It is the time when earth changes its position. Its inclination towards the Sun is over. It seems as if its taking some rest after a long and cold journey and having some time on its own. Mother Earth, in the ‘rest’ period, ushers an era of equal days and nights and bids farewell to winters in the northern hemisphere and starts to prepare itself for a warm and worn out summer.
In the true spirit of nature and as a display of our devotion to everything that celebrates life and creation on our planet, we, the humans, since time immemorial have taken this opportunity to express our joy and cherish the days of serenity. Our civilizations are rife with festivals that celebrated this special celestial event in their own distinct ways and gave humankind a thought to relate itself to its abode. Vernal equinox, it seems, is the day when nature and its subjects come very close to each other and rediscover their ties.
Nowroz is one such festival that is celebrated as the festival of life and a new beginning. The word ‘Nowroz’ is a compound of two Persian words, ‘now’ means new, and the word ‘roz’ that can mean both ‘day’ and ‘time’. Literally meaning the ‘new day’, Nowroz is usually translated as ‘new year’.
According to many Iranian historians, Achaemianians were the first to celebrate the festival in around 555 BC. Many archaeologists are of the view that the famous Persepolis complex was built for the specific purpose of celebrating Nowroz. This magnificent complex is said to have been destroyed by Alexander the Great during his conquest of Persia in 334 BC.
Zoroaster is the founder of Zoroastrianism. He is an ancient Persian prophet and religious icon. In the Zoroastrian tradition, there are seven most important festivals including six Gahambars and one Nowroz which occurs at the spring equinox. It is said to be mentioned in the Zoroastrian holy book of Avesta.
Shahnama, which means “Book of the Kings” is a magnificent poetic opus written by Firdousi, a renowned Persian poet, in 15th century AD. According to Shahnama, the greatest Persian ruler, King Jamshid, founded the tradition of celebrating the onset of Spring. Zoroastrian holy book Avesta believes the greatest Persian king saved humanity from a harsh winter that could have decimated every living creature on Earth. Following his victory, a throne studded with gems was constructed and was raised to the heavens. All living beings celebrated the event and called this day as the New Day.
During the Sassanid era, preparations of the new day ceremony began at least a month before Nowroz. Mud-baked twelve pillars were erected in the royal court, each representing month of the year. Vegetable seeds like barley, beans, lentils, wheat etc. were sown on top of the pillars. They quickly grew into green plants by the New Year ceremonies. The kings held their audience in the open air court. Each person received a present from the king in return for offering the king a gift. The ceremonies took place during the first five days of the New Year, each day reserved for the people of a certain section of the society. On the sixth day, known as the Greater Nowroz, kings held their special audience. They met the members of the Royal family and courtiers. The kings extended their kindness to their subjects and granted a general amnesty for convicts of minor crimes. The festival came to a close on the 16th day and all the pillars removed. People across the Sassanian empire celebrated with great fervour.
Nowroz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in Persian calendar. It is one of the most important holidays in Iran along with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kurdish regions in Turkey and Iraq and Central Asia.
Firdausi, the great Iranian epic poet, described the auspicious Persian event in his magnus opus, Shahnama:
On Jamshid as the people jewels streamed,
They cried upon him that New Year beamed
On Farvardin Hormuz in this bright New Year
Bodies were freed from pain all hearts from fear
New Year new king the world thus rendered bright
He sat resplendent on the throne in light
Spring cleaning is commonly performed before Nowroz. Called ‘Khouneh Tekouni’ in Persian which literally means ‘shaking thehouse’, all items in the house are properly cleaned by every household. People also buy new clothes and give presents to each other.
The last Wednesday night of the Persian year is celebrated by people as ‘Wednesday of Fire’. People make fire and jump over it anticipating to give away their sickness to it while gaining its strength. This symbolic ritual is seen as the victory of good (light) over bad (darkness).
Haft-e-seen is an important feature of Nowroz. A table is decorated with seven specific items that start with the letter ‘Sīn’ (S) in the Persian alphabet. The seven items (pictured clockwise here) include Sīb (apple) symbolising beauty; Samanu (wheat based paste) symbolising affluence; Sikkeh (coins) symbolising wealth; Sumaq (sumac berries) symbolising the colour of sunrise; Sabzeh (germinating sprouts) symbolising rebirth; Serkeh (vinegar) symbolising age and patience; Sir (garlic) symbolising medicine; and Senjed (dried fruit of oleaster tree) symbolising love.
Special New Year meals include rice with green herbs and fish; herbs with vegetables omelette and rich with noodles.
Haji Firoz is the most important traditional folk entertainer that appears in the streets before the festival begins. The character blackens its skin (black is an ancient Persian symbol of good luck) and wears red dress. It symbolizes the rebirth of the Sumerian god of sacrifice, Domuzi, who was killed at the end of each year and reborn at the beginning of the New Year.
The 13th day of the festival is called Sizdeh Bedr which literally means oust thirteen. Nowroz lasts for 12 days and according to Persian belief the thirteenth day represents the time of chaos. Considered to be inauspicious, families should put order aside to avoid the bad luck associated with the number 13 by going outdoors and having picnics and parties.
Celebrations on day 13 come to an end when the vegetation grown for Haft-e-Seen is cast away in running water to get rid of the demons. Young single women tie the leaves of the vegetation before throwing it as an expression to get married before next Nowroz.
The festival marked on the beginning of spring drapes the whole region in green blanket and offers eye pleasing views. People from Central Asia to the Middle East and South Asia to some parts of the Balkans celebrate Nowroz to admire the works of nature and to strengthen their bond with everything between the heavens and the earth.