Vishu: The New Year Festival of Kerala
If your first step is wrong, the whole journey will
be wrong. World over an emphasis is put on beginnings.
Getting off to a good start is essential, as the beginning
is the foundation upon which everything that comes
after rests. Indian culture, perhaps more than any
other, stresses the importance of beginning things
properly. The position of the stars and planets is
taken into consideration to insure auspicious beginnings,
homas are performed and stotrams are chanted to Lord
Ganesha in order to remove potential obstacles before
the start of any undertaking. Prayers to God are always
offered. Even when studying the Upanishads, which declare
the only true power to be our own Self, shanti mantras
are chanted before beginning each session of study.
Ultimately, all these are ways of humbly admitting
our finitude, the limited nature of our efforts, and
are a means of supplicating to the Divine for favourable
outcome. As Amma says, "Grace alone is the deciding
factor." By taking into consideration even subtle
nuances beyond our intellectual understanding when
we begin a project, we are both showing the sincerity
of our effort as well as our faith in the words of
the scriptures and the Guru.
In Kerala, the start of the Zodiac New Year*—when
the sun enters into Sidereal Aries, Ashwini nakshatra—is
celebrated as Vishu. It is said that what one
sees when one first opens one's eyes on Vishu
morning is an indication of what one can expect
in the year to come. Thus on Vishu, effort is
made to assure one opens one's eyes before an
auspicious image—the Vishukkani.
While the festival is called "Vishu" only
in Kerala, across India festivals sharing the
same spirit—such as Ugadhi in Andhra Pradesh
and in Karnataka, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra,
Bihu in Assam and Baisakhi in Punjab—are celebrated
around the same time of year.
The Malayalam word kani literally means "that
which is seen first," so "Vishukkani" means "that
which is seen first on Vishu."
Arranged in the family puja room the night before
by the mother in the family, the Vishukkani is a panorama
of auspicious items, including images of Lord Vishnu,
flowers, fruits and vegetables, clothes and gold coins.
Lord Vishnu, the preserver of creation, is the aspect
of the Paramatman that is focused upon during Vishu.
In jyotish, Indian astrology, Vishnu is seen as the
head of Kaala Purusha, the God of Time. As Vishu marks
the first day of the Zodiac New Year, it is an appropriate
time to offer oblations to Lord Vishnu.
Akshatam, a mixture of rice and turmeric, which is
divided into halves of husked and un-husked rice,
is placed in a special bowl called an uruli. The uruli
traditionally is made of panchaloham, an aggregate
of five metals. Panchaloham being symbolic of the
universe, which is comprised of the five great elements—earth,
water, fire, air and space.
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.
Two deepams, 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 deepams,
anchoring the wicks in place. The starch helps the
rest of the wick to extend straight upwards so that
they will properly burn. The lighting of the deepam
welcomes God into our lives and is also symbolic of
spiritual knowledge—the remover of the darkness of
Gold—both in colour and in coin—is central to the
Vishukkani. Kanikkonna, a golden-yellow flower associated
with Sri Krishna 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. Vishukkaineettam,
the distribution of wealth, is another aspect of the
festival. It 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.
The Vishukkani will also be laden with gold-coloured
fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, jackfruit,
golden cucumber, etc. The akshatam, as it is full of
turmeric, also is gold in colour, as is the shiny brass
of the kindi, the panchaloham and the reflection of
Last but not least, a spiritual book, such as the
Bhagavad-Gita, should be made part of the arrangement.
The book is the pramanam—the instrument used for attaining
the eternal, non-perishable wisdom of the Rishis—as
well as a symbol of that knowledge itself.
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 (4:00 to 6:00 a.m.), 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, reminding us that God is not
someone sitting in the heavens upon a golden throne,
but the pure consciousness that is our true nature.
The mirror also points to the importance of making
our mind pure enough to render this truth unadulterated.
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 perhaps 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.
Vishukkani points to a year of abundance—both spiritually
and materially. Food, light, money, knowledge—all should
fill our life. Taking in the Vishukkani we should pray
that the vision remains with us throughout the year.
It is not enough that the joy we take from viewing
the Vishukkani comes only to our eyes. It must reflect
in our thoughts and in our actions. The auspicious
start of the year—which has come to us due to the grace
of beginning it with a divine vision—is not for us
alone. It is up to us to spread this love, happiness
and hope to the rest of society.
*It is not the Solar New Year—the
day when the sun crosses the equator, heading northward—a
common misconception. It is possible that this confusion
has arisen due to the fact that in Kerala the Vishu
celebration originated about 1,654 years back. At that
time, the Solar New Year took place at the same time
as the Zodiac New Year. But where the Zodiac New Year
is a constant, the Solar New Year is changing at a
rate of one degree every 74 years.
Read the messages of Amma on Vishu