The Six Tastes of The Spring

Posted on April 01, 2022

My hometown, Hyderabad, like other large cities, is overwhelmed by traffic and traffic-related pollution. The dominant smell in the city's concrete jungles is always due to exhaust from the countless number of vehicles on the road. However, the early hours on a spring day bring respite, and the air is filled with a familiar fragrance. The fragrance is that of the neem flowers, and the scent triggers a flashback of happy childhood memories. I picture myself helping my mother make Ugadi pachchaDi, whose special ingredient is a neem flower petal.

Ugadi is one of the major festivals in the Telugu-speaking states to celebrate the first day of the (Salivahana) Saka calendar year. April 02nd of this year corresponds to the first day of the month, Chaitramu, of the year 1944 of the Saka era named Shubhakrut. The ninth day of Chaitramu is celebrated as the Sree Rama Navami commemorating the birth anniversary of the legendary Rama. These nine days are also called Vasantha Navaratri, the nine nights of the spring, analogous to Navaratri of Dasara in the autumn.

I believe that all the big festivals of India are inherently tied to the seasons, and Vasantha Navaratri is no exception. Planning activities based on a calendar is a recent habit in the masses. The calendar usage was often restricted to the elite and educated classes of Indian society. Most of my practically-illiterate relatives never knew of maintaining a calendar. For example, if you asked someone when they were born, they would respond something like, it was during the year of a significant flood a few days after the Deepavali, and it was the same year as someone else's wedding. As I was born near the estuary of the great river Godavari entering the Bay of Bengal, many of my relatives' birthdays are remembered based on a significant flood or a historic cyclone. Before I ever learned about Galileo's and Einstein's relativity theory, my relatives taught me the relativity of dates.

One does not need a calendar to recognize the arrival of spring. The trees are full of life with blooming flowers, buzzing bees, and yodeling (male) cuckoos. The curious poets often wonder if the cuckoo songs trigger the mango flowers to blossom or it is the other way. The tropical Indian spring is as vibrant and colorful as it is fragrant. Though the spring festival is now mostly restricted to the two days of Ugadi and Sree Rama Navami, it was probably very different in the earlier times. North India celebrates spring, starting with Holi, the festival of colors. However, Holi does not have any significance in coastal Andhra, but playing with colors was the norm during the spring festival. My mother told me that boys and girls teased each other by spraying (organic) colors and throwing a prickly fruit called palleru kaya. Many boys used to dress as Vanaras, the monkey warriors of Ramayana, to remind us of the role of Vanaras in the war against the ten-headed Ravana. You could hear old ladies screaming at these Vanara groups climbing their mango trees only to destroy all the green mangoes. As the current generation adopts Valentine's day and Holi in all their glory, the fun part of Vasanta Navaratri is a thing of the past. Moreover, as the schools start gearing up for their annual exams around this time, they cannot afford another long break for the spring festival. The symmetry of Navaratri festivals in spring and autumn is lost forever.

At our home, Ugadi is synonymous with the Ugadi Pachchadi, a herbal drink made with six ingredients signifying six different tastes. The standard ingredients are salt for salt, chili for pungent, jaggery for sweet, tamarind for sour, green mango for astringent (వగరు), and neem petals for bitter tastes. When we lived in the United States, we used Fenugreek seeds as a poor substitute for the neem petals. The six tastes in the Ugadi Pachchadi are a metaphor for good and bad experiences in life. People believe that the consumption of Ugadi Pachchadi is essential for maintaining a balance in life. While the rest of the ingredients are common in Indian recipes, neem flowers are unique to Ugadi Pachchadi. Depending on what part of the neem flower or what stage the flower is in, the taste of the flower can be subtly or painfully bitter. The cartoons and memes of Ugadi are all about ladies force-feeding their families with the Ugadi Pachchadi. The neem is so significant in Indian life that it deserves a separate writeup.

Since Ugadi signifies the starting of a new year, it is also the day when astrologers reveal the secrets of the year ahead. People swarm to temples to ensure that the Gods are happy and perhaps overturn any misfortunes in the astrologers' predictions. Interestingly, many started a new trend of visiting temples on January 01st of every year. I only wonder why they do not go to churches on that day, considering that the standard Gregorian calendar is named after Pope Gregory.

A few years ago, we took a trip during Ugadi to the temple clusters in the Kurnool district covering the temples in Alampur, Ahobilam, and Mahanandi. Except for the Jogulamba temple of Alampur, the temples are either dedicated to Shiva or Narasimha. The temples are undoubtedly beautiful, but I was blown away by some traditions I never knew existed. We noticed many people walking on the roads on our way to Kurnool. We later found out that the Shaivites of Karnataka go on a pilgrimage, primarily by foot, covering all Shiva temples of Kurnool, and finally arrive at Sri Sailam temple on the Ugadi day. The devotees walk for hundreds of kilometers, surviving mainly on what is available in the forests. When we finally arrived in Mahanandi, the temple front yard was crowded with vendors selling three particular items to the touring Shaivites. They include a bamboo staff (వెదురు కర్ర), a winnowing-fan (వెదురు చేట), and a small plastic toy (it was possibly a bamboo woven toy in the past). The parents buy these items and gift their married daughters. One can only imagine the significance of this strange practice.

An article on Ugadi is incomplete without a brief introduction to Indian calendars. Like the rest of the world, Indians use the Gregorian calendar for their day-to-day planning. Most Indians follow at least one more calendar that carries a religious or cultural significance. The two most popular calendars are the Vikram Samvat, followed mainly in the North, and the Salivahana Saka in the South. The Telugu calendar is a complicated document with information about all three calendars with additional information on the astrological almanac. The historians claim that the Vikram calendar started in 78 BCE and the Saka calendar in 57 CE. They surmise that both these dates correspond to some significant events around the city of Ujjain. Ujjain was an important center of learning, primarily in astronomy and astrology. Arya Bhatta, Varahamihira, and other astronomer-mathematicians worked in Ujjain during the first millennium consolidating global methods of calculations and inventing many on their own. The invention and usage of zero in arithmetic, relatively accurate estimates of the irrational number pi, derivation of trigonometric tables are but a few contributions of the Ujjain school. They were able to predict the motion of various planets and other heavenly objects without knowing anything like Newton's universal law of gravitation or a clear understanding of the heliocentric nature of the solar system, or the knowledge of elliptic orbits of various planets. Even modern astrologers rely on those ancient methods to derive the astrological almanac.

Both Vikram and Saka calendars are lunar calendars. Every month accounts for two fortnights, and calendars use an additional month once in thirty-plus months to account for the gap between the (solar) year and the twelve lunar months. Both calendars have similar names for their months, and they both start with the month of Chaitra. However, the Vikram months start on a full moon day and the Saka month begins on a new moon day. The Chaitra of the Saka starts on a new moon day, mostly closest to the Spring equinox (traditionally March 21st). The Chaitra of the Vikram calendar starts a fortnight before with the festival of Holi Purnima (full moon day). Interestingly, those who follow the Vikram calendar do not consider the first day of the Chaitra (Holi festival) as their new year.

Each region and culture of India has its Indian version of calendars; solar calendars, Arabic calendars, Jain calendars, modified Vikram calendar, etc. I always wondered how each of these communicated with each other regarding dates. I suppose the need for a shared calendar emerged only with the arrival of European colonists, and the Gregorian calendar became the natural choice for regular communication.

శుభకృత్ నామ సంవత్సరాది శుభాకాంక్షలు. I wish you the best for the new year ahead.