This spring we have much to be hopeful about, as 2021 brings us closer to universal vaccination and normalcy. Nowruz, the festival of Spring is a joyful time for Zoroastrians, as the start of the new year.
Article by Nawaz Merchant
A traditional Haft-Shin Table features sprouted wheat, sweet pudding and items starting with S as good wishes for prosperity.
“The Avestan term Hamas.paθ.maædÿa refers to the exact time at which: the celestial paths are at a midpoint and have the same distance /length from each other. The Persian word Nowruz, means literally New Dawn/Day and alludes to the first fresh dawn light after the vernal equinox.” (From authenticgathazoroastrianism.org)
The ancient Zoroastrian religion was once followed across the middle east, from the Himalayas to Turkey. In this region Nowruz is now celebrated across religions as a time of rebirth and awakening. The traditional Nowrouz banquet/table (Also called Haft-Shin table) is a symbolic offering of “decorated colored eggs, germinated wheat or lentil sprouts, hyacinth flower, silver or gold coins, mirror, candles, wine, incense, bowl of milk, spring water with thymes, apples or sour oranges, fried sweet bread and garlic cloves.”
Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae, Iran
Growing up in Mumbai, my family invited aunts and uncles to a Nowruz feast of Dhandar, (a comfort food, white rice with smooth yellow dal) with a delicacy like prawn patyo (shrimp in spicy tomato puree), vegetables and dessert.After bathing, we wore new clothes and traipsed off to the Fire Temple, where we offered sandalwood to the holy fire and lit diyas (candles floating in oil). The scent of woodsmoke floating softly upward, the susurration of whispered prayers, the quiet peace of those gentle moments is still with me.
Then came the festivities—we’d welcome relatives bringing sweetmeats and homemade goodies, hugs and kisses and excited calls of “Goodness, what are you feeding them? They’re growing like bean-stalks!”
Author’s parents at Bandra Fire Temple, Mumbai.
With joyful energy we’d set the table for the feast, and serve. Then came stories, as the family caught up on all the adventures of the past weeks, each person narrating events, successes and struggles. This was the social media of the time, a gathering to hear and be heard, where connections were made “Isn’t his daughter twenty-five now? Shall we ask if she’s interested in our ____?” Aunts and uncles equally forthcoming. Our family did not separate the genders, so we’d hear of cricket as well as the intricacies of cooking, politics and legal cases, corporate machinations, inventions, discussion of science, friends, and more. Our plans, our opinions were heard, boys and girls alike.
Those times were no less tumultuous: besides the terror of Emergency, rationing and food shortages, we dealt with illnesses and daily struggles. Dad worked three jobs to provide for our family, so he’d often return, exhausted, late at night. My mum worked as a teacher, managed our home on a pittance and served as arbitrator to us siblings. Ours was a tiny, but boisterous home. Nowruz marked the new year (in the Persian calendar) as well as the promise of new opportunities and adventures.
Last March, lockdown put an end to travel plans, commutes, and dinner parties. After the first astonishment, “Is this really happening?” we adapted. Making and wearing masks, curbside shopping, not touching out faces (who’d imagine this was so difficult!), treating anything from outside out house as “achoot”, (contaminated), we quarantined it and washed hands after touching it. We learned to zoom instead of inviting friends over. We worked from home. Through it all, we had the sense of living in war-time, living through something momentous, yet invisible. We took photos saying, “Later, we can say this was during the time of Covid.”
Nowruz this year brings a special message: This too shall pass.
This Nowruz, the “time of Covid” draws to a close; a tenth of us are vaccinated and vaccination capacity grows daily with entire malls turned into massive mega centers. Hospitals, pharmacies, counties, state agencies all offer vaccines. Of course, we cannot be complacent as deadly variants can still spread if we are not vigilant; masks will be needed for some time.
Yet this Nowruz brings a message of hope—we will get through this, mourn those we lost, yet appreciate what we received. The joys of approaching spring are near. Soon we will take long walks amid tiny, filigreed leaves, buds peeking out from the ground. We can plan vacations again! We look forward to meals with friends, restaurant gatherings, celebrating with our dear ones, to a time when we don’t need to worry about accepting invitations!
Traditional Nowruz gathering with music, stories, food and sprouts.
Covid forced us to slow down, so pay attention, to learn and adapt. We won’t forget those hard-won lessons. Now let’s give thanks to those who stayed with us through this, who got us through it, who braved daily danger on the front lines, who called “just to check on” us, who care. Let’s give thanks for those in our lives, and know that spring is near. Open that window and breathe in that fresh scent; it’s called happiness.