Nirmala woke up early on April 4 at her home in Barrington, a suburb of Chicago. It was Ugadi (from the Sanskrit yuga adi, literally "beginning of an eon"), the new year for Hindus from the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Having bathed, she wore new clothes and got ready to do the new year's meal, carrying on generations of traditions in her Telugu-speaking Hindu family from the state of Andhra Pradesh in south India.
The meal, filled with auspicious items, included the ugadi pachadi, a dish made especially for new year's day. This chutney-like dish is like life itself: a piquant combination of many flavors. The sweetness of jaggery, the sour taste of tamarind, the bitterness of neem, the fiery excitement of chili and the pungency of mango come together with salt to mimic the taste of life itself. The ugadi pachadi is like a hologram for the experiences the new year will bring.
A few houses away, Nirmala's friend Ranjani, whose Tamil-speaking family came from a neighboring state in India, is not caught in the excitement of the Ugadi new year -- the Tamil new year is on April 14. Right around the middle of April, people from many parts of south and southeast Asia celebrate the beginning of the new year. Many communities in this "monsoon" basin worked off shared cultural matrices in the first millennium of the Common Era. Thus, people from many regions of south Asia, including Tamilnadu, Punjab, Assam, Kerala, Bengal and Sindh, as well as residents of Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Laos will be celebrating the beginning of the new year between April 14 and 15 this year.
Hindus all over the world do not have a common New Year's Day. There are at least three popular new year days in the Hindu calendar which, for almost a billion people, is being quite economical. The celebration of the new year has more to do with community, language and region, than with religious affiliation. Apart from Ugadi, there are the mid-April new year celebrations for many Hindu communities. People from the region of Gujarat, on the other hand, celebrate new year's day soon after Deepavali, the festival of lights which falls on the new moon day between mid-October and mid-November. Hindus generally follow a lunar calendar which is adjusted to the solar (hence their claim that they follow a luni-solar calendar), and so, while the dates of many festivals change every year, like those of Passover, they will come about the same time. Over the centuries, however, some communities have celebrated new year's day in conjunction with the solar calendar, and so while the Ugadi and the Festival of Lights may change by as much as three to four weeks, the mid-April new year's day, which is called the "solar new year" does not change except by a day or two.
There are, of course, many reasons given to the celebration of the new year's day at different times of the year. In some areas, it could mark the beginning of a new calendar era established by a monarch in the distant past. Others tie the new year day with seasons -- Ugadi is celebrated on the day after the new moon, which comes close to the vernal equinox in March. Thus, the new year is connected with the new blossoms and fruits of spring. Others, like the people in Cambodia, tie their new year's day in the middle of April with agricultural calendars. Some understand Ugadi to be a time when Brahma (a relatively minor deity in the Hindu pantheon) begins to create the universe. Those who celebrate it in October or November, near the festival of Deepavali, connect the beginning of a new life, a new era, to the story of Rama, an incarnation (avatar) of Lord Vishnu, coming back to rule in the city of Ayodhya after defeating the forces of evil.
New year's day is a time for domestic and temple festivities. Houses are cleaned and decorated with rangolis -- beautiful geometric designs made of rice flour and colored powders in mandala formations -- in courtyards and thresholds. In temples, the almanac for the new year, along with the dates for major events, is read out loud; the audience is the deity and the devotees. People from Maharashtra and Konkan may erect a staff of righteousness (dharma dhwaj) outside their houses. This is a bamboo stick with an inverted jar at the end of it which is decorated with flowers and mango leaves. For some, this is a banner of dharma or righteousness; for others, it could be symbolic of a human spine and head, the sensitive areas of yogic energy.
There was active trade and cultural exchanges between south and southeast Asia in the first millennium as well as common cultural fields shared by Hindus and Buddhists. Globalization past intersects with globalization present in the celebration of many festivals which go with common astrological and calendarical rubrics. Known as Maha Songran (from the Sanskrit maha sanakranti, a time when the sun transits from one sign to another) or Chol Chnam Thmey, new year's day in southeast Asia which is celebrated in mid-April over many days, marks the sun's movement into Aries. During this time, rulers, both earthly as well as spiritual and celestial, are honored. Dances, like the Trot, are performed during Khmer New Year to chase evil spirits; elders and the Buddha are bathed in fragrant water to receive blessings. In parts of Thailand, drenching people with water -- in fun and to remove "impurities" -- is part of the celebrations.
While new year days are celebrated with families and friends at different parts of the year by Hindus, they have now been eclipsed by the increasing significance of the Gregorian calendars. Even traditional temples in India and all over the world, say many Hindus, have their grandest days on Jan. 1, with some of the largest collections of donations happening on that day. Nevertheless, the traditional feasts and foods are to be found on the traditional new year day observed by Hindu communities, and when one has friends from different areas, one can celebrate with all of them. If one new year celebration is good, four is even better.
As families sit down to eat the large meal, which includes the pachadi with six flavors, they realize that it is only when one goes through grief or anxiety that one can enjoy the sweetness of life. And as one goes through the year, one tastes the flavors of the ugadi pachadi in the sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, salty and tangy events of everyday life and hopes that like the dish, the sweetness will be there even through the slight touches of all the other experiences.
Vasudha Narayanan is Distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, and Director, Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions (CHiTra) at the University of Florida. She is a past president of the American Academy of Religion.