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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vishu

My informant is a young Indian-American woman who takes great pride in her cultural customs and retains a strong connection to and knowledge of these practices. She told me about a practice known as Vishu, a New Year’s celebration specific to Kerala (but different variations are practiced in other regions).

The new year in Kerala is the day of the spring equinox. The preparations for Vishu are performed by the head woman/matriarch of the family, usually the grandmother or mother. She goes and makes an arrangement in the puja (prayer) room of the house, which is where a shrine usually is located. A core part of this arrangement is a metal mirror. Other components include fruits (specifically jackfruit, mangoes, and an open coconut as these are native Indian fruits) to signify a bountiful harvest, a little bit of money, and uncooked shelled rice.

The god in the shrine tends to be either Vishnu or Krishna, but sometimes they can be the regional South Indian deity Ayyappa. The ceremonial plate that holds all of the puja items is made of tin and is very flat with raised sides. There is also a lamp, flowers, vermillion (kumkum) for bindis, and turmeric which is also applied to the neck and forehead.

After the preparation is complete, the woman who prepared it will sleep overnight in the puja room, so that the arrangement is the first thing that she sees when she wakes up. There is a specific time frame that she is supposed to wake up between, as it is auspicious. My informant had trouble remembering the exact times, but she believed the time frame was between 3 or 4 and 6 am. After she awakes, she will pray at the shrine. Then, she goes around the house and wakes up each family member one by one, blindfolding each family member and leading them to the puja room so that the arrangement is also the first thing that they see.

In Malayalam, “vishukani” essentially means “the first thing that you see”. My informant told me that Vishu has a distinctly calmer and more laid-back tone than most other Indian holidays, focusing on being happy with family rather than loud community celebrations. Vishu is also more of an astrological than religious holiday, as it centers around the spring equinox rather than a specific Hindu date.  Other customs surrounding Vishu are the practice of wearing new clothes, occasionally giving money to the children, and popping small firecrackers. Also, there is a traditional meal that is supposed to have every kind of flavor (ie. sweet, sour, bitter, etc.). Sometimes there is bitter mango, or this one sweet that has coconut milk and rice flour.

I love the idea of purposefully setting up an elaborate and auspicious arrangement so that you can begin the new year with a vision of beauty and prosperity.

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