Sanskrit for equal, Vishu refers to the equinox, or a day that has an equal number of hours during the day and night. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna, this spring festival has several mythological tales associated with it. According to one belief, Vishu is the day when Lord Krishna killed the demon Narakasura. Another tale celebrates Vishu as the return of Surya Dev, where after the death of Ravana, the sun or Surya Dev began to rise from the east. It also marks the astrological New Year of the Malayalis; indicating the movement of the sun to Aries or the Mesha Rashi and marks the day from which farmers begin the ploughing of land and other agricultural activities.
In the past, I’ve had the blessed opportunity of being a house guest when Vishu is celebrated. Participating in the traditions, I was told that at the Vishu Pulari, or the dawn of the auspicious day of Vishu, a Vishu Kani is said in the prayer room or worship area of the house. A symbol of good luck and prosperity, Kani is Malayalam for that “which is viewed first”, and so the term 'Vishu Kani' means the first thing to be seen at dawn. A prayer recited by the eldest lady of the house before the idol of Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna, this tradition is said to bring the devotees prosperity throughout the year. Like all Indian traditions, the Vishu Kani features a sacred ceremonial preparation of all auspicious goods considered the omen of good luck and prosperity, collected in an uruli, a bell-shaped vessel made of metal. The uruli and a lit traditional bell-shaped metal lamp called nilavilakku are placed together before the deity. After this ceremony, we were then instructed to open a page of the Ramayana - the first page opened would have a significant impact on our lives in the upcoming year. The children then participated in Vishu Paddakam (bursting crackers), followed by Vishu Kaineetam, gifts that ensured prosperity for children.
The best part of this festival is the food - the grand Vishu sadya (feast) prepared by the ladies of the house. Featuring a variety of special dishes with ingredients like jackfruits, mangoes, pumpkins and gourd besides other seasonal vegetables and fruits, the characteristic feature of a Vishu meal is that there should be equal proportions of salty, sweet, sour and bitter items. Family customs have ensured that you’ll leave the table with a full stomach – the thalis feature anywhere from 16 to 52 dishes on the plate.
So, while I’m celebrating Vishu with an old friend of mine, why don’t you indulge in some South Indian culinary love on April 14, with Puthandu at ITC Maratha or a typical Vishu Sadya at Sheraton New Delhi!