Saturday, April 13, 2002

Ushering in the New Year

Vinita Kalra

WHILE travelling through India, Mark Twain had a wonderful way of describing the average Indian’s propensity to celebrate every joyous occasion. He said: "Although the week has only seven days, Indians tend to celebrate eight festivals every week"!

Bengalis have another way of saying the same thing: Baro maashe tero pabon (In twelve months there are thirteen festivals). But that, as we know, is an understatement because a cursory glance at the calendar would reveal more than twice the number of festivals in a year.

For most Hindus, the year begins in mid-April with Baisakhi — Poila Baisakh as it is known in eastern India, Ugadi for the Telugu-speaking people of Andhra Pradesh, Puthandu for Tamilians, Vishu for Malayalees, Gudi Padwa for Maharashtrians... and so on.

It is, however, the feeling of hope and renewal that binds all celebrations, regardless of what individual communities might want to call the festival. It is an occasion not only to express and expand, but also to rejoice the conjoining of the temporal and timeless, when labour yields fruit.

That, in essence, captures the spirit of the Hindu New Year.


Different communities have their own presiding deities whose blessings are invoked on the occasion. Maharashtrians pay homage to their ancestor (the primordial man). In central and northern India, kul devtas or family gods are worshipped. In other places, prayers are offered to village or tribal gods.

In urban areas, usually temples of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Saraswati draw large crowds on Baisakhi. Both are presiding deities for auspicious beginnings — be it in the refinement of sensibilities, sharpening of intellect or in the attainment of excellence in one’s chosen field.

Saraswati holds an edge over Ganesha in terms of popularity with the youth, as she is also the goddess of learning. Children being initiated into the three Rs, students preparing for competitive examinations and those engaged in artistic or intellectual pursuits never fail to invoke the goddess on this auspicious day.

The association of Saraswati with Baisakhi goes back to the Vedic times when the former was believed to be in form of a river. Later, when personified as a goddess, it is said that she came sailing down the river, playing a veena, halting on her way at a place called Kurukshetra. That was on the first of Baisakh.

Since then, the place has been sanctified by a yellow light. The beauty of this light is that it emanates from below. Devotees have built a temple there to venerate the spot. Dressed in sparkling white, the goddess symbolises the "outer change of season and the inner change of joy".

From Kalidas to Amir Khusro and Rabindranath Tagore, poets have celebrated these sentiments, associating them with the coming of spring. According to Khusro, Baisakhi is the time when nature wears yellow and man longs for a union with his beloved, when "the languor and lassitude of earlier days is replaced by spring."

For Tagore, Poila Baisakh used to be "more than a festival", as it was an affirmation of faith in the process of cyclical regeneration. Since his time, students at Santiniketan have been ushering in the new year with group dances, music and poetry recitations.

Albureni has provided graphic accounts of the celebrations in medieval times when "men, wearing saffron clothes, offered prayers, distributed alms and fed the birds; women received presents from their husbands and children distributed sweets among themselves."

The tradition continues to this day with new clothes, distribution of sweets and exchange of greetings forming an integral part of the Baisakhi festivities. A carnival-like atmosphere prevails in many villages with cultural programmes, singing of religious hymns and sports events being held on the occasion.

Clearly, the belief is that the more joyous the day turns out to be, the rest of the year will follow in a similar vein. Invoking divine blessings is based on the same principle: the more benevolent the gods turn out to be, the more blessed will one be for the rest of the year.

For the Sikh community, Baisakhi on the one hand is an occasion to celebrate the formation of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, and on the other, it is time to remember the hundreds massacred by the British at Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab.