Growing up, I always remember Ugadi starting very early. I would stir from my sleep before dawn to the sound of my Grandmother (who’s room I slept in for way too long) getting out of bed to start the day. I would hear her taking a head-bath even as I struggled to hold onto my sleep. Eventually she would leave the room - and I would have an hour or two of blissful sleep while she was in the kitchen, preparing for the day. There might’ve been a few interruptions - my mother coming into the room to grab some sweets, someone walking through with sambrani to clean the house. But eventually the thing that would wake me up is that my grandmother would come in and turn on the TV to a telugu channel that was showing an Ugadi special - and even I couldn’t fight that. I would reluctantly climb out of bed to the sound of a news anchor hosting an Ugadi competition, and get ready to wash my hair in preparation for the puja.
Ugadi, or ‘Yugadi’ as it is otherwise known, celebrates the beginning of a New Year for people in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The words that make up the name: “yuga” and “aadi” mean that it is the beginning of an era. This is because in the ancient Panchanga calendar, Ugadi marks the first day of the ‘Chaitra’ month.
The story goes that Lord Brahma, who is the creator in Hindu mythology, began making the Earth and all the life forms on it on the day of Ugadi. This day acknowledges the creator and the beauty and complexity of the world around us that was a result of his creation - because not only did Lord Brahma begin creating the world on Ugadi, he also wrote the fates of people. Ugadi also marks the day that there is a change in the pattern of the moon’s orbit - the date is set a day after the first new moon and after the sun passes the celestial equator on the spring equinox.
This means that the day of Ugadi not only marks the New Year, it also harkens the beginning of spring and the harvest season. The fresh green of new shoots springing to life welcomes the new year with hope and happiness.
These many meanings coalesce to make Ugadi an occasion of great significance - it is a day that people use to celebrate beginnings.
It is also a day to take stock of the year that is to come - because with new beginnings come a lot of growth, and that growth can also bring pain, happiness, sorrow, fear, surprises and many other emotions. In the face of all these daunting new feelings, experiences and possibilities, Ugadi is a moment to acknowledge all this potential and prepare for it.
A central part of the celebration - and the part I remember best, is the Ugadi Pachhadi (pickle). For those who don’t know, this unique dish has six different tastes, from sweet to bitter and is the first dish to be eaten after the puja. It is a mixture of Neem buds, Jaggery, Green Chili, Salt, Tamarind and raw Mango.
As a kid, I would always lick a little bit off my father’s finger and immediately scrunch up my face - the strong tastes of the famous dish are known to elicit this reaction. But even as he laughed, my father would always offer me more. Because there is a deeper meaning behind this Pachhadi we grew up with. Each ingredient stands for different emotions:
The sweetness of Jaggery and Banana Pieces represents the happiness we hope for. Neem Buds and the yellow neem flowers are used for their bitterness, representing the inevitable moments of sadness in the new year. Added to this already heady mix are some green chillies for spice - standing in for anger and tangy raw mango for the surprises in life. Salt is added in for alternating meanings: for fear and for the “interests in life.” The final ingredient is Tamarind, which has a distinct sourness which symbolises challenges.
The Pachhadi is a celebration of the mixture of emotions that new experiences bring, and by having all these flavours mixed together teaches us that sadness and happiness, excitement and sorrow - we must treat all these emotions with equimanity. The bitter neem and the sweet jaggery represent the mixture of life. By starting the New Year with this recipe we thank the Lord for the new chances we will get, we remind ourselves of the challenges we will face and we promise that no matter what life throws at us - we will relish them all as a part of the rich tapestry of life we are lucky to experience.
Another fun aspect of this festival is the ‘Panchanga Sravanam’ - an occasion where people come together to find out the predictions for the new year. Looking forward to the moments ahead, and prescribing how to overcome obstacles prepares everyone to dust off the last year and start afresh. These predictions are made based on people’s moon signs.
Ugadi is the season of the richest of indian treasures: the fragrant jasmine and delicious mango. And that’s why you see the use of jasmine and mango in Ugadi which is also a symbol of well-being. The jasmine is supposed to heal the mind while the fragrance of fresh neem and mango heals airborne diseases.
The decoration of the entrance of the house is done with colourful rangolis and fresh mango leaves (toranalu) for good luck. The legend has it that Lord Kartik once urged people to tie fresh leaves of a mango tree to the doorway to indicate a good yield. Jasmine is used in adorning idols for the new beginning.
Growing up, I always knew Ugadi was a big deal. For days before, we would be clearing out the house, applying a fresh paint to things and the morning of Ugadi dressing up in beautiful new clothes and eating delicious food. But this holiday also contains deeper meanings - it brings together the family to celebrate a fresh start and teaches everyone an important lesson: that life is beautiful because of the variety of experiences it brings, and we should meet each new day with equanimity and poise, knowing that every emotion will tie together to give us a fuller life.
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