Vishu is the New Year festival in Kerala and is the second largest after Onam (which is celebrated in September). Vishu occurs on April 15th on the western calendar or the first day in the month of Medam in the Malayalam calendar.  Occasionally the Tamil New Year occurs on the same day.


Based on tradition it is important to begin the new year on the right foot because the way it starts is an indicator for the rest of the year. Upon waking on Vishu, the first thing that the eye should see is something auspicious: Lord Vishnu’s picture decorated with flowers and jewelry. This is called Vishukkani.


The night before the festival Vishu, the pooja, or prayer, room is cleaned and decorated with the most important deity in Hinduism, Lord Vishu, the protector of the universe. Surrounding the deity are gold ornaments, gold and silver coins, kasavu mundu (the traditional saree of Kerala), and fruit and vegetables like mangos and jackfruit.


On Vishu day, 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. After Vishukani is seen by everyone, the oldest member gives a gift of money to every family member representing prosperity and happiness. Traditionally gold or silver coins were given but now paper bills have replaced the coins. As soon as this is over, the family sets off firecrackers.


Women dress in the traditional clothing of Kerala, the mundu and veshti (wrap around skirt and shawl), that have artistic designs woven with gold threads.


In Kerala, people flock to the famous temple of Krishna at Guruvayoor to see the Vishukani. All of the temples have special poojas followed by fireworks where they use a kadina which is exclusive to Kerala.  A kadina is a strong steel cylinder that is closed at one end.  In the closed end, a pin hole has been cut.  One third of the cylinder is filled with gunpowder.  Over that, pieces of paper topped with pebbles are placed. The kadina is placed in a wide open field and a thin line of gunpowder is placed from the pin hole all the way to the edge of the field where it is lit.  When the flame reaches the kadina, a deafeningly loud noise is made.


The lunch for Vishu is elaborate and consists of the traditional Kerala vegetarian delicacies which are served on banana leaves.


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Every year, January 26th is celebrated as Indian Republic Day – the day in 1950 that the Constitution of India took effect. For many years, the Indian National Congress, a main political party, championed the struggle to gain independence for India. Britain considered India as a jewel in the Empire and was reluctant to abandon its rule.  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.  The leaders who helped to craft this resolution were Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Moulana Abdul Kalam Azad and Rajendra Prasad.  India gained independence on August 15, 1947.

 

Now a public holiday, flags are raised in all public places and sweets are given to school children.

 

Indian Flag

 

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Pongal is the harvest festival of the state of Tamil Nadu and is equivalent to Thanksgiving.  It is also the name of the recipe that is prepared during this time with newly harvested rice and lentils. The ingredients are boiled in a pot and when they start to boil over, people shout “Pongal O Pongal!” with the hope that they will have a bountiful harvest in the coming years. It is a four day festival and each day has a special significance.


The first day of Pongal (which occurs on the last day of the Tamil month Margazhi) is called Bhogi. Prayers are specially made on this day to God Indra, the God of rain, who helps farmers get a bountiful harvest.  On Bhogi, everyone cleans out their houses. All unwanted items are collected and burned in huge bonfires in front of the house in the evening. By the following morning, lingering smoke can be seen coming from the ashes.


The second day of the festival which falls on the first day of the Tamil month Thai is called Thai Pongal. The real celebration starts on this day. People in the cities usually celebrate only on this day. Women wake up very early and make elaborate Kolams in front of their houses.  Kolams are elaborate geometric designs that are traditionally made by hand with colored rice powder. Some women are real experts at making very complex and elaborate designs.  It takes anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to complete a Kolam so a lot of patience is required.  Today, templates can be purchased to facilitate design creation.  People wear new clothes and colorful sarees.  They use new pots and pans that replace the ones that were thrown away the prior day.  Ven Pongal (Hot Pongal) is prepared on this day and everyone cheers when it boils over.  Chakkara Pongal (Sweet Pongal), made with rice, lentils and jaggery or brown sugar, is served as dessert.


The third day of Pongal is called Mattu (cattle) Pongal. On this day people pay homage to cattle.  Their horns are painted, bells are hung around their necks and kumkum is placed on their heads.  (Kumkum is a brightly colored powder made from saffron and turmeric that used in celebrations across the country.) They are brought to every house by their owners. The ringing bells can be heard from far away and people flock to receive them and feed them sugarcane and bananas.


The last day of Pongal, called Kannum Pongal, is the day for visiting family members.  Younger family members visit their elders and give them presents and money.  In the morning young girls go in groups to neighboring houses to sing songs. Many different rice dishes are made, like Pulihodarai (Tamarind Rice) which is one of my favorite dishes and Thairu Satham (Yogurt Rice). Some take their food to a nearby park or a crowded beach for a picnic. Children wear their best clothes and jewelry to the beach.


In Kerala and other parts of India, Makara Shankaranthi is observed as a harvest festival at the same time as Pongal.

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Since each state in India was an independent princely state before unification, each celebrates New Year based on its own calendar and history with its own traditions. Today, everyone in the country considers January 1st as New Year’s Day and celebrates during New Year’s Eve just like the rest of the world. Celebrations range from small private gatherings at home with family and friends to very large public extravaganzas where celebrities, Bollywood movie stars and politicians can be seen. Five star hotels arrange elaborate dinner and dancing parties where, at the stroke of midnight, the lights are extinguished and immediately followed by a dazzling display of lights.  The cost per couple to attend one of these events ranges from 500 to 2000 rupees ($12 to $48). At this price, it seems that this would be a great time of year to visit! What a small world! 


Happy New Year everyone!

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Deepavali is celebrated in all states in India except for Kerala.  It is a festival that is celebrated by people of many religions.  It has components of tradition and prayer as well as fun and food.  The main day of Deepavali starts before dawn and even the evening before with the bursting of firecrackers that can be heard everywhere.  People compete with their neighbors to have the best and loudest fireworks.  People are woken up by the sound of a nagaswaram (or nadaswaram), an important loud double reed wind instrument in Tamil Nadu like an oboe that is played at important events and in temples, and drum played by musicians walking through the streets as a harbinger of good luck.

 

The day starts at 4:00 am in every house when people have a luxurious oil bath to sooth and condition their skin.  This is followed by a Lakshmi pooja where an offering of gold, silver and fruit is made.  Oil diyas (traditional lamps made from clay or brass with cotton wicks) are lit and decorate the family’s pooja room (a room dedicated to meditation and prayer).  The elders bless the whole family for a bright future.
 

The women wear mostly Kanchipuram silk sarees and men wear gold laced dhotis (a traditional garment that is a long rectangular piece of cloth tha tis wrapped and tied around the waist) and new shirts. After the pooja, people set off their firecrackers.  This continues all day but with less intensity as the day goes on.  Delicious steaming hot Pooris are made for breakfast in most homes.
 

Brass oil lamps

Oil lamps made from brass.


Most families follow the ritual of visiting the temples and their relatives.  Giving gifts of food is an important part of the tradition. Newly married couples also visit their parents and in-laws houses to receive their blessings as part of this tradition. Women, dressed in their beautiful sarees, bring a tray loaded with a variety of delicious homemade sweets and savories when they visit their friends.  The treats include milk sweets like Burfi, Peda, Mysore Paak, Jalebi, and Laddu, and snacks like Murukku, Cheeda and Madras Mixture.

 

In the evening rows of oil lamps are arranged around the front porch of every house and lit. The purpose of the lamps is to guide the Goddess Lakshmi in finding her way into people’s homes.  In addition, it symbolizes knowledge over ignorance, light over darkness and goodness over evil. It is an amazing sight to see house after house lit with these twinkling lights which truly represents the meaning of Deepavali (row of lights) and makes a nice end to a beautiful festival.
 

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Across most of the states of India, the preparations for Deepavali span many days.  It is an exciting time when people look forward to celebrating friendship, being with family, eating sweets and, of course, shopping.


Shops and people’s homes are cleaned, painted and decorated with garlands of flowers. Employers distribute sweets to their employees to let them know they are appreciated and to keep them motivated to work hard. People engaged in businesses large and small, especially banking, money lenders, worship the Goddess Lakshmi to bring prosperity. In return, she bestows wealth, gold, food, grains and materialistic items on the people.


In keeping with the prosperity theme, merchants put household items like refrigerators, TVs, furniture and electronics on sale during Deepavali. Most people buy new clothes at this time. Business at saree shops is brisk and the stores are crowded. Most women prefer Kanchipuram silk sarees while some prefer Banaras silks.  Families crowd into these shops, kick off their shoes at the door and make themselves comfortable on the floor that is covered with cushions.  Once the shoppers are settled, tea, coffee, Coke and ice cold milk blended with almonds, pistachio, cardamom and sugar are served.  Of course the treats make the shopping very enjoyable for the entire family.


I hope you have made or purchased your sweets because tomorrow is Deepavali.

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Two popular legends about the origin of Deepavali remind us that good triumphs over evil:


The demon King Ravana kidnapped Sita who was the wife of Rama.  Rama went to rescue her and fought a battle with Ravana.  Rama cut off Ravana’s ten heads and then killed him.  A jubilant success, Rama went back to the city of Ayodhya with his wife arriving in the dark of night.  To help them see where they were going, the people lit small oil lamps outside their houses.  Rama was soon crowned king and ruled happily for many years.  Since that time, people have celebrated Deepavali by lighting oil lamps and placing them outside their homes.

 

Another demon King Narakasura is said to have reigned with fear and stole 16,000 daughters from many of the gods.  When Lord Krishna heard about these wicked deeds, he challenged Narakasura to a battle. Narakasura came with his regiment of four tusked elephants and a tough fight began.  Krishna cut off the five heads of Narakasura and killed him.  The people were so happy to be rid of the wicked king.  Narakasura was defeated at 4:30 in the morning.  Lord Krishna returned after the battle and was bathed in luxurious oils.  Since that time, people have celebrated Deepavali on that day and bathing with oil became part of the tradition.


Components of both legends, the oil lamps and the oil baths, are part of Deepavali as we know it today.

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Deepavali or Diwali is known as the festival of lights. 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. The festival is celebrated on Amavasi day (New Moon) in the month of Aippasi according to the Tamil calendar which corresponds to October/November. This year it is on November 5th. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the festival is known as Deepavali while the rest of India has shortened the name to Deepavali. Celebrating Deepavali every year symbolizes a culture which promotes 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 more of a cultural than religious holiday, Goddess Lakshmi is the main deity of Deepavali 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.
 
 

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Originally a Hindu festival, Onam is now celebrated by everyone in Kerala.  It occurs every year in the month of August or September after the harvest and lasts for three days.  The most important day is known as Thiruvonam and will be on August 23rd this year. 


The story of how Onam was started:


Kerala was ruled by a very good ruler called Mahabali. Kerala was very prosperous during his reign.  There was no poverty and the people were happy.  Once he performed a big yagna, or sacrificial ritual, to show his authority over the empire and show the path of truth to his subjects.  As his power grew, the gods became concerned that he was gathering too much power and thought had to be limited. 


As legend has it, Lord Vishnu was sent by the gods to destroy the ego of the king and curtail his power.  Vishnu appeared in the form of a Brahmin boy called Vamana (in this form he was called Vamanavatharam).  The king was very pleased to see the boy and asked him what he wanted as a gift.  The king’s ministers warned him to be careful as they thought there might be a trick.  The boy Vamana replied that he wanted only the land that he could cover in three steps.  The king was surprised and agreed to give the three steps of land. 


Vamana suddenly became huge and acquired the whole earth in the first step and the whole sky in the second step. As there was no place for the third step, the king asked Vamana to put the third step on his head.  The king kneeled down and Vamana put his foot on the king’s head. He pushed the king to the nether world. 


The people were very saddened with the loss of their king so Vamana promised that King Mahabali could visit Kerala once a year.  Onam is the day when King Mahabali visits Kerala. 


For the seven days preceding plus the three days of Onam, people decorate their courtyards each day with flowers. To welcome King Mahabali, everyone wears new clothes. 


The recipes this month will be selections of my favorites that are served at Onam.

 

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