Spring is in the air and over the weekend, the festival of Vasant Panchami, which marks the arrival of spring was celebrated last Saturday. Also known as Saraswati Puja in honour of the Goddess of learning, Goddess Saraswati, the festival is celebrated across the Indian subcontinent in various ways depending on the region. Vasant Panchami also marks the start of preparation for Holika and Holi, which take place forty days later. The Vasant Utsava or festival on Panchami is celebrated forty days before spring, because any season’s transition period is 40 days, and after that, the season comes into full bloom.
Vasant Panchami is celebrated every year on the fifth day of the bright half of the Hindu lunisolar calendar month of Magha, which typically falls in late January or early February. It is generally winter-like in northern India, and more spring-like in central and western parts of India on Vasant Panchami, which gives credence to the idea that spring is actually in full bloom 40 days after the Vasant Panchami day.
Not just observed by the Hindus, Vasant Panchami has been a historical tradition of the Sikhs as well and is known as Sri Panchami in the southern states. On the island of Bali and among the Hindus of Indonesia, it is known as Hari Raya Saraswati and marks the beginning of the 210-day long Balinese Pawukon calendar.
Vasant Panchami is dedicated to the Goddess Saraswati who is the Goddess of knowledge, language, music and all arts. She symbolizes creative energy and power in all its forms, including longing and love. The season and festival also celebrate the agricultural fields’ ripening with yellow flowers of mustard crop, which Hindus associate with Goddess Saraswati’s favourite colour with people dresssing in yellow saris or shirts and accessories, sharing yellow-coloured snacks and sweets. Some add saffron to their rice and then eat yellow cooked rice as a part of an elaborate feast.
The main reason for yellow being the dominant colour during Vasant Basant Panchami is because at this time, bright yellow flowers of ripe mustard plants can be spotted in the fields of rural North India as well as many seasonal flowers are yellow, including marigold and daffodils which are offered to the Goddess. Though Goddess Saraswati is seen wearing a white saree with white flowers and pearls, it is said that yellow is her favourite colour which is why the Goddess is decorated with yellow flowers and sarees of the same colour, though people also sometimes use white symbolising purity and wisdom. Another reason behind using yellow is said that on this festival the sun starts moving northwards or on its Uttarayan path and the yellow colour symbolises and teaches everyone to become serious and sharp like the sun.
Many families mark this day by sitting with babies and young children, encouraging their children to write their first words with their fingers, and some study or create music together. On the day before Vasant Panchami, Goddess Saraswati’s temples are filled with food so that she can join the celebrants in the traditional feasting the next morning. In temples and educational institutions, statues of the goddess are dressed in yellow and worshipped with many educational institutions arranging for special prayers in the morning to seek the blessing of the Goddess. Poetic and musical gatherings are held in some communities in reverence for Goddess Saraswati.
In Nepal, Bihar and the eastern states of India such as West Bengal including the north-eastern states like Tripura and Assam, people visit temples dedicated to the Goddess and worship her by performing the Saraswati Puja with most schools arranging special Saraswati pujas for their students on their premises. In Bangladesh, all major educational institutes and universities observe it with a holiday and a special puja. In Odisha, the festival is celebrated as Basanta Panchami, Sri Panchami or Saraswati Puja with prayers performed in schools and colleges across the state. Children aged four and five years old start learning on this day in a unique ceremony named Khadi-Chuan or Vidya-Arambha. In southern states such as Andhra Pradesh, the same day is called Sri Panchami where Sri refers to her as another aspect of the one Goddess Devi. In Tamil Nadu, Goddess Saraswati is celebrated on the penultimate day of the ten-day Dusshera festival. On this day, books belonging to all members of the family are kept in front of a photograph or statue of the Goddess and prayed. The next day, every one of the books are opened and a few lines from each read. Children starting school also have a Vidya Arambam ceremony where parents help them trace a word on rice. GG & BB also had this ceremony when they were about two, just before they started pre-school.
The festival is associated with the emotions of love and emotional anticipation in Kutch in Gujarat and is celebrated by preparing a bouquet and garlands of flowers set with mango leaves, as a gift. People dress in saffron, pink or yellow and visit each other with songs about Lord Krishna’s pranks with Goddess Radha, considered to mirror Kama-Rati sung which also symbolises Lord Kamadeva and his wife Rati. In Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, after bathing in the morning, people worship Shiva and Parvati and make offerings of mango flowers and the ears of wheat. In the Punjab region, Basant is celebrated as a seasonal festival by all faiths and is known as the Basant Festival of Kites. Children buy dor or thread and guddi or patang or kites for the sport. The people of Punjab wear yellow clothes and eat yellow rice to emulate the yellow mustard or sarson flower fields, or play by flying kites.
Namdhari Sikhs have historically celebrated Basant Panchami to mark the beginning of spring and other Sikhs treat it as a spring festival, joyfully celebrating it by wearing yellow-coloured clothes, emulating the bright yellow mustard flowers in the fields. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire, encouraged the celebration of Basant Panchami as a social event in the Gurdwaras. In 1825 he gave 2,000 rupees to the Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara in Amritsar to distribute food and held an annual Basant fair and sponsored kite flying as a regular feature of the fairs. Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his queen Moran would dress in yellow and fly kites on Basant Panchami and also hold a darbar or court in Lahore on this day which lasted ten days when soldiers would dress in yellow and show their military prowess. In the Malwa region, the festival of Basant Panchami is celebrated with wearing of yellow dress and kite flying. In Kapurthala and Hoshiarpur, a Basant Panchami fair is held where people attend wearing yellow clothes, turbans or accessories. Sikhs also remember the martyrdom of the child Haqiqat Rai on Basant Panchmi, who was arrested by the Muslim ruler Khan Zakariya Khan after being falsely accused of insulting Islam. Rai was given the choice of converting to Islam or death and, having refused conversion, was executed on the Basant Panchami of 1741 in Lahore, Pakistan. Nihangs go to Patiala on Basant Panchami and dress in Pink and Yellow on the month of Vaisakh and not only on the day of Basant Panchami.
In Bali and among Indonesian Hindus, Hari Raya Saraswati which is the festival’s local name, is celebrated with prayers in family compounds, educational institutions, and public venues from morning to noon. Teachers and students wear brightly coloured clothes instead of their usual uniforms, and children bring traditional cakes and fruit to school for offerings in a temple.
In Pakistan, kite flying in Lahore goes back centuries and evolved into a highly competitive sport after partition and the creation of Pakistan, not limited to spring only. Given the shared history and culture in the Indian subcontinent, the Punjabi Muslims in and around Lahore also celebrate kite flying as a sport in Pakistan from home rooftops during the Basant season.
Another legend behind Vasant Panchami is based on the Hindu god of love called Kama. Pradyumna is Kamadev personified in Krishna’s Book. Thus Vasant Panchami is also known as Madana Panchami with Pradyumna the son of Rukmini and Lord Krishna who awakens the passions of the earth and its people and so the world blooms anew. It is remembered as the day when the Rishis or sages approached Lord Kama to wake up Lord Shiva from his yogic meditation. They support Goddess Parvati who is doing penance to get Lord Shiva as a husband and seek Kama’s help to bring Lord Shiva back from his meditation to worldly desires. Lord Kama agrees and shoots arrows, made of flowers and bees, at Shiva from his heavenly bow of sugarcane to arouse him to pay attention to Goddess Parvati. Lord Shiva awakens from his meditation, but when his third eye opens, a fireball is directed to Lord Kama who is burnt to ashes. Vasant Panchami is hence remembered not only as the day Kamadeva was asked to stir Lord Shiva’s desire for Goddess Parvati but also as the time of year Kamadeva stimulates the passions of both the earth and its people, as the lands come alive with new blossoms.