My mind harked back to the celebratory aspect of Vishu during my school days over half a century ago. The festival follows the solar cycle of the lunisolar as the first day of month called Medam, invariably falling in the middle of April as per the Gregorian calendar, on or about 14th / 15th April every year.
Vishu literally means equal, and in the festival context it connotes the completion of spring equinox. Vishu signifies the sun’s transit into the Meda Raasi or the first solar month. That is the reason why it is considered as the beginning of the year, a day in which the duration of day and night is equal (equinox).
The festival is notable for its gaiety and is marked by family time, preparing colourful, auspicious items and viewing these as the first thing on the Vishu day, seeking to view, inter alia, golden blossoms of the Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula, locally known as Kani Konna, and receiving money or silver items as handout from elders (Vishukkaineetam). The day also attracts merriment of fireworks in the presence of children, wearing new clothes and eating a special vegetarian lunch known as Sadhya.
In accordance with tradition, the first sight people see upon waking up on Vishu day is arranged, by the lady of the house, the previous night itself so that the setting serves as the initial auspicious vision for all family members in the early hours of the morning. Parents cover children’s eyes and lead them to the pooja room where the Kani is arranged. After looking at own reflection in the valkannadi (traditional mirror made of metal), one then admires the image of Krishna, to remind oneself that divinity exists within everyone and that each one must show love and respect equally to everyone else.
Intaking the symbols of prosperity – rice, vegetables, fruits, sacred texts, jewellery, coins etc – is believed to usher in a prosperous new year. The belief is that these auspicious sights will continue throughout the year.
Kanikkonna flowers (Cassia fistula) blossom during Vishu and is used to decorate the Kani. Lighted brass lamps and an adorned statue of Krishna are central elements of Vishu Kani. The Malayalam word kani literally means “that which is seen first”. The belief is that one’s future is a function of what one experiences, that the new year will be better if one views symbols of prosperity as the first thing on Vishu.
I vividly reminisce my late mother on her feet at pre-dawn hours, going to each member of the family one by one, blindfolding and waking each one up, walking them to the front of the setting. She then releases the blindfold so one can see the symbolic setting, and then greet others and radiate the blissfulness of another new year.
The mixing of sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors for the Vishu meal is similar to the traditional festive recipes, that combine different flavours, as a symbolic reminder that one must expect all types of experiences in the coming new year, that no event or episode is wholly sweet or bitter, and to make the most from life’s transitory events and experiences.
Flash forward to the reality of our ongoing three-month sojourn in Jo’burg. It has not been possible to recreate the spirit of Vishu in all its ritualistic perfection here. The highlight of our visit this time around is certainly seeing Dev, our grandson, born on 14th July 2015, presently as a bubbly and chirpy kid of a little under three years of age. He has been, since last year, going to the pre-school class at the nearby German school, formally known as the Deutshe International School Johannesburg (DSJ), a renowned institution over a century old and cited as the best run German school outside Germany, in which as many as 1100 students of 35 different nationalities seek school education in cordial cosmopolitanism. I have temporarily taken upon, from his parents, the delightful task of driving him to school every morning and picking him back in the afternoon as he is still too young for the school bus permissible for kids from 1st standard onwards, which is another few years away as class one follows four years of pre-school, and two years of lower and upper kindergarten, unlike in India where the entire process speeds ahead by an year.
The Vishu day was hence expediently chosen to conduct Vidyarambham, initiation into learning. Dev was ritually initiated into the world of Akshara (Sanskrit, loosely translated as ‘letters’), through a simple ceremony with him seated in front of a lighted oil lamp, with his parents alphabetically guiding his index finger on a platter of rice grains, scripting Hari, Sri, Ga, Na, Pa, Tha, Ye, Na, Mah. Akshara means that which is present everywhere, denoting Brahman, or that which is imperishable. The infinitely expanding field of knowledge is similarly appreciated to be beyond destruction. Submitting the index finger to the deemed guru’s guidance in the ceremony is an expression of relinquishing the ego. When knowledge dawns, humility follows. A truly knowledgeable person will be humble. Seeing the divine in everyone, he will respect everyone. While knowledge is considered to be divine, ego is a human creation.
The chant, Om Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah, symbolizes all 50 alphabets in Sanskrit treated as the embodiment of nadarupini, the goddess of sound. In the mantra, Hari represents Vishnu, Sri represents Lakshmi and Saraswati. And Ganapati represents Om—the primal sound. In essence, the mantra is a complete form of worship.
As the ceremony began, I chanted the prayer, which is an invocation to goddess Saraswati, the epitome of all forms of knowledge, including knowledge of the performing arts. The Shloka is as follows:
Siddhir Bhavatu Me Sada
Translated as, O Goddess Saraswathi; salutations to you, the giver of boons, the one who fulfills desires. I shall begin my studies. May there always be accomplishment for me.