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March 22, 2005 > Middle Eastern and Asian Cultures Celebrate New Year

Middle Eastern and Asian Cultures Celebrate New Year

by Sunil Dhar

If you hear people exchanging "Happy New Year" greeting in the next few weeks, don't be alarmed or surprised. Many people from different parts of the world begin celebrating their "New Year." The Chinese New Year was celebrated a month ago and now people from the Middle Eastern and other Asian cultures will begin celebrating the New Year in the next few weeks.

Why such a difference in times to celebrate New Year? New Year's Day, among ancient cultures frequently corresponded to the vernal or autumnal equinox, or to the summer or winter solstice. In the Middle Ages it was celebrated among Christians usually on March 25. After the adoption of the Gregorian calendar that began in 1582, the day was observed on the first of January. The Jewish New Year is the first day of Tishri, which falls some time in September or in early October. The Muslim New Year falls on the first day of Muharram, which is the first month of the year.

As the practice of celebrating the New Year has become popular in the western world, the celebration of New Year takes on a new meaning to the different cultures settled in the Bay Area.

Most people from India will celebrate the New Year in the spring. The actual date varies, depending upon the region of India and their culture. Most Indians, including Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains and Buddhists celebrate their New Year in March or April. The exceptions are the people from Gujarat, who celebrate New Year in October or November during Diwali (the festival of lights).

The people of Maharashtra celebrate Gudi Padwa, which begins with the traditional "gudis" hanging in the window. The Gudis celebrates nature's bounty to the people. The Gudi is a pole with a brass or a silver vessel placed on the top. These poles are covered with silk and flowers like marigold, and mango leaves and coconuts are tied to it.

In the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, New Year is celebrated on April 13 and 14. The Tamil New Year begins on the day the sun enters the zodiacal house Mesham (Aries), in the month of Chithirai. To herald in the New Year, morning worship (puja) is held in temples in honor of Surya, the Sun God, who is the remover of all darkness and gloom. Orthodox Hindus rise early for a ritual bath and elaborate worship at the family shrine. The first meal is then taken at a predetermined auspicious time. This is followed by visits to the Temple and to family and friends.

People prepare for Ugadhi by cleaning and washing their houses and buying new clothes. When the day begins, they decorate their houses with mango leaves and rangolis (colorful patterns). Then, they pray for good health and prosperity in the coming year. It has become a custom to hold Kavi Sammelans (poetry recitals) this day. The Ugadhi day is considered to be an auspicious time to begin something new, either business or family.

Kashmiri Pandits (Hindu's) celebrate their New Year's Day, Navreh, on the first day of the bright fortnight of the month of Chaitra, which falls on April 9 this year. The word "Navreh" is derived from Sanskrit "Nava Varsha" meaning the New Year. On the eve of Navreh, the last night of the dark fortnight, they keep a thali (metal plate) filled with rice, a cup of curds, a bread, cooked rice, some walnuts, an inkpot and a pen, a silver coin and the Panchanga of the New Year, so it can be the first thing to be seen in the wee hours of the morning, for good fortune, health and happiness. The Panchanga, popularly known as Nechi Patri, is an almanac giving important astrological configurations and favorable dates and other useful religious information for the coming year. Keeping the Nechi Patri handy for consultation is a tradition followed in every Kashmiri Pandit household where religious and even social obligations are performed according to these dates.

Baisakhi (New Year) is celebrated by Sikhs, Jains and Hindus in north and eastern India on April 13, though once in 36 years it occurs on April 14. It is the time when the harvest is ready to cut and store or sell. For the Sikh community, Baisakhi has a very special meaning. It was on this day that they celebrate this festival as a collective birthday of the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh who organized the Sikhs into Khalsa or the pure ones.

Muslims in India commemorate the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Holy Prophet on the first day of the New Year. He was killed in Karbala (in modern day Iraq) by the Muslim ruler. Some Muslims hold meetings where speeches are made on the events of Karbala and the lives of martyrs. Other Muslims wear black clothes to mourn the martyrdom of the Hasrat Imam Hussain. On the 10th day of the New Year, large processions are formed and followers parade the streets holding banners and carrying models of the mausoleum of Hazrat Imam Hussain. Some show their grief by inflicting wounds on their bodies with sharp metal tied to chains. This year the New Year was on Feb. 20.

People from Iran celebrate New Year (referred to as Navruz) based upon the Zoroastrian tradition is celebrated on March 21. This practice of celebrating based upon the Zoroastrian tradition also extends to include peoples from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and parts of Turkey.

Iranian people display mirrors in guest rooms. In front of mirrors, they offer grain, yogurt, garlic, eggs and wheat. On the day of Karaji, families go out to the riverside for a picnic. In the Bay Area, people from Iran celebrate by dressing in their finest clothes and going out with their friends and family to celebrate. Farokh Mehrshahi, an Iranian now living in San Jose, said, "This is a day to celebrate life, friends and the beginning of a new year. This is a really happy time for the kids, because they get new clothes, gifts and get to dress up."

The New Year is the time of new beginnings and renewal for all these cultures. Every culture celebrates life and blessings provided by God and nature. The beginning of new careers, business and other changes are encouraged at this time of the year. The significance of nature and God are tied together in the New Year celebrations. Many marriages are performed around this time of the year to bring good luck for the couple in their life together.

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