Omens and superstitions of south India – ‘Vishu’ and ‘Onam’ in context


Vishu was celebrated in South Indian state Kerala yesterday. I am getting emails from many wishing me Happy Vishu! What is Vishu?

The flower Vishukkani, also called Kanikanal, is inseparable from Vishu. According to the age-old belief of Keralites, an auspicious kani (first sight) at dawn on the Vishu day is lucky for the entire year. As a result, the Vishukkani is prepared with a lot of care to make it the most positive sight so as to bring alive a wonderful, propitious and year ahead!

Picture and above paragraph courtesy of Wikipedia. 

You can read a well-written article about this celebration in the newspaper article here. 

The technical name of the flower is Cassia Fistula or called golden shower tree. I find that the flower is also the national flower of Kerala. It is the symbol of Thai royalty.

My take: Vishu and Onam are two festivals celebrated in Kerala India which lies between 8 and 13 degrees (approx.) north of the equator. Therefore the sun would be at the zenith in April on its apparent northward movement, and again in August on its southward movement. These two events are celebrated as Vishu and Onam respectively, which also explains why there is a 4 month difference between the two celebrations. In the celestial cycle, this would mean the beginning of four months of summer. Translated into practicalitiy, it would also mean the word ‘go’ to everyone to get to work and earn money by farming or commerce.

Vishu celebration is a joyous occasion that also reminds me of the parable of talents in the Bible. On Vishu the head of the family gives out gifts of money to all the household members! I would like to think that this was intended as a bounty to all able bodied persons as working capital for business! Now this activity has lost such a significance and is largely symbolic. Children still look forward to receiving a gift of money, but it is not too much to talk about.  I haven’t seen Vishu being looked at in this practival way anywhere else. I definitely hope to hear from my readers about this point of view.

In order to make the astrological phenomena easily understandable, folklore and superstitions have been associated with them in every culture. In the case of Vishu too, there are countless stories involving gods and heroes.

I had a chance to look at the amazing book titled Omens and Superstitions of Southern India yesterday.  It is an amazing book written exactly 100 years back and I am kind of celebrating its anniversary here.

Interestingly, sighting a prostitute first thing in the morning is considered a lucky thing as does the sight of a cow and calves. There is a comprehensive list in the above book, for those of you who are interested.

As the reader can easily verify with the original text, Indians were steeped in superstitions of indescribable idiocy and cruelty as late as 100 years back. Some of the superstitions related to even, believe it or not, human sacrifices. We come across gory stories of human sacrifices from rural India occasionally even today.

I commend Edgar Thurston CIE for his painstaking and dispassionate effort in documenting the compendium of superstitions of his day as he encountered them. Thanks to him and the amazing website called Project Gutenberg we have this book online free for perusal. My hats off to the author and the team that did the all the work behind this including proof reading.

Much of what we know of as Hinduism is actually an eclectic collection of superstitions. Higher thinking and debates and world view do exist as subsets of philosophical discourses in ancient texts as well as embedded in some of the famous social movements. But they are largely not part of the religion of the masses. If Julia Roberts claims to be a Hindu, as she does now after her Eat-Love-Pray movie, she probably means the higher philosophical underpinnings. That is distinctly different from the Hindu religion of the masses.

What is your opinion about this? I am curious to know.


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