us is to head to Gurudwara and offer our prayers,” says Sahib.

“It doesn’t matter if your clothes are new. You need to be clean and come traditionally to offer your salutations,” he adds.

“Langar (free community feeding at the Gurdwara) is that much more special on Baisakhi,” he adds.

Several parts of India, Pakistan and Sikh communities all over the world also organise Vaisakhi fairs. “The food you get here is to die for,” says Manveer.

“Kadhi chawal, achari gosht, tandoori meat, the samosas and oh, the lassi! I miss Punjab,” he adds.

“Besides all that, I personally miss the sarso ka saag and makki roti (mustard greens with cornbread) the most,” Sahib reminisces.

The bright patialas and colourful turbans come out this time of year. The Dhol (traditional drum) is dusted and the community, irrespective of religion or sect comes together to celebrate the harvest, with some bhangra and lassi to boot.

Pohela Boishakh, West Bengal and Bangladesh

Baisakh and its variants are traditionally harvest festivals. However, according to a school of thought, the Bangla new year traces itself back to Mughal emperor Akbar.

In 1556, he is said to have introduced the Bangla calendar to streamline tax collection.

Fast forward to the 21st century, irrespective of the possible origin theories, Bengalis world over keep communal segregations aside and come together to celebrate the start of a new year.

For Bangladeshis, this festival also has the added significance of being a day to celebrate their cultural pride. This traces back to their struggle for autonomy in the 1950s and 60s.

If there’s one thing you can consider synonymous with the Bengali community, it’s their prowess with the sweetmeats:

“Rasagulla is the greatest gift to mankind. We would make so much of this and other sweets like Sandesh and rasamalai. Everyone in the neighbourhood would come around to get their share,” says Anirban, a Texas-based Bengali.

The Kolam concept permeates here too, becoming the Rangoli. People wake up early, bathe, don new clothes and head to their places of worship to offer their prayers for the new year.

“We also have a procession in the mornings, called Prabhat Pheri. As kids, we would always go for it back in our ancestral village,” he adds.

These pheris see large processions with dancers and floats celebrating the arts of the community.

“Plays based on Rabindranath Tagore’s work or on him are very popular this time of year”, says Debarun, a Birmingham-based Bengali.

“My favourite is the food though,” he says.

“My mom still ensures we follow all the traditions associated with poila bhoishak. I really enjoy the Bangali Labra but the Hilsa (a fish delicacy) with rice is to die for and a hit among all my American friends,” Anirban explains.

“My sister particularly enjoys this festival as it means she gets to wear her Bengali saree. The joy of wearing traditional clothes in foreign lands is something else,” he adds.

Not being back home means Debarun must make his own New Year feast.

“I bought myself a pressure cooker and will be making khichdi at my place. I am also looking for some Bengali sweets that I can distribute too. I miss my grandmother in times like this,” he adds.

Rongila Bihu, Assam

Bihu is celebrated thrice a year, Rongila Bihu being the New Year celebration. This festival has celebrations that go on for a week with each day assuming a separate significance of its own.

Elaborate feasts and merriment accompany prayers thanking the heavens for an abundant harvest.

Sydney-based Nikita fondly remembers when she used to participate in the festivities in Guwahati:

“We don’t see too many traditional festivities outside and honestly, there is no fun unless you’re back in Assam,” she says.

Bihu festivities for the New Year go on for seven days, celebrating the community’s agricultural roots and seeking blessings from the elders for a prosperous year ahead.

Bihu melas are very popular during this time of year with people across communities coming together to organise and participate in the services offered and performances planned.

“Our Bihu meals always begin with Khar (a papaya-based dish) with rice. I personally like Xaak – it’s a dish that’s rich in green leafy vegetables,” Nikita adds.

Assamese legend dictates that the night before the harvest feast, people must eat 100 different varieties, to boost one’s immunity and be disease free.

“My kids enjoy Masor Tenga. It’s a sour fish curry. Our village back home is very close to the Brahmaputra. I can’t wait to get them to taste this there,” she adds.

The meal is traditionally finished with jalpan, a porridge-like yoghurt and jaggery mix. “Nothing cures a hot and humid day like Jalpan does. We enjoy making it sometimes on a summer’s day here in Australia,” she says.

She takes out her traditional Mekhala and Chaddar, the two-piece costume traditionally worn by Bihu dancers:

“I love this sandalwood and chrome contrast. It truly stands for all the colour and bounty spring brings,” she adds. The men have a similarly themed dhoti.

“Their colourful headbands are my favourite part. My son absolutely loves it,” she explains.

Pana Sankranti, Odisha

The people of Odisha focus much of their new year celebrations on the concept of quenching thirst. “Pana literally means sherbet,” explains Bhubhaneshwar-based Bhadra.

“We make different types of sherbet – milk, cottage cheese, grated coconut, fruits – name it and we have it. In the sweltering heat, this is quite refreshing.”

The holy basil leaf or tulasi is a culturally very important plant in India. One can often find spaces dedicated to this plant outside people’s home. Prayers are offered to it and several ritual traditions surround it as well.

“I have a small plant outside my door here too in London,” says Aniket, a design student in London.

“We usually provide relief to the plant. We keep a small clay pitcher with a hole to water it and ensure it is hydrated,” he adds.

“Some people in my community also celebrate this as Lord Hanuman’s birthday but today it has become more inclusive with people of all religions and walks of life coming together to herald spring,” he adds.

“If you’re ever in our part of the world, Sankranti or not, you have to try the bael (golden apple sherbet) pana,” suggests Bhadra.

DESIblitz wishes all of its readers a very prosperous Indian New Year!

Lavanya is a journalism graduate and a true-blue Madrasi. She is currently oscillating between her love for travel and photography and the daunting responsibilities of being an MA student. Her motto is, "Always aspire for more - money, food, drama and dogs."

Images courtesy of Anguskirk, Flickr, Woodlouse and VishuFestival.org



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