A New Year by any other name: Diversity marks South Asian cultural identity

Designating it as a ‘Hindu’ New Year appears to be part of an ongoing attempt to homogenise our diversity and multiple, multicultural identities. 

Kavita Srivastava Apr 15, 2024
Photo: Katherine Abraham

As South Asians across the globe celebrate our New Year, I’m reminded of the diversity of our region, stretching into the diaspora and expatriate communities. Every region in South Asia has its own name and version of this festival, celebrated around the world by members of our larger community over the past week, until mid-April.

Of course for those in the southern hemisphere, things may be different. There are so many regions and communities in our part of the world which seem to overlap with others in terms of celebrating New Year in spring, the beginning of the harvest season for many.

Greetings for the season have been flying across social media platforms and in WhatsApp chat groups. A conversation in one WhatsApp group reminded me of my grandmother and these harvest festivals marking spring, which also coincide with Easter.

Ambedkar, Eid, and an eclipse

We also commemorate Ambedkar Jayanti on 14 April, marking the birth anniversary of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, ‘Baba Sahab’, the founder of the Indian Constitution. For India’s Dalits, this day is no less than a religious festival.

A day of assertion, a reminder that Dalits are equal human beings, a day to openly challenge caste and untouchability, the Ambedkar way – caste annihilation. It was this spirit that ignited the Ambedkar birthday celebration I attended in a ‘basti’ (neighbourhood) on Sunday in Jaipur organised by young people. It started with a cake cutting and sang “Janam din Mubarak ho Baba Saheb” to the tune of “Happy Birthday to you”.

This year, we even had a rare solar eclipse, and Eid-ul-Fitr was also observed around the same time.

Even Nepal, a Hindu-majority country with a Muslim population of about 4 per cent, has observed a holiday for Eid since the country was declared secular in 2008. The Nepal telecom company this year “had a ringtone with a lovely greeting of Eid Mubarak in song form for two days,” Namrata Sharma, a senior journalist in Kathmandu, told our group.

Dr. Fauzia Deeba, a New Jersey-based physician from Quetta, Balochistan, chimed in with a reminder that the Baloch, Afghan and Iranian peoples, including Zoroastrians and Bahais, celebrate New Year, ‘Nauroze’ (New Day) in the third week of March.

Back to my grandmother, my Dadi, a devoutly observant Hindu. Hailing from a family in Uttar Pradesh (UP), I was familiar with the Chaitra Navratri being the first day of the Vikram Samvat calendar, named after King Vikramaditya of Ujjain, India. This is the Hindu lunar calendar system popularly used 57 years before the Gregorian calendar was adopted.

Dadi observed this day to celebrate the first Navratra, the nine days before Lord Ram was born, with each of the nine days dedicated to a goddess. On a special platform prepared for this in her room, which was also the pooja (worship) room, she would place an urn (lota). She would get us to fill it with mud and plant wheat grains in it.

A harvest festival

The thrill of seeing green shoots grow and emerge from the urn is a cherished childhood memory. It was a harvest festival, my father made it clear. Always trying to get to the core. Playing down the religiosity bit, wanting us to constantly have a scientific temper.

These nine days were a private celebration for the family. My Dadi would observe a fast, and special ‘satvik’ food, purely vegetarian with no garlic or onions, would be prepared in this period, for the one meal she ate, which we too got to eat.

On the ninth day, also called Kanya pooja, to venerate the Devis (goddesses), the nine forms of the goddess Durga, nine girls and one boy from the neighbourhood would be invited. My grandma would wash their feet, feed them and give them money a few annas which to a child meant a lot. We later understood that this worship of pre-puberty age girls was actually the worship of virginity. This ritual we questioned and told our grandma that we didn't agree with this goddess (virginity ) pooja. Menstruating girls should also be dignified.

A private festival in people’s homes, a part of their own religious and spiritual journey has become a public festival over the last decade in North India. Chaitra Navratri is now projected as a public ‘Hindu New Year’. The greeting Nav Samvatsar literally means that the new Samvat, the Hindu new year has begun.

Now, January 1st has started being designated as a ’Christian’ New Year. The attempt to make Chaitra Navratra a major festival now has entire households fasting.

The Hindu fast (vrat) can take many forms. It has the option to go without food, speech (maun vrat), or water (nirjala). You can eat ‘satvik’ food once a day. But the young men and women and even older people now observing this nine-day fast ‘voluntarily’ take no water or food all day, with a kind of vehement religiosity that would be alien to my observant Dadi, and that I found disturbing.

Mangalorean Onam

At a Mangalorean Christian wedding I attended in Chennai during the Onam festival some years ago, I was taken aback by the priest's oration full of references to Onam. I had thought Onam was a Hindu festival, but these were Christians.

I realised that it was a harvest festival, a cultural expression adopted by people around the region and that it takes on various forms, observed in various ways by people in each region, regardless of religion. This runs contrary to the attempts to foist a sweeping monolithic identity on practising Hindus the length and breadth of the country.

Baisakhi is celebrated in Punjab at this time with great fervour. For Sikhs, who live predominantly in the Punjab, it also marks the beginning of the Sikh New Year observing the formation of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1699. But Baisakhi is a secular festival.

It was at the festival of Baisakhi that British troops fired upon the men, women and children gathered for the festival, defying the ban on public gatherings, at Jallianwala Bagh, 13 April 1919. Hundreds of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians were killed.

I remembered many of these regional descriptions of the new year from my school days, as I attended an institution that promoted multiculturalism and respect for all cultures and religions. I later picked up more information from my travels.

So I began to compile various forms of the festival I had encountered, supporting my notion that this festival was traditionally a cultural one linked to the harvest. Designating it as a ‘Hindu’ New Year appears to be part of an ongoing attempt to homogenise our diversity and multiple, multicultural identities. Here are some of my findings:

Tuesday 9 April

The Ugadi festival across the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka marks the beginning of the new “yug”, meaning era.

The Gudi Padwa marks the beginning of the Marathi New Year, signifying auspicious new beginnings, and victory of good over evil. It is also a time for reflection and introspection. Households ties Gudhi, a bright, colourful scarf-like cloth, over wooden stands with new leaves of mango and neem trees, and wheat symbolising the prosperity a good harvest brings. One eats sweet and bitter dishes together, a reminder of the labour and pain required to get a good yield in that harvest. Gudhi padwa is also associated with the establishment of the Maratha empire under the leadership of Chhatrapati Shivaji who fought the mighty powers to carve out self-rule or Swaraj.

Chaitra Navratri is a nine-day Hindu festival across north India celebrating the nine forms of the goddess Durga.

Sajibu Nongma Panba festival marking the start of the lunar year in Assam and Manipur

Wednesday 10 April

The Cheti Chand festival celebrates the birth of Lord Jhulebal and marks the beginning of the lunar New Year for Sindhi Hindus.

Thursday 11 April

Sarhul, which means ‘worship of trees’, marks the beginning of the New Year in the eastern state of Jharkhand, India. The festival marks the start of a new agricultural season in the Spring.

Saturday 13 April

The Baisakhi festival marks the spring harvest season in Punjab, both in Pakistan and India, and is celebrated by people of all faiths, as mentioned above. It is also celebrated in Nepal on the first day of the Lunar calendar, as the Hindu New Year, following the Vikram Sambat calendar. There are Pooja worships at homes and temples, and parents invite married daughters and their families home for a meal, says Namrata Sharma. Most cultures in Nepal observe similar traditions as north India, like Navratri and Chaitra Dasain.

Maha Vishuba Sankranti, also known as Pana Sankranti honours Lord Jagannath, and is celebrated in Odisha, in the eastern region of India.

Biju Tripura is the Chakma New Year, marking a new agricultural season, and is celebrated over a three-day period with a holiday in Tripura, a hilly state in northeast India, bordered on three sides by Bangladesh. Various communities celebrate it, calling it different names – Sangrai, Bishu, Baisu.

Aluth Avurudda, the Sinhalese New Year, dawned at 9.05 pm on Saturday, and is celebrated across Sri Lanka.

Sunday 14 April

Puthandu, the Tamil new year, marks the first day of Chitterai, a Tamil calendar month.

The Bihu festival in the northeastern Indian state of Assam marks the beginning of the New Year and the start of a new planting season.

Poila Baisakh or Pohela Baisakh marks the start of the Bangla New Year or ‘Nobo Borsho’ for Bengalis regardless of religious faith, including in what is now Bangladesh, as my friend and feminist activist Khushi Kabir in Dhaka noted in our chat group. It is also celebrated in Tripura as well as in the eastern states of Jharkhand and Assam.

Vishu is a Hindu festival celebrating the beginning of the Malayali New Year in Kerala.

I’m struck by how each festival has its own name, special foods and rituals. Changing the names means not just the loss of a word from a language but also a loss of culture. Let us affirm diverse cultural traditions and languages and not try to replace them. 

(The writer is a Jaipur-based human rights activist working with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) India. She is a founder member of the Southasia Peace Action Network, Sapan and loves music and culture. By special arrangement with Sapan)

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