Celebrations on vernal equinox in Kerala and Iran
A gift of money, however small, given on auspicious occasions such as the beginning of a New Year or enterprise, as a token of good wishes, is handsel, kaineettam in Malayalam. The children, after a bath, wearing fresh new clothes, would greet their uncles, aunts and elders of the family with a gingery smirk in their face. When the elders solemnly doled out vishukaineettam, the gift in the form of money, the children would humbly accept them with folded hands after touching their elders’ feet, seeking blessings. Their face beaming with smile, they engaged for the next few days in dreaming ways to spend them.
The first object/ person, seen in the morning is kani. Vishukkani, the first thing seen on the early morning of Vishu, is ominous and is supposed to bring luck during the year that follows. Depending on what one sees, the year will turn out to be good or bad. Preparation for the vishukkani begins on the Vishu eve or night, when the older women of the tarawad come together to arrange the kani articles in a big circular bell-metal vessel called uruli. Starting with some raw rice, leaves and flowers of konna tree, spread on the bottom of this shallow vessel, a folded newly washed cloth is spread over it.
The auspicious articles placed over the cloth are raw rice, paddy, an unused kasavupudava (a woman’s cloth of 8-10 cubits with gold lace as in the border), kanikkonnappu (the yellow flowers of cassia fistula/ Indian laburnum), kanivellarikka (a golden-coloured cucumber), betel leaves, betel nuts, a split coconut, mangoes, jackfruit, a holy book of palm leaves, a few gold coins, gold jewellery and finally an aranmulakannadi. Two coconut halves filled with freshly ground coconut oil, with a wick lit in the vessel illuminate the articles inside it. By the side of the vessel, a five wick-type bell-metal lamp filled with coconut oil is kept burning. Usually, the whole arrangement is made in or near the pooja room of the house.
Sleeping next to the lamp, one of the eldest female members of the house gets up early in the morning to light the lamp. The first to look at kani, she wakes other members up one by one and brings them to the room, folding their eyes with her hand, disallowing them to look on other things by chance and makes them sit in front of the kani facing east, to see with fresh eyes, the yellow hues of the konna flowers, the shining gold and the affluence of the kani arrangement. The vessel is even taken to the cattle-shed and placed before the cattle to have a look, early the next morning. All these are expected to be efficacious and are believed to usher in happiness and prosperity, in the following year. Vishuphalam is the result of comparing the nativity with the equinox.
We have seen how Vishu is celebrated in Kerala in the past, which is more than the kaineettam and the gift of new clothes that the children are usually given to symbolise this tradition. Sighting kani differed from house to house and region to region within Kerala. Inmates in some houses, after taking a dip in the pond in darkness, wore new clothes and proceeded to see the kani, taking care, not to come across any bad omens on the way. Others in yet other houses went to the kani room straight from bed, with eyes closed, after a quick face and mouth wash.
Origin and spread of Nawroz: the Persian New Year festival
Now, let us veer away from the festival itself and go far away from the land of Vishu to observe the goings on in other lands. The Vishu celebrated in Kerala differs from all the other New Year celebrations in the neighbourhood. But similarity can be observed in the New Year day celebrations of the Iranian Scythian regions, known as the nawroz, variously spelt as newrooz, newruz, navruz, nowrooz, nowruz, nóvrooz, naúvrooz, naúvröž, conducted during the same time of the year, which they called hafta seen/ sin. The coincidence of customs in the Persian regions and Kerala has fascinated many writers and researchers engaged in studying their similarities.
Bas-relief with Audience scene of Darius during Now Ruz, Persepolis, Fars Province, Iran
As nawroz, a collection of traditions, most of them inherited from past usages, a comprehensive history of this thousand of-years-old celebration in the Islamic period remains to be written. Its origin dates back to the beginning of the Zoroastrian religion preceding both Christianity and Islam. The official year in the Achaemenid era (559-330 BC), began with the New Day and the celebration flourished during the Sassanid Empire (226-650 A.D.), when during this era there were held special rituals and ceremonies in the court and the “King handed out precious gifts to the treasury and distributed other gifts among the audience.” Like many of the festival’s customs, the delightful tradition of the thirteen-day nawroz festival in the preparation of ceremonial sofra-ye haft sin (cloth of seven s's) is the one that was handed down from the Achamenian period. 
So deeply embedded in Iranian culture, this Persian celebration, begun principally in Iran, still continues to be celebrated in Islamic Iran, as the Iranian New Year day, without religious connotations. Adopted and embellished by Islam, nawroz in course of time crossed the borders of the neighbouring regions like Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kurdistan, Uzbekistan, ethnic and religious groups worldwide: Kurdish diaspora, Zoroastrians, Sufis, Ismailis, Alevis, Alawites, Babis, Bahá'ís and the Iranian diaspora. It is also observed unofficially in Bosnia, Caucasus, Crimea, India, Pakistan, Macedonia, Serbia, and among Uyghurs and Salars of China.  Many communities around the world where people from these countries have settled also join in the celebrations.
The beginnings of Nawroz
Twenty-five days before the Persian New Year's Day, preparation for erecting 12 large cylindrical-shaped containers in the city centre in Persia begins. Different seeds, including wheat, barley, lentil, chuckling and rice are planted in each of these containers, made from raw bricks, only to pull out and scatter the new growths on the sixth day of Farvardin amidst music, songs and dancing. This was done, the celebrated Iranian scientist Abu-rayhan Biruni says in his book Asar al-Bagheyeh, “to estimate the growth of various seeds for the new season and to know how good a crop they could expect in the coming year.”  All the people followed this initiative when they grew seven seeds that included seven dishes, all starting with the letter seen (S) in the Persian alphabet, in their own homes.
On the first day of nawroz, family members gather around the table with a major traditional setting, with the hafta seen/ sîn on the table or set next to it, and await the exact moment of the arrival of the spring. At that time gifts are exchanged. Later in the day, the first house visits are paid to the most senior family members. The youth visit the elders, which the elders reciprocate.
Setting up a Sofreyeh Haft Seen: The spread of seven chin
The creation of the ceremonial sofra-ye haft sin (cloth of seven s's), held a few days prior to the nauruz, is intended to motivate reflection on values, ethics, and life cycles. Sofre(ye) refers to a beautiful table cloth or special spread that every household traditionally spreads out on the floor on the Persian carpet (or on a table) in a drawing room meant for guests, in which the Iranians put seven different beans. Haft sin is the name of all the seven dishes on the table, of fruit, vegetables, sweets, herbs that start with the Persian/ Farsi letter sin (‘s’) and corresponds to the English letter ‘s.’ These seven ‘esses’ called haft sin are put on a picnic table in bowls along with other delicacies that do not begin with 'S,' as a sign of thanking nature for giving humans their everyday needs. Perhaps in ancient times it would have been on the floor. Since then all Iranians put haftsin commonly on a table.
The items on the table represent truth, justice, good thoughts and deeds, prosperity, virtue, immortality, and generosity. Following are the seven symbolic dishes of the haft sin and vary from household to household. The sprouts from seven different kinds of seeds grown to the height of a few inches inside a thin white cloth wrapped around a clay jug are sazba/ sabzeh which represent renewal of life, rebirth and spring. In samanu, common wheat sprouts are transformed and given new life as a sweet, creamy pudding. It is very sweet dough symbolizing abundance/ affluence and represents the sophistication of Persian cooking. Seeb/ sib means apple, which represents health and beauty. Seer/ sir is garlic cloves, whose roots, sometimes dyed red, blue and green, resembled tassels. In Persian, it represents medicine. Senjed refers to the fruit from the oleaster tree or jujube tree or the lotus. In full bloom, lotus's fragrance and its sweet, dry fruit make people fall in love and become oblivious to all else. Sepand, often the seed of wild rue, is placed in an incense burner and burned just after the turn of the New Year. Sekka/ sekeh refers to a few minted coins and represents prosperity. With the appearance of the sun, good conquers evil. The function of the somaq sumac berries is to represent the colour of sunrise. Serkeh/ Serka or vinegar represents age and patience. 
This display, one of the components of the rituals of the New Year's Day festival that the Iranians observed, is usually set up much in advance of the celebration. This offering on the table includes sonbol (hyacinth flower symbolizing the coming of spring), somagh (lemon pepper), oeten shirii (pastries), lighted candles for enlightenment and happiness, a mirror to reflect the candle light as well as the reflections of creation on the first day of spring, coloured eggs (for fertility), a bitter orange floating in water (the cosmos), the Koran or book of poetry, and a bowl with live gold fish because they are considered lucky. 
Does the word sin denote Chinese?
Some people believed that the very plate that the Sasanian had was the one given to them from China which they called chini plate. They argued that after some years the word chini changed into sini (a beautiful plate) in which people put seven things. Nowadays, the sabze is more commonly grown on a shallow earthenware plate.
The Chinese workmanship worldwide, (made in China) is china. Cheena is a kind of large boat. An anchorage of a ship is cheeni. Cheenikkanam is anchorage (ship) lying at an anchorage. Chinese global trade had distributed the Chinese ware, cheenacharakku, in Malayalam.
A kind of large jar of porcelain, the one originally imported from China is cheenabharani, Chinese ware of any kind, dishes, plates, cups etc. is pinjan(am), pinjani in Malayalam, finjan in Persian. Cheena pinjani refers to an imported dish. Chinese plates are called thattupinjani and cups are kundupinjanam. Thattuvilambuka means to fill the plate to the brim. The Chinese porcelain crockery and tiny cups are for drinking tea. A China dish is cheeni (kinnam). A frying pan made of cast iron is cheenachatti. Chinayi is a kind of cloth. Cheenam, also called cheenathuni, is a kind of cloth. It is also known as cheenavasassu, cheenamsukam. In Onappattu, we have reference about cheenathemundu, the loin cloth mundu worn by Malayalees. Soyabean is cheenamaasham. Pepper is cheenapriyam, mulaku. Cheenamulaku denotes chilli. Cheenakkizhangu is a variety of sweet potato.
The popularity of Chinese commerce had influenced some to think that the plate the Persians obtained from the Chinese caused the word sin denoting the Chinese. It seems that the plate is not what matters; the content being green sprouts, usually wheat, barley or lentil, growing in a dish called sabzeh, it is the content that matters. Owing to the inconsistencies noted in several points, it failed to adduce any analogy with the haft sin and the history of the custom is thus obscure.
Let us analogize
In this context, the Chinese word chini can be substituted by the Malayalam word china which means branching out as an ear of corn. The branch of the horn of a stag, a tree, is china. To grow luxuriantly putting forth sprouts or offshoots is china. Chinaccham means a sprout, a branch. Chinapp is a sprout, offshoot. A tender bud is chinapp/ chinaypp. Chinaykkuka is to branch out, sprout, put on offshoot; also mature, become ripe chinekka is to branch out, to sprout.
The word china has given us a foothold, a vine to hold to explore the matter further. The word sabze is found in use from the time of beginning. Let us grasp the sense of this word to initiate a discussion. A young or tender plant before attaining the age of flowering fruition is thai in Malayalam. In Sanskrit sasyam means corn/ grass, shoot. Any young plant or tree is sasyam in Sanskrit and thai in Malayalam and Tamil. Vegetables are called sasyam. Tender plant is thai in Malayalam. Against this background, the word sazeh / sazba must mean nothing but sasyam. Corn grown ripe is vila. Yield or produce of agriculture crop is vila(v). It is ready for harvest. Crop of corn growing is vila. It is vegetation. The word sasyam holds the meaning corn, grass, sprout and the Persian word sabze is only its transliteration.
Sapta (Sanskrit) is hepta in Greek, hapta in Pahlavi and hefta in Persian. They all signify seven and can be considered as a loan word from Sanskrit. Saptakam is a group or combination of seven. We see in heft sin a saptakam. Saptakam includes sekka and samanu. Sekka, the newly minted coin in Persian, is chakram in Malayalam and Tamil. Chakram is an old coin of Travancore. Figuratively, it means money, wealth, cash etc. Preparation of food, cooking is chamayan, chamayam. It is samanu. The understanding of the meaning of the words sin, sabse, haft, sekka, samanu has made the topic under discussion yieldable. Now, let us examine the word nowruz.
Navam, Greek neos means tender, young. In Latin novus means new, fresh, and young. Iranian New Year starts from 21 March and is called nowruz: The meaning of the word ‘now’ is new and that of ‘ruz,’ day, so the word nowruz means starting a new day. Fresh and new is navam. It also means young. Nava is new, first. Pertaining to year, rain or rainy season, the monsoon is varsham. The nowruz is perhaps from the word navavarsham which refers to New Year.
Navavarsham means new as well as rain or navavalsaram –the New Year, first day of a year, aandupirappu kollapirappu. Valsaram means year. The close up of the words like sin, subze, haft, sekka, samanu, nowruz, has given us a thorough grounding on the topic under discussion and enabled us to hold the ground. Now let us understand sofra-ye.
A shed or thatch is chapparam in Tamil. The canopied chair or decorated bedstead, called cha(tha)pramanchakkattil, solely used by the kaaranavar, can be found positioned in the valiya arappura, in the southwestern corner of the trafitional houses of Travancore. The only furniture in the entire house, it is displayed behind the thekkathu.
Manchal is a kind of palanquin or a light litter borne on the shoulder by bearers. Pravahanam is a closed or covered carriage for women. A palanquin, meant for one especially a high personage, is known in Malayalam as pallaakku, pallanki, paryankam, palyankam, menavu, sibika, sivika. Cot, couch, bed are called paryankam.
Kanakappallakku is used for coronation. This palanquin, hanging on silk cords, a royal privilege, is pallithandu. Palanquin of a king is pallithandu. A class of Nayar, bearers of Raja are pallichan. Pallichiyaan are a class of Nayar, hereditary bearers of a Royal palankin. Thandedukka means to carry the palankin chiefly in marriage profession. A decorated litter to carry an idol in procession, is chappiram in Malayalam. Parynkaasanam, is a throne. Chappiram, chapram is sapram. The litter of an idol as well as the place where the litter is kept, is sapram. The word sofre yeh seems to be one loaned from chapram / sapram. It is in the sofra-ye, that the seeds are sown and allowed to sprout. This action makes sofra-ye, a throne for the seven immortal angels.
A throne in Iran tradition
On 1st of Farvardin corresponding with 21 March, it is said that Jamshid, the Pishadi king, after ridding the country of wicked giants, sat on a golden throne that he built.  The people who carried the throne on their shoulders saw the sun’s rays on the king and celebrated the day.  Darius the Great founded the ancient capital of Persia, in 6c. B.C.E. When Darius was forgotten, Persia came to be known by the modern Iranian name Takht-e-jamshid, meaning ‘throne of Jamshid,’ a legendary king.
In Zoroastrian belief, the month of Farvardin refers to Faravashis, the guardian angels. These protecting spirits and spirits of progress return to the material world during the last ten days of the year, when they are honoured, in order to make the spirits of their deceased ancestors happy. Yet another tradition is related to Solomon who recovered his sovereignty. In another tradition, Kai Khosros, son of Parviz Bardina, ascended the throne on this day, which made Iranshahr flourish.
In Persian mythology, the circumpolar constellation Ursa Major (UMa), termed ‘Seven thrones,’ is also called haft-owrang (awrang). Haft aurang, Jami’s collection of seven epic poems, refers to the Ursa Major as seven thrones. They are the same in literature as well as in folklore.  Ursa Major is called haftoreng/ hastorang / haftorang / haptoiringa in Persia (3000 BC). In the sacred Zoroastrian texts, particularly the Zend Avesta (7-5 C, BC), the constellation of the Great Bear is known under the appellative of haptoiringa.  The Arabic name Banat al-na'sh for Ursa Major means 'Daughters of the Bier,' and refers to four stars in the constellation that form the ‘bier’ and the remaining three, the ‘daughters.’ The seven archangels were conceived as the seven principal stars of the constellation of Ursa Major, guarding the throne of God.
The haft-sin refers to a ceremonial table cloth of seven dishes, each one beginning with the Persian letter cinn. They stand for the seven angelic heralds of life-birth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, patience and beauty.
The Iranian spring celebration among the people of the Old Persian lands is still observed on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, when day and night are equal all over the globe, which usually occurs on March 21 or on the previous/ following day, depending on where it is observed. The Persian word nauruz literally means ‘new day.’ Being the date of vernal equinox, it marks the beginning of the solar year, and the first day of the month of Farvardin, the first month in the ancient solar calendar.
The sun’s entry to the zodiacal sign of Aries, leaving the zodiac of Pisces signified the spring equinox. The equinox based on tropical astrology is March in Europe. On the other hand, the Vishu in Kerala is in April. The difference is explained by the fact that Indian astrologers use sidereal astrology based on true constellations. Considered as the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, the spring celebrations in Iran fell on the 1st of the Persian month of Farvardin.
The equipoise day on which both day and night have equal duration is vishu. The first of the month of Medam or Thualm are vishu. The former is vernal equinox and the latter, autumnal equinox. Similarly, the conjunction of the sun’s alternate journeys towards the tropics is parvam. Rainy season, temple festival, a specified time is parvam/ paruvam, parvan in Malayalam. It is the period when the sun comes directly above the equator, called the equinox, vishuvam. Din is dinam, a day. In this context, Farvardin, the Persian month, refers to nothing but parvadinam / paruvadinam.
The seven items in haft sin, the sacred essences, symbolize the seven holy spirits and correspond symbolically to creations. These beneficent immortals, called Amesha Sepanta, watch over humans to protect them and reflect the good taste of the families, apart from setting a traditional and spiritual value. The number seven represents the seven elements of life which are fire, earth, water, air, plants, animals, and humans and have astrological correlations to five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sun as well as Moon. The name Amesha Sepanta which went into oblivion with the advent of Islam was replaced by just the letter ‘S’ and the number ‘7.’ 
Did New Year rituals establish an obscure link
between Persia and ancient Kerala?
The different types of seeds etc. of the early nau roz celebrations have thus become approachable and have shed more light on similarities and concepts of vishuchaal the chaalupooja held in certain parts of Kerala. In the preparation of the haft sin table, during the Persian New Year's Day, one can find a clue for an obscure link between Zoroaster, early Persia and the Vishu in early Malabar, in its arrangement of the vishukkani. The role of womenfolk is noteworthy in both. The similarities in it pertaining to the new cloth, the seeds, the mirror, the fruits, the flowers (though of a different colour), the handsel called vishukkani, the holy book, etc., reveal the splendour of migration of agriculture-related ideas and institutions in the remote past. Both the ancient national festival of the nawruz and Vishu are held in honour of agriculture, when planting begins and has long been celebrated at a time when nature is in the process of rejuvenating itself.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com
- In Scotland and northern England the first Monday of the year, particularly used to be celebrated is called handsel monday.
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- Meena Iyer, Faith and Philosophy of Zoroastrianism, Vol.7 of Indian religions series, Gyan Publishing House, 2009,p.304.
- Haft Sin, The Ceremonial Spread for No Ruz (Nowruz, Norooz, Noruz)
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- The astroclock2010 blog archives for March, 2010.