This year, Vishu occurs on April 14th on the western calendar or the first day in the month of Medam in the Malayalam calendar.  Vishu is the New Year festival in Kerala and is the second largest after Onam.

 

Brass lights used during Vishu in Kerala.

Brass lights used during Vishu in Kerala.

On Vishu, everyone in the house wakes up very early and, one by one, they are brought with their eyes closed by the oldest member of the family to the pooja room. They open their eyes in front of Vishukani, a picture of Lord Vishnu that has been decorated with flowers and jewelry. Then oldest member gives a gift of money representing prosperity and happiness to every family member. Lunch is elaborate and consists of many traditional Kerala vegetarian items all served on banana leaves. Every family sets off firecrackers to celebrate the new year. The racket continues all day longa and is the second largest after Onam.

 

Happy New Year (again)!

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Puthandu, the Tamil New Year, is the celebration of the first day of the new year. It is occurs on the 13th or 14th of April every year during the month of Chitterai, the first month of the year in the solar calendar. This year it is on April 13.
 

Brass lights used during festivals.

Brass lights used during festivals.

 

This day starts with houses being decorated with detailed kolams that are geometric chalk drawings placed outside the front door to each home. Traditionally, they would be drawn very carefully by hand. Now people can buy templates that make this process much easier. Flowers are also placed around the house. Since this is India, the day is marked with an elaborate feast.

 

Happy New Year!

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Monday was a Hindu festival called Maha Shivaratri (translated as the grand night of Shiva) that is dedicated to the god Shiva, one of the three most important ones in the religion. It occurs on the moonless, 14th night of the new moon in the month of Phalgun (on the Hindu calendar) that falls during February or March. This festival is strictly followed since it is believed that it will release one from his sins and free one from the cycle of death and rebirth.

 

To ensure success followers wake early on the auspicious day and take a bath (in the Ganges River if they live nearby). Wearing fresh clothes they attend their local Shiva temple and pray and sing devotional songs through the day and night. Fasting is an essential part of the festival. Some may eat fruit or milk during the day but no one drinks any water at all. The following morning they break their fast with an offering to Shiva. He is considered to be the perfect husband so unmarried women pray that they will get one like Him while married women pray for the health and happiness of their husbands and sons. 

 

There are many legends about Shiva. One says that Shivaratri was the wedding day of Shiva and Parvati, his wife. In another one, on this day Shiva manifested himself in the form of a Linga (means a distinctive sign or representation of Shiva) for the first time. It is legends like these that explain the importance of this festival to the followers of Shiva.

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Sixty-two years ago today, the Constitution of an independent India took effect. For many years, the Indian National Congress, a main political party, championed the struggle to gain independence for India. On January 26, 1930, the Indian National Congress held a meeting in Mumbai (then called Bombay) and passed a momentous resolution challenging the British rule to give and declare the country as the independent Republic of India. India gained its independence on August 15, 1947. Happy Indian Republic Day!

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Saturday (January 14) people all over India celebrated Makara Sankranti that signifies the end of winter and the beginning of spring as the days start getting longer. An auspicious holiday, people worship Lord Surya, the Sun God, in anticipation of the coming year. In the northern part of the country it is also celebrated as a harvest festival. This is a holiday that is dramatically beautiful and fun for all because its trademark is the flying of kites as thousands of kites cover the sky.

 

People from very young children to adults construct kites to fly to the heavens. Some people start planning and building their kites several days in advance. Most people build them individually but some get together in groups to build the best fighting kites. This is a very spectacular site to see. The sky, from horizon to horizon, looks like a paint store that exploded with kites of every color. Violet, red and green seem to be the most popular.

 

My husband has told me colorful stories that describe how enthusiastic and competitive some people are to get their kites higher than everyone else. Some stand on the roofs of buildings to get an extra height advantage. This is very dangerous as the race to have the highest kite becomes more intense during the day. Many people actually coat their kite strings with glue and bits of broken glass to cut the strings on kites they encounter in the sky. By the end of the day, these enthusiastic and tired flyers have bloody fingers from maneuvering their kites by pulling on the string. I know they must be planning technical improvements for the next kite.

 

Young children also participate but their kites do not fly as high and are flown just for fun.

 

 

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Today is Deepavali, or the festival of lights. Deepavali is the original word for this festival that is used in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. As it spread throughout India, the name was shortened to the more common form in Hindi, Diwali. Deepa means light and vali means row, so the name literally means row of lights. It is the most important festival in all parts of India except Kerala and Bengal. 

Brass oil lamps

Oil lamps made from brass.

 

Deepavali symbolizes a culture that values knowledge over ignorance, light over darkness and goodness over evil. Today it symbolizes hope, friendship and the joy of life. It is a time for friendship and sharing.  Even though this is a cultural holiday, Goddess Lakshmi is the main deity who brings wealth and prosperity to every home.  The sweet smelling herb tulasi (basil) is grown in most houses in Kerala and Tamil Nadu which people believe represents the Goddess Lakshmi.

 

I wish you happy Deepavali with best wishes for a prosperous year.

 

To find out more about the story of how Deepavali came to be celebrated, click here.

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Born October 2, 1869 in the Indian state called Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi is considered as the Father of India due to his leadership in earning independence for India from Britain. Five months after Indian independence, he was assassinated on his way to a prayer meeting. At 78, he left a young country to mature on its own.
 

His core values were truth and nonviolence. His legacy to the world is the message that freedom can be achieved through nonviolence; world leaders today strive to emulate him. A quote summarizes his philosophy:

“The only virtue I want to claim is truth and non-violence.
I lay no claim to super human powers: I want none”.

Each year the date of his birth is celebrated all over India as a national holiday with schools and offices closed for the day. It is known as Gandhi Jayanti. On this day, the President and Prime Minister pay homage at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi where he was cremated. Prayers are read and his favorite song is sung. 

 

His autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, is an excellent book and should be in everyone’s personal library.


In 2007, the United Nations declared that October 2nd will be celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence.
 

A bust of Gandhi in his home Mani Bhavan in Bombay, India.

A bust of Gandhi in his home Mani Bhavan in Bombay, India.

 

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Today is Onam, the harvest festival that is celebrated throughout Kerala. It is celebrated in a big way with prayers, new clothes, boat racing, dancing, and, of course, a lot of vegetarian food. I think I will make some Semia Payasam (a favorite pudding with vermicelli) as a surprise for my husband when he comes home from work this afternoon.

 

Read about the legend of King Mahabali and how he was tricked by Lord Vishnu and the events that led to the festival called Onam.
 
 

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Today is Vinayaka Chathurthi. What is it?

 

Vinayaka Chathurthi or Ganesh Chathurthi is the Hindu festival for the birthday of Ganesh who is worshipped as the god of good fortune, wisdom and prosperity. All over India it is celebrated on the forth day after the new moon in the month of Avani in the Tamil calendar, in August or September.
 

Lord Ganesh

Lord Ganesh

Traditionally people believe projects started on this day will succeed and prosper because Ganesh will remove any obstacles which may arise. Ganesh is also called Vigneswara which means obstruction remover and Vinayakar which means there is no greater god.


Celebrations include making or buying an elaborately painted clay statue of Ganesh which is placed in a special structure in the area. A small statue is shown on the right. Priests conduct special poojas, or prayer services. Public celebrations are widely attended and communities compete to see who can have the biggest statue.

 

A dumpling called Modakam that is made from rice or wheat flour and stuffed with various sweets is an important palaharam (sweet cake) that is prepared during this festival.

 

 

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Here is a brief story of the events that led up to Indian Independence Day – 64 years ago today.

The freedom struggle to drive the British out of India gained tremendous momentum from 1930 onward. In 1942, the Congress headed my Mahatma Gandhi passed a resolution to start a “Quit India” agitation against the British rule.  The struggle was conducted in a nonviolent manner advised by Mahatma Gandhi.  Britain tried to suppress the agitation ruthlessly but could not succeed.  Britain realized that it was no longer possible to rule over the Indian people and they released all of the arrested leaders unconditionally. Prime Minister Winston Churchill vehemently protested the ending of British rule in India.  

In 1945 as the Second World War was ending in Europe, Clement Attlee, the labor leader, became Prime Minister.  Mr. Attlee decided to give independence to India and appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten as the Viceroy of India.  He worked tirelessly meeting various political parties.  The Muslim League headed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah wanted India to be partitioned to create a Muslim dominated country Pakistan. All the Indian leaders agreed to this partition and Lord Mountbatten decided to transfer power and declared India independent on August 15, 1947. 

Since the transfer of power to the Indian leaders in a ceremonious manner took place at midnight, it was called Freedom at Midnight which is also the title of a book on the subject.  Jawaharlal Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India and he continued in this position for 16 years until he died in 1964.

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