Vishu, the New Year of Malayalis

Getting married to a Malayali, I get to celebrate the festivals of Kerala as well. This is my second Vishu, though first one which I’ll be celebrating. Unlike Kannadigas Malayalis have very few big festivals and Vishu is one of them. To put it in simple words, it is their Ugadi, the New Year of Malayalis.

Vishu is free from the usual pomp and show and merry-making associated with other festivities. This one has nothing to do with religion, as the first day for Medam is the unchangeable day of Vishu, whereas other festivals are determined according to the lunar asterisms on which they fall. This day is the astronomical new year day. Malayalis believe that the fortunes for the year depend upon the nature of the object one sees first in the morning of Vishu day. Malayalam month of Medam according to the Kollam calendar usually falls on April 14.

The word ‘Vishu’ in Sanskrit means ‘equal’. Therefore Vishu is more probably denoting one of the equinox days. Although Vishu (first of Medam) is the astronomical new year day of Kerala, the official Malayalam new year falls on the first month of Chingam (August-September).

A reasonably sized Uruli is used to arrange the Kani. Uruli is an open-mouthed shallow circular vessel made out of bell metal. The uruli is made of panchaloham, an aggregate of five metals. Panchaloham being symbolic of the universe, which comprises the five great elements—earth, water, fire, air and space.

In the region of Kollam, Akshatam, a mixture of rice and turmeric, which is divided into halves of husked and un-husked rice, is placed in uruli. While in other parts of Kerala, Unakkalari (raw rice) is the first ingredient that goes into the Kani Uruli to act as a support base for the other items to be positioned.

Placed over that is a fresh white cloth (with golden embroidery), followed by a carefully selected Kanivellari (golden coloured, shapely cucumber), Vettila (betel leaves), Pazhukkapakku (reddish yellow coloured ripe arecanut), golden coloured mango fruit, ripe yellow jack fruit (halved) and a shining brass valkannadi (hand mirror).

A nice, well-starched cloth is then pleated fan-like and inserted into a highly polished brass kindi (a spouted puja vessel used for pouring sacred water). The val-kannadi, a special type of mirror with an extremely long and thin handle, often decorated with gold, is also inserted into the kindi. The kindi is then placed in the uruli on top of the rice.

In many places, Ramayanam or any of the scriptures written on Palm leaves (Thaaliyola) is also added to the auspicious constituents of the Kani arranged in the uruli. After this, a gold coin or gold ornament is placed on top of all. Then a pair of halved coconuts upright, filled with oil along with cotton wicks are kept nearby.

Then in a small flat-bottomed vessel, they keep little rice, a silver coin and some flowers. After the Kanikanal, thinking of a wish, if one takes the coin and check if its top side is head or tail. Depends on this one may know if his/her wish would be realised or not.

Then the Kani Uruli is kept in front of the statue or picture of Lord Krishna (in Northern Kerala, the valkannadi signifies or is the embodiment of Goddess Bhagavathi). Then uruli, picture and the surroundings are decorated with Konnappoovu (Indian Laburnum). A lit Nilavilakku (bronze oil lamp) is placed nearby in such a way as it imparts a golden yellow hue to the Kani-ambience.

Two lamps, which are fashioned from the two halves of a split coconut, are also kept in the uruli. The wicks are made from pieces of starched cloth that are folded into bulbs at the base. These bulbs are placed into the coconut oil that fills the lamps, anchoring the wicks in place. The lighting of the deepam welcomes God into our lives and is also symbolic of spiritual knowledge—the remover of the darkness of ignorance.

Gold, both in colour and in coin, is central to the Vishukkani. Kanikkonna, a golden-yellow flower is used liberally throughout the puja room. This flower only blooms when the sun is in its most exalted position astrologically, the month surrounding Vishu.

In the puja room, the flower verily represents the sun itself, the eyes of Lord Vishnu. Gold coins are symbols of monetary affluence, as well as cultural and spiritual wealth, which the elders of the family must share freely with the younger generation.

The grandmother or mother who arranges the Vishukkani will sleep in the puja room after she is finished and then, waking during the auspicious hour of the Brahma muhurata (4 am to 6 am), she will light the oil-lamp wicks and take in the auspicious sight. She will then walk to the rooms where the rest of the family is sleeping and wake them. Covering their eyes, she will then lead them to the puja room, where she will allow them to take in the auspicious sight.

Upon opening one’s eyes, one is overwhelmed with the glorious darshan of the Lord. The mirror, which is symbolic of Bhagavati (Devi), not only increases the lustre of the Vishukkani via the reflection it offers, but also shows our own face. The mirror also points to the importance of making our mind pure enough to render devotional service with true and unadulterated love to Lord Krishna.

The Vishukkani is not reserved only for those who come to the puja room, but is taken around, for the viewing of the elderly and sick who are too frail to come to the shrine. It is also brought outside and shown to the family cows. As it is brought to the cowshed, it in fact is on display for the birds, the trees, for all of nature to see.

There are also beliefs that if you do not see a proper Vishukani, then you will lose a year from your life or have bad luck, depending on how much you see.

Next, comes the Kaineettam (token amount of money). The eldest member of the family takes some silver coins and gives them to all junior members with some raw rice and Kanippoo (flower of cassia). Vishukkaineettam should be given freely and accepted with reverence. On Vishu, the highly affluent families will not only give money to their children but also their neighbours, perhaps the entire village. After this the children begin to fire crackers.

According to legends, the Kollam era is said to have begun on the day Parashurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, created Kerala by making the waters of the Arabian Sea recede. Parashurama had vowed to exterminate the Kshatriya caste from the face of the earth. In keeping with this oath, he went to war with Rama, who was a Kshatriya. During the battle, he realised that Rama was none other than the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. He realised that the purpose of his own life had come to an end and decided to spend the rest of his life in meditation. For this, he wanted a place where he could meditate in total peace. The gods granted him a boon according to which, he was to throw his battle axe into the sea and land would rise along the distance it covered. This is how Kerala was created.

Vishu is also a day of feasting, wherein the edibles consist of roughly equal proportions of salty, sweet, sour and bitter items. Feast items include Veppampoorasam (a bitter preparation of neem) and Mampazhapachadi (a sour mango soup). Saddhya is a major part of all Kerala festivals. But for Vishu, Vishu Kanji and Thoran are more important. The Kanji is made of rice, coconut milk and spices. For the side dish, that is Thoran also there are mandatory ingredients.

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