According to our modern calendar, on March 20, 2016, the sun crossed directly over the Earth’s equator. This moment is known as the vernal equinox (from the Latin word vernare, to bloom) in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, this is the moment of the autumnal equinox.
Translated literally, equinox means ‘equal night’. Because the sun is positioned above the equator, day and night are about equal in length all over the world during the equinoxes. In many cultures this is a time for rituals of balance and new beginnings, and sometimes it even marks the beginning of the year itself. For example, Nowruz, which means ‘new day’, is still celebrated on or around March 20th in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rooted in Zoroastrianism, it is a time of purification and setting one’s intention for a new start.
We can look to our ancestors and notice they often planned their rituals to coincide with the changes in the season, and because they needed a way to predict and honor the seasons, they routinely celebrated moon cycles, the solstices and the equinoxes. Many people still live by these markers. Those of us in the modern world barely notice the seasons except to mark the beginning of a sport season or fashion collection. Thanks to technology, snowplows immediately clear the streets of snow, and air conditioners take the heat out of summer. Most of us don’t grow our own food, and thus we rarely think about the significance of the seasons – whether plants are lying dormant or growing, whether animals are resting or bearing their young. Slowly, but surely we have lost our connection with the earth.
Most of South Asia (which is the Indian Subcontinent) follows some sort of a Lunar Calendar. Different parts of the many countries in South Asia have slight differences in dates and names of festivals, but they often celebrate the same occasion. Therefore, it means that the first day of spring celebrated in South Asia is on a different date than most of the world.
‘Basant’ is one of the biggest and most colorful festivals celebrated in India, Nepal and Pakistan to mark the beginning of the spring season. It is a secular festival, which is observed in many faiths such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, albeit for different reasons. One commonality among these varied reasons is the fact that they all welcome spring.
Hindus also celebrate Basant as the birthday of Goddess Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge and education. The festival is observed in temple and educational institutions. There is a puja (the act of worship) in most schools, with elaborate rituals and students pray on this day to get blessing from the goddess.
The Sikhs celebrate the occasion of Basant as the birthday of the originator of Namdhari Khalsa Panth, Sri Sath Guru Ram Singh. He was born on 3rd February 1816, which was the fifth day of Basant. Since then, the festival came to be known as Basant ‘Panchami’ –which means the festival is celebrated on the 5th day of month.
Sufi Muslims also celebrate this festival by gathering at the dargah (the tomb or shrine of a Muslim saint) of Hazrat Nizamuddin in New Delhi. A group of Sufi devotional singers visit a village close by in Haryana where they offer mustard flowers at the tomb of various saints and dye their clothes with yellow color, which is the liturgical color of the festival.
This festival also has a long existent association with kites! Initially during this time, the skies in Northern India used to be filled with colorful kites, but eventually this tradition has spread to all parts of the country, as well as into the neighboring countries with the migration of people during the Partition. There are numerous fairs organized in the cities which sell sweets, clothes and jewelry. Several processions are taken out during the celebration of Basant Panchami. One can see locals performing their native martial arts and dancing to various songs of Basant. The processions are joined by people in the village and also of surrounding localities. During Basant, people spend the whole day meeting their extended families and friends.
This year, The South Asian Students Association (SASA) is hosting an event called ‘Basant: The Kite Flying Festival’ on March 26th, 2016 from 1pm-3pm in the Lurie Conference Room! The hosts will be providing kite-making kits so you can build your own kite, and will provide ethnic refreshments such as Chaat (an assortment of savory snacks with tamarind sauce) and Chai (tea with milk).
Make your way to the UC on March 26th (tomorrow!) for this fun festival!