Before meteorological departments, people planned their year based on information from the official almanac, read publicly on Ugadi

Ugadi A festival of many flavours for the ups and downs of the year ahead
Features New Year Friday, April 08, 2016 - 13:57

The traditional Indian calendar has always had a peculiar way of arranging days, weeks, and months, and even hours of the day. For the longest time, till India adopted the Gregorian calendar, this was followed.

Even now, for the most important events, the traditional calendar is still consulted by family elders.  The calendar is based on calculations of the movements of the moon and sun through the twelve zodiacs as defined in ancient astronomy.

The southern and eastern states like Andhra, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa follow the lunar calendar while the northern states like Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Himachal follow the solar calendar.

In the south, a fortnight begins from a no-moon night also called Amavasya, and in the north, it begins from a full moon night called Poornima. However, the names of the twelve months don’t change in the two systems. There is a difference of fifteen days between both the calendars.

April 8, 2016 marks the beginning of a new year in the lunar calendar. It is the first day of the first month, Chaitra.

New Year’s day is celebrated as Chandramana Ugadi in Telugu-speaking states, Yugaadi in Karnataka, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra and Cheti Chand among the Sindhi community.

Before we get to how the festival is celebrated, it is interesting to hear of some of the earliest references to it in ancient texts such as the ‘Jayasimhakalpadruma’ and the ‘Purushaarthachintamani’. King Jayasimha who ruled Mathura around 1713 wrote the ‘Jayasimhakalpadruma’ and detailed how Indian festivals were observed in different parts of the country.

Brahma, the creator in the Hindu trinity, and the sun and moon are worshipped. Houses are decorated and everyone takes an oil bath. The leaves of the neem tree are consumed. The line in Sanskrit, “Asyaam Vai Nimbapatraani Prashya Samsrunuyaat” (And one consumes the fresh flowers and tender leaves of the neem tree), tells us the importance of Neem leaves. But we will come to that later.

There are also references to this being the beginning of summer and to people opening sheds that dispensed water to everyone.

In the text ‘Samrajyalakshmipithika’, compiled in Thanjavur, we find a few more interesting references to what the king or rulers of the land practiced. On the first day the king places fresh neem leaves and jaggery on his head and prays to the family gods.

Later he distributes these among his family members, and everyone eats them. Every door in the house is decorated with buntings made of fresh mango leaves. The main entrance to one’s home is decorated with a Kolam or Rangoli to invoke and welcome auspiciousness.

This is a time of celebration, not because of any strict religious reasons, but to observe the beginning of a new year. Everyone wishes for good things for the place they live in, and for people who live around them.

Ugadi is also the time when the official almanac, popularly known as ‘Panchanga Sravanam’ among south Indians, is read out to inform people of upcoming events from rain and crop cycles to weather forecasts and zodiac details. In days when there was no meteorological department to tell everyone such details, the ‘Panchanga Sravanam’ played a vital role. Everyone planned their year ahead based on what the astronomer said.

The traditional Ugadi feast is also a sign of what the new season has in store. On Ugadi day, a special concoction called ‘Ugadi Pachchadi’ is prepared. There is no hard and fast recipe for this, and over centuries it has been adapted into different styles based on personal tastes.

The constant ingredients are fresh jaggery, margosa flowers, fresh tamarind, tender raw mangoes, salt, and fresh pepper ground into a liquid and consumed. The whole idea is to balance six distinctly different tastes and consume them as one. This is a metaphor for all the good and bad events about to take place in the coming year and how one must look at all of them with equanimity.

According to Ayurveda, jaggery water is a coolant and margosa flowers have medicinal qualities. Consuming the Ugadi Pachchadi is considered good for the body as it prepares it for the onslaught of the coming four months of intense summers. 

The other traditional seasonal preparations made during Ugadi are mango rice made from grated tender raw mangoes and a dessert made from fresh jaggery stuffed into Indian bread, popular as ‘Puran Poli’ in Maharashtra, ‘Bhakshaalu’ in Andhra and ‘Obbatu’ in Karnataka.

According to the traditional calendar a Yuga has sixty years. Each of these years has names that come from sources of great antiquity. Once in sixty years the names repeat. The current year has a rather unnerving name in Sanskrit.

In the Vedic calendar it is called ‘Durmukhi’ which means ‘one with a bad face’. The last two times the year was called Durmukhi were back in 1956 and 1896.

Some Sanskrit scholars are of the opinion that it is one of the many names attributed to lord Shiva. Other scholars say it is the name of one of the thirty-two female deities worshipped in the Tantra school of thought.

According to the ancient text Kubjikāmatatantra, these goddesses are situated on a ring of sixteen petals and represent the thirty-two syllables of a mantra as prescribed in the Aghora tradition.

Each of these deities is represented as being small, plump and large-bellied. They have sixteen arms each, are mounted on different Vahanas or animals and can assume any form at will.

This is just one Tantric detailing of the goddess Durmukhi after whom this year gets its name. There are several other explanations. Whatever be the mythological or historical reasons behind this name, one need not worry about anything bad happening.

Festivals like other human institutions have their own history and evolution. They are good times for social gatherings with your near and dear ones. They are occasions to be grateful and thankful for what you have. Ugadi is the beginning of a new year and it is a time to rejoice. So here’s wishing everyone a fabulous, fun-filled, creative, healthy, safe and prosperous year ahead! 

Photographs by — Janakiraman, M Acharya, Kiran Kumar P

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

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