Books: India’s many New Year’s days

BySatyarth Nayak
Jan 20, 2023 10:44 PM IST

While much of the Western world observes the new year on January 1, the concept assumes a more complex form in India

While much of the Western world observes the new year on January 1, the concept assumes a more complex form in India. Our states have diverse historical and cultural narratives and thus have their own new year days according to the regional solar and lunar calendars. Add to this a dash of mythology and these annual celebrations have unique stories to tell.

Most cultures in India celebrate New Years at different times throughout the year
Most cultures in India celebrate New Years at different times throughout the year

Ugadi, observed in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, is believed to be the day that Brahma initiated the creation of the universe. Shiva had cursed Brahma, telling him that he would never be worshipped across the three realms, so Ugadi is a rare festival dedicated to Brahma. Other versions mark this day as the monumental event when Krishna renounced his physical body, signalling the end of Dwapar Yuga and the onset of Kali Yuga.

Maharashtra’s Gudi Padwa also celebrates the creation of time by Brahma. Additionally, it is believed to be the day when Rama was crowned in Ayodhya after returning from his 14-year-long exile.

An illustration (above) from Satyarth’s new book Mahagatha
An illustration (above) from Satyarth’s new book Mahagatha

Vishu, in Kerala, observes the killing of Narakasura by Krishna. A demon born to Mother Earth, the asura had wreaked havoc upon the universe. Towards the end, he had not only conquered heaven, but also imprisoned 16,000 women as his concubines. With the help of Satyabhama, Krishna slayed Narakasura and embraced those women as his wives.

Tamil Nadu’s Puthandu, which falls in April every year, is a two-fold celebration. Besides welcoming the New Year, the temple city of Madurai decks up for Chitthirai, the annual marriage ceremony of Shiva as Sundareshwar and Parvati as Meenakshi. The final 15 days of this rejoicing mark the journey of Vishnu as Alagar from his temple at Alagar Koyil to Madurai.

Kashmiri Pandits observe Navreh, which pays homage to the Saptarishi or the seven celestial sages of Hindu mythology. This new year’s day commemorates the pilgrimage of the Saptarishi who had congregated at the Sharika Parbat to worship the Mother Goddess Sharika, a form of Parvati. The legend says, to kill a demon called Jalobhava, Sharika dropped a pebble on his head, which gradually assumed the form of a hill and crushed him to death.

Pana Sankranti, celebrated in Odisha, is believed to be the birthday of Hanuman. Trips are also performed on this day to temples of Shiva, Surya and mother deities like Taratarini, Sarala and Samaleshwari. The delectable pana drink, prepared from bel or the wood apple, is consumed on this day as the fruit comes from the bel tree, whose leaves are a vital element in the rituals of Shiva worship.

Satyarth’s new book Mahagatha
Satyarth’s new book Mahagatha

The Sherpas of Sikkim welcome the new year with their festival of Gyalpo Losar. In their mythology, Losar was first celebrated when an old woman named Belma introduced the art of measurement using the moon. Traditionally, the natives also visited the local springs and made ritual offerings to the Nagas or aquatic spirits who activated the element of water in this area. Smoke offerings were also made to the local spirits associated with the pagan world.

Arunachal Pradesh’s Sangken invokes the blessings of Buddha for the good of mankind. Similar to the Hindu festival of Holi, people splash water on each other as a form of ritual cleansing. Idols of Buddha are also taken out of temples in grand public processions for a ceremonial bath. The festivities last for three days and are believed to bring peace and harmony to the whole community.

Chetri Chandra, or the moon of the month of Chaitra, marks the onset of the lunar new year for Sindhis. It also marks the birth of Uderolal, who delivered the Hindus from the tyrannical Muslim ruler, Mirkh Shah. Born by the blessings of the water deity, Varuna, after the Hindus invoked him on the banks of River Indus, Uderolal is believed to have preached the concept of equality to Mirkh Shah. Later, Uderolal went on to become the champion of Sindhis as Lord Jhulelal. On this day, the devotees carry ‘Baharana Sahib’, a representation of Jhulelal, to water bodies. The Baharana Sahib comprises of jyot (oil lamp), misiri (crystal sugar), phota or (cardamom), phal (fruit), kalash (a water vessel) and a coconut decked with a ceremonial cloth, flowers and leaves. Some also carry small idols of Jhulelal for this moon-lit ceremony. 

Whether it’s the Bengali Poila Boishakh, the Gujarati Nutan Varsh, the Punjabi Baisakhi or the Parsi Pateti, the core of these new year celebrations remains the welcoming of a new beginning. Most of these new year days also happily coincide with the Hindu astronomical event of Sankranti or the transmigration of the sun from an old zodiac to a new one. With these are born dreams, joy and hope anew.  

Satyarth Nayak
Satyarth Nayak

Satyarth Nayak is an author and screenwriter who just released his first book on Indian mythology, Mahagatha: 100 Tales from the Puranas

From HT Brunch, January 21, 2023

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