Malayalis the world over will celebrate Vishu on April 15.
Vishu, for many, is just a holiday for merrymaking and observing some of the traditions such as arranging and viewing the kani, which have become more of a ritual. But, once upon a time, Vishu in Kerala was a reaffirmation of our bond with nature and the land. It was a harvest festival that celebrated the advent of spring. It marked the beginning of the agricultural calendar when ‘njattuvela' started with Vishu in the month of Medam in the Malayalam calendar.
Vishu or ‘Vishuvat' means equal and signifies one of the equinoxes, in this case, the spring equinox. At this time the sun is positioned vertically above a point on the equator and we have equal number of hours of daylight and darkness.
It's a time when nature appears to absorb the golden sunshine and drench every fruit and flower with shades of gold. Golden yellow is the colour of spring, summer and of Vishu too.
Golden showers of the blossoms of the Indian laburnum (Kani Konna) herald the arrival of Vishu. Many poets and writers have lyrically described the link between the Kanni Konna and Vishu. The late poet Ayyappa Panicker wrote: “Enikkavathille pookkathirikkan..enikkavathille kanikkonnayalle…. Vishukkalamalle ... enikkavathille pookkathirikkan…”
Kani vellari (Golden cucumber), in brilliant yellow, also gets ready for the show around this time. Thus wrote poet P. Kunjiraman Nair: ‘Kanivellarikoombaram koodum ponkunninappuram….' The fruit is nature's gift for parched throats in the sweltering heat. Other fruits such as mango, jackfruit and cashew apple too adorn farmsteads in shades of red and yellow. Not to mention watermelons. There was a time when these fruits used to arrive in the temple yards of Northern Kerala from the nearby fallow fields. Now these fruits, in varied colours, arrive from neighbouring states. The golden hues and scent of ripened grain from paddy fields also fill the air.
Harvest songs, along with the song of the Vishuppakshi, signal the beginning of spring. Known as golden oriole among ornithologists, the bird looks stunningly beautiful with its exquisite golden feathers. The popular song “Vithum kaikkottum, Kallan chakkettu, Kandal mindenda…” refers to the Vishupakshi. Vithum kaikkottum used to be the theme of Vishu. Vithu means seed and kaikkottu means spade.
Vishu actually marks the beginning of the agricultural year. Farmers used to begin sowing their fields after Vishu. All the agricultural practices were in accordance with ‘njattuvela,' the agricultural calendar. Literally, the term is njayarinte vela or the journey of the sun. Starting from the day of Vishu, which falls on the first day of Medam in the Malayalam calendar, there are 27 ‘njattuvelas' named after the Malayalam star signs. Aswathy ‘njattuvela' is usually from April 14 to 26 (Medam 1 to 13). Each ‘njattuvela' (with a duration of 13.5 days) has a role in agricultural activities such as sowing, application of fertilizers, irrigation, harvesting and so on.
The highlight of the festival, however, is arranging the Vishukkani, which has a range of auspicious items in golden hues. The glow of the lamps and brass vessels is enhanced by gold coins, ornaments, golden-yellow coloured fruits and vegetables. People view this on the day of Vishu as it is believed to usher in prosperity throughout the year.
The kani includes kani konna, and a collection of agricultural produce, including raw rice, ripe arecanut, betel leaves, kani vellari, halved jackfruit, mango, halved coconuts, along with symbols of prosperity such as a ‘vaalkannadi,' pudava and so on, all neatly arranged in a brass uruli. After viewing the kanni, children rush to receive vishu kaineetam (a customary offering of money) from the elders in the family. Everyone then partakes the Vishu kanji, a special dish made of rice, coconut, jaggery and milk and the Vishu katta, a traditional delicacy prepared from freshly harvested rice powder and coconut milk served with jaggery. This is usually followed by a grand and elaborate Vishu sadya.
Vishu is also the season of crackers and lighters too. In North Kerala, festivals such as Vela and Pooram are celebrated during this time of year. Vellari natakams were once organised in villages in Palakkad where cucumber was grown as summer crop. Porattu natakam is one such Vellari natakam. Nowadays Porattu natakam (meaning drama of the expelled) is not so common but the word is in common parlance in politics. In many parts of the country, the harvest festival and bhoomi pooja are celebrated during the same period.
No matter where a Malayali lives, when the golden laburnums bloom, it revives memories of Vishu and the bounty of nature.