Vishu is one of the most popular South Indian festivals and it is widely celebrated in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is the traditional New Year for the residents of these states. The people living in this region speak Malayalam language, it is also known as the Malayalam New Year.
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, the 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 day.
Like most parts of India, festivals in Kerala are an integral part of the social and cultural structure of the state and festival time is the best time to plan one’s travel to Kerala.
The heart of this festival of Kerala is the preparation of the Kani, the lucky sight or gift. The custom of preparing the Kani has been followed for generations. The women take a large dish made of bell-metal called Uruli, arrange in it a grantha that is a palm-leaf manuscript, a gold ornament, a new cloth, some flowers from the Konna Tree, some coins in a silver cup, a split coconut, a cucumber, some mangoes and a jack-fruit. On either side of the dish are placed two burning lamps with a chair facing it. Family members are taken blindfolded and then their blindfolds are removed and they view the Vishu Kani. As in other Indian festivals, a great feast at home is the high point of celebrating Vishu in Kerala.
After visit to the family, a feast is arranged with all the Kerala delicacies, Kootu, Kari, Avial, Olan, Payasam, etc etc. Thus, the ‘Vishukkani’ has over the years become a ritual arrangement of auspicious articles like raw rice, fresh linen, golden cucumber, betel leaves, areca nut, metal mirror, the yellow flowers Konna, and a holy text and coins, in a bell metal vessel called ‘Uruli’. A lighted bell metal lamp called nilavilakku is also placed alongside. As Vishu ushers in a New Year dawn, people wake up to behold the ritualistic arrangement. Giving off handsel to the younger members of the family is part of the celebrations.
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. The Vishukkani will also be laden with gold-coloured fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, jack fruit, golden cucumber, etc. The Akshatam, as it is full of turmeric, also is gold in colour and the reflection can be seen in the mirror. Last but not least, a spiritual book, such as the Bhagavad-Gita, should be made part of the arrangement.
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 between 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.
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. All South Indian Festivals end with a big feast and Vishu is not an exception to this way of celebrations.
(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)