Today is Vishu, which is traditionally celebrated as the first day of the Malayalam year. So Malayalees, as people from Kerala are called, celebrate it as New Year’s Day; not just in Kerala, but across the world.
Vishu is usually celebrated in April, on the first day of the Malayalam month of Medam. And though Vishu is observed as the beginning of a new Malayalam year, the month of Chingam (August-September) is considered the first month of the official Malayalam calendar. Vishu’s significance therefore, has more to do with tradition and the system of astrology followed in Kerala.
As a child, Vishu was one of the trio of festivals I looked forward to with great excitement — the other two were Onam and Christmas, though I must add that Easter eggs and chocolate Easter rabbits were also on the list of favourite festive treats. So perhaps I should be saying that it was a quartet of festivals I most enjoyed as a child.
Vishu’s appeal was twofold: First, the thrill of being woken up by my mother at an ungodly hour, when the world outside was still dark — in reality it was probably around 5 am. And then having her close my eyes with the palm of her hand and slowly walk me to the corner where the family’s altar stood. And then, the thrill of opening my eyes to the alluring radiance of the Vishu kani — a silver tray laden with sparkling-white raw rice; a coconut; green mangoes; a bunch of bananas; a pumpkin; little containers with pinches of turmeric and vermillion; a small mirror; and another tray with gleaming sliver coins and gold in various forms, all laid out on a creamish-white, gold-bordered traditional Kerala mundu; lit by the wavering glow of several oil lamps. And all this benignly presided over by paintings and idols of various deities.
The other, and perhaps bigger, attraction of Vishu was the Vishu kaineetam ritual that came later in the day when my father — and occasionally an uncle, aunt, grandmother or elder sibling — would give me a shiny one rupee coin or a crisp ten rupee note as kaineetam. The sheer thrill of this pocket money was hard to beat, except, perhaps, when I heard tales of friends or cousins who got not just a rupee or ten, but hundred rupee notes or 100 dinar notes; pure anguish for a second or two thinking about all the Hardy Boys books I could’ve bought with that sort of kaineetam!
In our home, as in most other Malayalee homes, Vishu day festivities would be topped-off with a true Kerala feast or sadhya. The sadhya — a multi-course feast with an assortment of aromatic curries, crunchy chips, spicy pickles and heaps of rice rounded off with sweet payasams — is not quite my favourite food, though I do enjoy the milk or pal payasam.
The kani and the kaineetam are central to the very idea of Vishu, which is mostly celebrated by Hindus. The Vishu kani literally means the ‘first sight of Vishu day’ and the belief is that seeing the auspicious kani in the very early hours of Vishu day brings luck and prosperity right through the New Year. Hence, the assortment of ‘auspicious’ things like rice, mangoes, silver coins, gold, bunches of konna flowers and so on.
Similarly, the Vishu kaineetam is a ritual intended to bestow prosperity on the recipient. Typically, older members of the family give kaineetam and, sometimes, new clothes to younger members of the family; the amounts given of course vary, but even a one rupee coin will do. Decades ago, in more well-to-do Hindu families, kaineetam would also involve giving money or clothing or both to other members of the household such as the domestic help, people who worked in the family’s fields, tenants and so on.
Like many traditional practices, the ones associated with Vishu also tend to vary from family to family and from one part of Kerala to the other. In some parts of the State, firecrackers are an important part of Vishu proceedings, while in others they don’t figure on the Vishu menu.
However, what does not vary is the conviction that each Vishu will mark the beginning of a better year; one of peace and good fortune.