Noruz: The Definitive Primer on This Important Zarathushti Day

The below is an extensive article about all aspects of Noruz, or Navroz as the Parsis of India call it. This detailed primer has been put together by Mr. Jehangir M. Darabna. The content below is an amalgamation of text from various sources, and is intended to serve as a comprehensive guide to the festival and the customs and rituals that surround it.

NORUZ is the Persian New Year, which is celebrated each year at the Spring Equinox, around March 20th/21st. It is one of the most important day in the Zarathushtrian calendar, and brings with it a wealth of symbolism, history, myth, and joyous festivities. There are many layers of meaning to Noruz; astronomical, mythical, historical, ritual, and spiritual.

Persian tradition connects Noruz with King Jamshid, one of the famous prehistoric kings of Iran. Jamshid was supposed to have instituted the festival of the New Year, and in recent times, Zarathushtrians have started to call the Noruz festival "Jamshidi Noruz," which implies that Noruz was established by and from the reign of King Jamshid.

The word Noruz, also known as Nowrouz, Nevruz, Newroz, Navroze in Persian, means “New Day” and the primal origin of the festival is in the universal rhythms of Earth and nature. In the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, including Iran, the spring equinox signals the beginning of warmer weather and the growing season.

Vernal Equinox (also called the Spring Equinox) is the crossing of the sun at the equator from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere.

As the time of the sun’s crossing the equator varies from year to year and from longitude to longitude, Noruz is ushered in each year at different places at different hours of the day (and dates too, as the case may be) so as to coincide exactly with the equinox.

(Equinox means “equal night”. Because the sun is positioned above the equator, day and night are about equal in length all over the world).

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In ancient Iran, it was the time to begin ploughing fields and sowing seeds for crops. The equinox also marks the moment when, in the twenty-four hour round of the day, daylight begins to be longer than night.

In Zarathushtrianism, light is the great symbol of Ahura Mazda and Goodness, whether in the light of the sun or in that of the consecrated fire. The Spring Equinox and the lengthening of the days are thus a symbol of the victory of Light, over the cold and darkness of winter.

The beginning of spring, the renewal of the earth after barren winter, also symbolizes the "Frashokereti" (Frashogard) the day of Freshening or the Renewal of the whole world, which Zarathushtrians believe will happen at the end of time, when all evil will be vanquished and all creation will be renewed and purified. Every spring, therefore, for Zarathushtrians, is a preview of the cosmic renewal of the universe.

Zarathushtis (commonly called as Parsis/Iranis in India), who follow the Fasli calendar, celebrate this day as their New Year day. The last 10 days of the year are the Farvardegan days when prayers for the deceased are held. During these days, the spirits of the dead, the Fravashis, are believed to return to earth and hence are given a ritual welcome. This ten-day period is also a time for reflection, examination of conscience, and repentance for all wrongs done within the year that is coming to an end. This is not, though, like the Catholic Christian practice of confession and absolution, which is not a Zarathushtrian concept. The repentance of ones wrongs is no absolution from divine judgement!

In the Achaemenian times (559 – 330 B.C.), Noruz was a very important day, where kings from different nations under the Persian Empire used to bring gifts to the King. Noruz was celebrated with much grandeur and gaiety at the magnificent complex of Persepolis in Iran.

Under the Sasanian kings of Iran, Noruz was celebrated as the most important day of the year. Most royal traditions of Noruz such as royal audiences with the public, cash gifts and the pardoning of prisoners were established during the Sasanian era and they persisted unchanged until modern times.

There have been major attempts over the centuries, by the non-Zarathushti rulers of Iran, to minimize the festival, to ban it or get rid of it once and for all. The radical Ayatollah’s of Iran & the Taliban of Afghanistan were also against Noruz but they were not successful in abolishing the festival. The reasons for their failure should be sought in the beautiful spirit of the festival itself; for contrary to some non-Zarathushti traditions prevalent in Iran today, where death and martyrdom mark most major rituals, NORUZ SIGNIFIES CELEBRATION OF LIFE!

Noruz is celebrated in many countries that were territories of, or were influenced by, the Zarathushtrian Persian Kingdom. It is the traditional Iranian new year holiday in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Albania, Georgia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, various countries of Central Asia such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It is also a holy day for adherents of Sufism, as well as the beginning of the Bahái year. The Iranians have a special way of celebrating Noruz. For them the festivity starts much before the day of Noruz and lasts for about 21 days.

The first step in preparing for Noruz is the ritual spring cleaning of homes, which in Persian is called “Khaneh Tekani” (Khaneh = Home, Tekani = Shaking); which literally means ‘shaking the house to clean it’ – much like you would shake a rug to clean it. This stems from the Zarathushtrians’ preoccupation with cleanliness as a measure for keeping evil away from the kingdom of Good. The Fravashis are welcomed to good, clean surroundings. During ‘Khaneh Tekani’, every room in the house is thoroughly cleaned; rugs, carpets and curtains are washed; silverware, pots and pans are polished; and old items renewed. Family members too renew their look by purchasing new clothes for Noruz. They fill their homes with gaiety and sweet fragrance of flowers.

Around the Noruz date, each home sets up the ceremonial Noruz table, which is the modern analogue of the food set out for the Fravashis. This display is filled with symbols of the coming spring, goodness, prosperity, fertility and joy, and serves as a source of enlightenment & learning for living.

All over the world, Iranians and nationals of surrounding nations impacted by the erstwhile Persian Empire, await the coming of the Spring Equinox, the way "Westerners" count down to January 1st.

The celebration itself begins on the stroke of the clock indicating the time of equinox at that place. To begin with, a Divo (oil lamp) / Cheragh-e-Roughani is lit and the family prays together in Humbandagi / Hamazorbin. Then they greet each other by sprinkling rose water (known for its magical cleansing powers) and by showing each other a mirror. Usually they say: “Roush-o-Khashbe” which means: ‘May you be as fragrant as the rose and as bright as the mirror.’ It is also said that you are supposed to look into the mirror and make a wish. The rejoicing and the celebrations follow.

Noruz is not only a solemn and sacred religious festival for Zarathushtrians wherein people do charity and help the poor, but also a time of great festivity, feasting, giving of gifts and parties.

In Sasanian Iran, the custom was to have a Haft Sheen Noruz table laid out in every home. This meant that of all the many items laid out on the Noruz table, seven of them, starting with the Persian letter ‘Sheen’, must always be included. The Persian translation of number seven is "haft" —– hence the name ‘Haft Sheen’.

There was and is no standard configuration for the Seven, but here is one of the most common groupings:

  • Sharaab: wine
  • Sheer: milk
  • Shekkar: sugar
  • Shahd: honey
  • Sharbat (or Sheereh): usually Falooda or fruit juice/syrup.
  • Shirini: sweets
  • Shir-berenj: rice pudding

However, in present day Iran, under the Islamic banner, the ‘Sheen’ has come to be replaced by ‘Seen’, so as to circumvent the inclusion of ‘Sharaab’ (wine), which is prohibited under Islamic law. Hence, Sharaab got substituted by Serkeh (vinegar).

Once again, as for Haft-Sheen, there is no standard configuration for the Haft-Seen, but here is one of the most common groupings:

  • Sabzeh: green sprouts from wheat, peas, or barley
  • Samanu: pudding made from sprouted grain
  • Senjed: sweet dried fruit of the lotus tree
  • Serkeh: vinegar
  • Seeb: apples
  • Seer: garlic
  • Somagh: sumac berries

The sevenfold number of these good things is Zarathushtrian in origin. The seven Amesha Spentas, the ‘Bounteous Immortals’, are Ahura Mazda’s prime emanations, and the many items on the Noruz table are laid out in their honour and as a humble acknowledgement of their good blessings to us.

The Seven Amesha Spentas and the good creations they are in charge of are primarily represented as follows:

1) SPENTA MAINYU (The Bountiful Spirit) : Mankind You and I.

2) VAHMAN AMESHASPAND : Animal World Sheer (Milk), Fish, Eggs, Honey.

3) ARDEBEHESHT AMESHASPAND : Light, The Fire of Creation Sha’am (Light, Divo).

4) SHAHEREVAR AMESHASPAND : Metal Sikkeh (Silver Coins).

5) SEPANDARMAZD AMESHASPAND : Earth Traditionally, the Noruz spread is laid out on a white cloth placed on the ground. The ground represents Sepandarmazd Ameshaspand.

6) KHORDAD AMESHASPAND : Water Water in the gold-fish bowl/flower vase.

7) AMORDAD AMESHASPAND : Plant World Anaar (Pomegranate), Sabzeh and others.

 

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE VARIOUS ITEMS DISPLAYED ON THE NORUZ TABLE

1. The Noruz table is first laid with the ceremonial White Cloth known as “Sofreh-e-Haft-Seen”. White represents Spotless Purity, Vohu Manah/Vahman Ameshaspand.

 

ITEM

SYMBOLISM

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A picture of Asho Zarathushtra, as the Messenger of Ahura Mazda who brought the Good Religion (Dine Behi) to his followers.

His message is that of Hope and Optimism which believes in the eventual Supremacy of Goodness and Light, Sepanta-mainew, in the world.

Sha’am

Divo (Oil lamp)

The radiating light of the divo represents the Abode of Ahura Mazda who is seen as dwelling in endless Light.

It symbolizes Enlightenment and Happiness;

Light, Warmth and Energy to lead a Righteous Life.

Aynae

Mirror

A mirror is placed next to the photograph of Asho Zarathushtra and facing the divo, in such a manner, that it reflects the light of the divo.

This is to signify that like the mirror, we should reflect the Light of Truth, Knowledge and Goodness in our surroundings.

An open

Khordeh Avesta

(in front of the divo)

with a few silver coins placed besides.

Our Khordeh Avesta signifies Spirituality, Truth and Wisdom;

Blessings and Faith.

The silver coins (Persian = Sekeh) represent Wealth and Prosperity.

The coins placed besides the Khordeh Avesta signify:

Ahura Mazda’s rule of Plenty can only be rightly attained through the Path of the Good Religion.

Mahi

Fish (Gold Fish) in a clear glass bowl.

Gold Fish symbolize a Happy Life, full of Activity and Movement. Also represents the end of the astral year associated with the constellation Pieces.

Looking at the gold-fish, at the turn of the year, is believed to bring Good Luck and Good Fortune. (This is a later addition).


THE HAFT SEEN SPREAD

ITEM

SYMBOLISM

Sabzeh

Fresh sprouting green shoots of Wheat

or Lentil or Green Herbs.

Productivity, Prosperity & Abundance of food.

Samanu

A sweet wheat pudding (kind of halwa).

Sweetness and Affluence in life.

The sprouting spring is seen as a time for Happy Growth.

Senjed

Sweet dried fruit of the Lotus tree.

It has been said that when the lotus tree is in full bloom, it not only provides shelter and security, but its fragrance and its fruit makes people fall in love.

Love and Affection.

Serkeh

Vinegar

Age and Patience.

Also, Cleanliness & Purification in ones religious life.

Seeb

Apples

Good Health and Beauty.

Seer

Garlic

Medicine to recover from evil (to ward off evil).

Good Health.

Somagh

Sumac Berries

Some say Somagh represents the colour of sunrise; with the appearance of the sun, Good conquers evil.

Warmth, Spice of life.

OTHERS ITEMS VARIOUSLY INCLUDE:

ITEM

SYMBOLISM

Anaar

Pomegranate

with a silver coin wedged in-between the seeds.

Pomegranate is the Zarathushtrian fruit of immortality and the coin denotes prosperity.

Both un-dyingness and abundance have been promised by Ahura Mazda, at the time of Frashokereti – the ‘The Making Wonderful, The Renewal, The Salvation’.

Long Life and Prosperity.

Tokhm-e-morgh

Eggs (gaily painted)

Fertility.

Sheer

Milk

Good Nourishment and Plentitude in life.

Sharaab

Wine

Health and Happiness, of course, if taken in moderation. To your Good Health!

Shahd

Honey

Sweet result of Teamwork.

Shirini

Sweets and Pastries

Sweetness in life.

Shir-Berenj

Rice Pudding

Food for Taste and Health.

Sonbol

Hyacinth (water) Flower

Life, Tenacity and Beauty.

Smooch

A flavouring herbal spice peculiar to Iran and which normally is used as a flavouring agent.

Richness of life.

Sangak

Flat Bread

Noon-e-Sangak represents prosperity for the feasts.

It can be accompanied by Naan-o-Panir, which is Iranian feta cheese and fresh herbs to be eaten at the feast.

Moust & Paneer

Sweetened Curds & Cottage Cheese

Wholesomeness.

Also reminds one that the sourness in life can be sweetened with the right nurturing and goodness.

Nanoh & Gashnix

Sprigs of Mint & Coriander

Plurality of the world.

Khoshbaar & Ajeel

Dry Fruits & Assorted Nuts

Friendship and Sharing.

Avishaan

Sweet scented herbs.

Gentleness and Goodness.

Nakh & Suzan

A reel of Sewing Thread & Needle

Hard work and Industriousness.

Kale-qand

A green coloured sweetmeat shaped in the form of an inverted cone and resembling a Parsi Sopaaro.

This represents the Mt.Haraberezaiti (Alburz), which is considered to be the mountain from whose pinnacle, it is said that the souls of the departed travel from and to the spiritual world, during the 10 days of Muktaad.

On the thirteenth day of the New Year, which also marks the end of the Noruz, Iranians hold a secular festival in which families and communities gather outdoors for a picnic to celebrate a happy and healthy holiday season.

This tradition is called ‘Seezdeh-be-Dar’ (seezdeh means thirteen) which translates to ‘getting rid of thirteen’ or ‘thirteen in the outdoors’. This fun and exciting outing involves all family members and is intended to end the holiday season on a relaxing and positive note.

Having said that, it needs to be emphasized here, that the concept of avoiding the number thirteen has never been a Zarathushtrian belief and has no religious significance whatsoever. However, it was and is, greatly prevalent in the belief systems of the non-Zarathushti rules and hence came to be used as a legitimate excuse by Zarathushti communities to meet out-doors and celebrate their togetherness. It has since, become a traditional celebration for all Iranians.

An interesting ritual performed at the end of the picnic day is to throw away the Sabzee from the Noruz Haft Seen table. The Sabzee is supposed to have collected all the sickness, pain and ill fate hiding on the path of the family throughout the coming year – a ritual act intended to bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year.

Another meaningful ritual performed with the dumping of the sabzee is that young single women tie the sabzee leave(s) prior to discarding it, symbolizing the wish to be tied in a marriage by the Seezdah-be-Dar of next year!

The young ladies are often heard whispering the following rhyme while tying the leaves:

"Sal-e deegar, khune-yeh showhar, bacheh baghal !’”

This translates to "Next year in the husband’s house, with a baby in arms!"

Noruz is a day when symbolically Good triumphs over evil, and from a Zarathushtrian point of view it should remind one of the forces of light triumphing over darkness.

This wonderfully laid table, in fact, is a very elaborate thanksgiving for all the good and beautiful things bestowed upon us by Ahura Mazda. It symbolizes The Good Prophet and His Message, Light, Reflection, Warmth, Life, Love, Joy, Nature, Productivity, Prosperity, Friendship………………………

The resurgence of life & Frashokereti (The Making Wonderful, The Final Renewal, The Salvation) of the world, are realities which every Zarathushtrian should strive towards, for with the start of the cosmic new year, lies the mystical oneness of the past and the future, being fused together in the moment of ‘Ushta’ – Happiness !