A few years ago, I celebrated Gudhi Padva in Pune, Maharashtra. Much of my extended family lives there, though I grew up on the other side of the world, in the United States. It was the first time I was in India to commemorate this day, which people in many parts of the country (in Maharashtra, as well as in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Manipur) recognize as their happy new year.
I remember the early morning light being soft on that day, and how shafts of it shone into my family’s home. My grandmother was sitting out on the terrace, stringing neem leaves and marigolds onto a thick thread in an alternating pattern. As I walked toward her, she held out a small bowl of something to me. Her eyebrow was arched; she seemed skeptical of whether or not I’d take her up on the offer.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Kadulimba,” she replied—neem.
I picked a leaf out of the bowl and chewed on its edge. My lips pursed immediately; my eyes squinted shut. Not for nothing, the kadu in kadulimba means “bitter” in the Marathi language. A moment later, my grandmother handed me something sweet to eat—a few pieces of gud (jaggery), or perhaps it was sugar. This is one of the customs for Gudhi Padva—eating something bitter, followed by or mixed with something sweet. From an Ayurvedic perspective, eating neem is said to have many health benefits; it purifies the blood, it boosts immunity, it cleanses and nourishes the system. On a more symbolic note, eating neem and sugar is said to be a reminder of how life itself is bittersweet, a combination of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows.
I was fascinated by this tradition (chewing on something bitter and then something sweet), for it seemed to provide a very accurate, and therein beautiful, perspective on what a new beginning is. It is, of course, a time to start afresh, to set new intentions, to wipe the figurative slate clean. Yet we do that with eyes open, with an understanding that the year to come will more than likely bring joy and sorrow—and in what proportion, we don’t know. We just don’t know. For the most part, it’s a journey of unknowns that we’re traversing here. So our intentions, our resolve, our celebration of a new beginning cannot negate that fact; rather, they serve as reminders that no matter what our circumstances are, we can always choose to put our best foot forward. We can always choose to act with integrity, with kindness—with the virtues.
The tradition of eating neem and sugar also made me think of another image that holds symbolic import—that of a rose and its thorns. Would we appreciate a rose, its beauty and its fragrance, quite so much if it didn’t have thorns? We handle a rose with a kind of natural respect; we approach it with great care because we don’t want our fingers to be pricked by the thorns. It’s the same with our approach to life. We’re inclined to observe discipline because we want to protect ourselves from trials and tribulations. If we had no concern about suffering, no wariness about the consequences of our actions, then would we really be impelled to follow the do’s and don’ts of living in this world?
Historically and scripturally speaking, Gudhi Padva commemorates the day of Lord Rama’s coronation as king of Ayodhya after he had spent fourteen long and arduous years in exile with his beloved wife, the beautiful and noble Sita, and his loyal and valiant brother, Lakshman. For this reason, people hoist gudhis, or flags, at the entrance of their homes or from their windows on Gudhi Padva. The gudhi is a sign of victory over evil, of knowledge conquering ignorance, of the world righting itself again.
By the Hindu lunar calendar, panchanga, Gudhi Padva takes place on the first day of the waxing moon in the month of Chaitra (which corresponds to March or April in the Gregorian calendar). The word padava comes from the word pratipada in the Sanskrit language, which refers to the first day of either the waxing or waning lunar fortnight. Gudhi Padva is considered to be one of the three and a half most auspicious days of the year.
Although there is some variation in how each family celebrates Gudhi Padva in Maharashtra, there are a number of customs that basically everyone observes. Eating neem and gud or sugar is one. In many cases, the sugar comes in the form of a gaathi, a garland strung with thick white sugar pellets that may be carved into intricate designs. (Yes—Indians are very creative. Even the sugar comes in a special form.)
Each family will also hoist the gudhi, the flag. It is made from materials one would find around the house—a wooden stick or pole; a swatch of silk sari that covers the pole; a small copper or silver pot that’s inverted onto the top of the pole. Garlands of neem and marigolds, like the one my grandmother made, are placed on the gudhi, as are sugar garlands (similar to the gaathi). More garlands of neem and marigolds might frame the entry to the house, in welcome of everyone who walks through the door. There is something so sweet and uplifting about a home ornamented in this way; when you see these decorations, your heart can’t help but celebrate.
A simple puja is done for the gudhi once it is hoisted; it’s adorned with haldi (turmeric), kumkum, and flowers. Then it’s time to eat. The traditional meal on Gudhi Padva is shrikhand puri—clouds of sweet yogurt fragrant with saffron and pistachio (that’s the shrikhand); deep-fried roti, fresh from the griddle and all puffed up (the puri); and various bhajis, or vegetable dishes, and daal. Gudhi Padva is a statewide holiday, so everyone has a chance to be home all day, feasting together, celebrating together, watching television together (on the Marathi-language channels, almost every serial has a Gudhi Padva special, the characters’ melodrama somehow interspersed with raising a gudhi and offering puja). People share with one another their plans for the new year, what they want to do in honor of this auspicious new beginning. It’s common to make significant purchases on this day, such as of a house or a car, or else to open a new bank account.
Though Gudhi Padva is perhaps most readily associated with festivities in Maharashtra, there are many people in other parts of India who celebrate this day under a different name. In Andhra Pradesh, the holiday is known as Ugadi; in Karantaka, it is Yugadi; and in Manipur it is Sajibu Nongma Panba Cheiraoba. As in Maharashtra, people in these regions celebrate with their own particular customs, traditions, and foods, yet the sentiment is the same. It’s a new year. It’s a new beginning. For those who approach it as such, it’s a new world.
One of my fondest memories of celebrating Gudhi Padva is of simply walking down the street in Pune. The gudhis were hoisted from each doorway, or else leaning out of the balcony windows. The entire street was lined with these flags, the colored silks flapping in the wind as though Lord Rama himself would be arriving any moment, along with Sita, Lakshman, Hanuman, and the whole vanara (monkey) army. It really did feel like a coronation of some kind, an anointing of something new. Of what—I couldn’t say. That, it seemed, was for each person to discern for themselves.
This year, 2020, people all across the world are heeding their responsibility to protect themselves and protect others. They are reminding themselves of the importance of cleanliness, and supporting others to do the same. And so I hope that even if people cannot gather together in great numbers to celebrate, they all still feel—that you all still feel—the vibrant spirit of Gudhi Padva.