Goodwill, happiness and a sense of expectancy fills the air and the hearts of the Hindus and Buddhists as they await the dawn of the traditional New Year. It is observed with great reverence, devotion, a sense of duty and loving kindness towards all stimulating society, enlivening the nation and fostering national consciousness. ‘Pudhu Varudam [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

An auspicious transition as New Year dawns

Tamil scholar Sivanandini Duraiswamy speaks of the significance of the ‘Pudu Varudam’ to Hindus in this extract from her book ‘Remembering Hindu Traditions’

Goodwill, happiness and a sense of expectancy fills the air and the hearts of the Hindus and Buddhists as they await the dawn of the traditional New Year. It is observed with great reverence, devotion, a sense of duty and loving kindness towards all stimulating society, enlivening the nation and fostering national consciousness.

‘Pudhu Varudam or New Year marks the Hindu Solar New Year beginning on the first of the Tamil month of Chittirai. This marks the New Year not only in Sri Lanka but also in Punjab, Haryana, Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. It is called Sonkran in Thailand from the Sanskrit Sankranti, Baisaaki in the Punjab, Aluth Avurudhu in Sinhala, Pudu Varudam in Tamil and so on. Observances of the New Year differ by some days in certain countries owing to differences in calculations. Pudu Varudam or Chittirai Varudap pirappu is indeed an auspicious occasion for the Hindus.

Modern research has shown that the concept of the solar cycle was not unknown to the Indus valley people. Four or five millennia ago, the people of Mohenjo-Daro have had a calendar stone, based on the solar cycle which indicated the days of the year in the agricultural cycle of the lndus valley. This was prepared by the agricultural community perhaps for the preparation of sowing, irrigating and harvesting of crops. With more light being shed on the Indus valley people and with the decipherment of the inscriptions on the seals, research has revealed inter-alia, historical facts that these Dravidians had made use of the Zodiac long before it reached the Sumerians. The first symbol in the Zodiac is the ram (aadu in Tamil) and the fish (meen in Tamil) is the last zodiacal constellation of the year – both being used as a unit of system reckoning time. An ancient Tamil composition, the Paththuppaattu, speaks of the ram being the first constellation of the year and that the fast moving Sun goes from the horned ram to the other houses.

The Vedic rishis of ancient India studied the movements of the Sun, moon, stars and planets in order to unravel the mysteries of nature and realised that there was a rhythm and an order in nature and that the Sun influenced the total life of the Universe. They worshipped the Sun as the Supreme God Brahman, Tat Savitur’, the centre of the Universe, the regulator and maker of time, the sustainer and nourisher of all.

According to the ancient Dravidians and Aryans, the dawn of New Year ushering in the debut of spring in the month of Chittirai, is marked by the transition of the Sun from the last house of the Zodiac (Pisces), to the first house (Aries), which takes place every year at a precise moment. The Sun, in traversing through the twelve houses of the Zodiac covers a period of one year. Religious observances and celebrations seem to have been associated with the advent of the seasons and the spring festival of the New Year was perhaps one such observance. And the very same New Year that was established by the ancient Indians is perhaps being celebrated today by the Hindus as the New Year.

From time immemorial the Hindus have considered the transition as an auspicious event, for the Sun is the presiding deity of the planetary system and the entry from Pisces to Aries is significant, marking the beginning of the year. The Hindu almanac known as the Panchaangam, substantiated by astronomical calculations, gives us the exact time of the dawn of the New Year.

The New Year originated as a pastoral festival and did not really form an organic part of urban civilisation. It is basically a time when all the members of a family get back to their ancestral milieu with a sense of nostalgia. And so one should try to understand all the rituals against the back drop of the village. In fact it is only a society living close to nature that could really enjoy and understand a festival like the New Year (nava varsha), which is bound up with nature and the cycle of life.

Unfortunately today, the pastoral milieu which supported the New Year is steadily crumbling and the festivities have been separated from their basic roots. Be that as it may, as the New Year draws near, one is imbued with a sense of eager expectancy which never seems to dim.
The New Year falls around the 13th or 14th of April at a particular time that is based on the exact movement of the Sun to the first house in the Zodiac. The period just preceding and following this auspicious time is referred to as the Vishu Punnyakaalam or the Vishu auspicious time when the rites are observed.

In April, the rains come after a spell of hot dry weather ushering in spring when the plants burst forth into a riot of colour with blossoms of flowers, fruits and grains, portraying the benevolence of nature. The air is resonant with the sweet chirpings of the birds and the singing of the cuckoo. Into this lovely atmosphere the New Year or Chittirai Pudu Varudam dawns with nature’s bountiful blessings. It is natural that the farmer looks upon the beneficial effect of the golden rays of the Sun for the luxuriance of his crops, the ripening of the grain and reaping a plentiful harvest. The bounteous gifts of nature call for celebration and is an occasion for the offering of gratitude. Homage is paid in a symbolic sense but it shows man’s concern for his environment and nature, the resources and bountifulness, a concern that is all important today for his very survival on planet earth.

The New Year festival is associated with a wealth of traditions, rituals and customs which are enchanting and mystical in character. These are woven into the fabric of astrology for it is believed that the New Year dawns with the Sun, Surya Shagavan, coming down to earth riding His golden chariot drawn by seven horses each representing a day in the week. The Sun is also referred to as Kaalathevan, the one who determines the various seasons. And the observances on this day are made in conformity with this movement of the Sun and thanksgiving is offered to the Sun God.

Let us gloss through some of the traditional practices that are observed during the punyakaalam of the New Year.

The bath comes first. Each member of the family is anointed with Maruththu Neer before the bath. This Maruththu water, is a decoction of a variety of medicinal herbs, leaves, flowers, saffron etc prepared by the temple priests and is available only in the temples. The herbs and flowers that are used in this decoction are the lotus, pomegranate, tulasi, vilvam, aruham grass, saffron, thitpili, sukku and pepper. After the bath each one wears new clothes following the colours given in the Panchaangam. The ritual bath signifies the outer purity making way to spiritual purity.
The mother then specially prepares the threshold of the house for Ganesha. In the villages before sunrise, a layer of fresh cowdung is applied in thick swirls on this spot and the mistress of the home draws the traditional kolam placing an effigy of Ganesha, the guardian deity of the household made out of fresh saffron with a strand of aruham grass in the centre. Ganesha is invoked to protect the inmates of the home.

Seven to nine newly picked mango leaves are tied up across the beam of the main door. She next sets the Poorna-kumbam. This consists of a silver or brass pot of water on which is placed a coconut fringed with five or seven mango leaves. This pot is placed on a bed of rice grains which are strewn on a banana leaf. A pair of kuththu vilakkus – the traditional brass lamps, is placed on either side of the kumbam and small brass or silver containers with holyash, kumkum and sandal paste together with rose water in the panneer kumbam are placed. A tray of betel leaves arranged in a circular pattern with the leaves pointing outward with shavings of arecanut placed on this bed of leaves and a lime in the centre, is also placed by the kumbam.

The betel leaf is very significant to the Hindus. The exchange of a sheaf of betel leaf is a vital factor in knitting together the various threads of social fabric; it binds family relationships. A tray of fruits and flowers are also placed next to the kumbam. This entire paraphernalia is indicative of prosperity and protection for the household. The guests are received at the entrance with the offering of kumkum, sandalwood paste, arecanut, betel leaves, and sprinkled with panneer, as they enter the house.

Once the threshold is ready, the hearth is lit, milk boiled and pongal sweetened milk rice is prepared. This is offered by the family to the Sun God as thanksgiving. The family now gathers for prayers in the home shrine. After prayers the father, with both hands gives each member the kaivishesham.The mother then gives the kaivishesham to the father. Kaivishesham consists of money, a few grains of rice, arecanut, lime, flowers together with holy ash, kumkum and sandal paste all wrapped up in a sheaf of betel leaves. As the children receive this they go down on their knees and revere the parents. This reverence by children has been a beautiful aspect of the Hindu culture. Reverence and love are expressed through worship and gifts, strengthening the family unit creating a fund of love and good will.

Kaivishesham marks the first transaction for the New Year. It is considered to be a lucky transaction and with it one looks forward to an year of plenty and prosperity. This exchange emphasises the principle of social obligation. Gifts are presented to all dependents of the household.
The family next goes to the temple with offerings of flowers, fruits, garlands, incense and silk. Collective worship in the temple is very important because it not only kindles devotion but creates a sense of kinship, for New Year is indeed a season for sharing and caring. Social unity and co-operation have been emphasised since the Vedic age. After the puja one would see many devotees distributing food parcels, money or clothing to the beggars who may have gathered in the temple.

On returning home, the meal is served, first serving the food to any visitor who may have already called; generally the poor come to collect whatever is given. The meal is a festive one with a variety of palakaaram -sweet and savoury. These sweet meats are prepared in advance but also begun at an auspicious time in the old year.

Next an auspicious time is noted to start work or studies in the New Year. Generally one adheres to these auspicious times, strictly. Various games and dances are associated with the New Year especially in the villages. The cracking of coconuts (por thengai), the cart race, gudu, chitpi, kummi, kollattam and many more such games and dances are associated with the festivities.

All these traditional practices of ritual bathing, lighting of the hearth, exchanging of kaivishesham, beginning work for the New Year etc are programmed into a schedule of auspicious times and are observed by one and all with due decorum, in the belief that any ill effects of planetary combinations, will be warded off. This belief lays the foundation for positive behaviour in practising the values and norms of life. Herein lies an important aspect of the Hindu culture where man has developed an intricate measure to manage time based on astrologically measured auspicious times. Furthermore, the structure of all the rituals and customs gives an insight to the anthropological significance of New Year. One looks back to give thanks to the Sun God and then looks forward with the firm resolution to achieve more. These ritualistic observances cleanse the mind and heart of the people, strengthen the family unit creating a feeling of sharing and caring and finally renew the religious fervour facilitating the progress towards the goal of spiritual perfection.

Of the many festivals observed in different parts of the Hindu world, New Year has been one in which all the people in every village or town to whatever class of society they belong, await with great eagerness. Days ahead preparations of cleaning and renewing go on in almost every house with enthusiasm and its arrival fills one with great happiness.

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