Washington, DC – In many parts of the world, the arrival of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere also brings with it the joy and promise of an ancient festival called Nowruz. Its process of acculturation into modern times in a significant portion of the world provides an early tale of globalization.
Celebrated for over 2,500 years, Nowruz still captivates populations in many countries, and of different faiths, in the Middle East, Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, including parts of the Islamic world. The celebrations have evolved into a secular holiday for many, yet it remains a holy day for Zoroastrians from whose Persian faith and culture the festival first originated. Starting with its roots in the Persian Empires, Zoroastrians celebrate the renewal of the earth, which also symbolizes the yearly victory of light over darkness in the overall struggle of good over evil. To them, Spring, the loveliest season of the year, gives a fitting start to a now – new, ruz – day, celebrated with religious rites and foreshadowing of the coming to an end of the struggle against the forces of darkness.
In present-day Iran, the arrival of Islam changed many early traditions, but since Nowruz was so profoundly ingrained in Iranian cultural memory, it survived despite opposition. The emergence of a distinct Persian Muslim society gradually legitimized the ancient festival and allowed it to flourish with modifications and reinterpretations. The noted Persian scholar and scientist, Abu Rehan Biruni (973-1052 CE), acknowledged the underlying religious character of the festival occurring on the 1st day of the Iranian month of Fravardin, saying that it was an auspicious day “called Hormuz, which is the name of God, who has … created the world.” The day coincides with the day of the vernal equinox.
The greatly celebrated 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi, originally from the then Persianate region around Balkh, Afghanistan, penned an early acculturating paean to Nowruz:
“In my heart you are the mirthful ray
You are the caring, though my companions they
Happy is the world with the Nowruz and with the Eid
You are both my Eid and my Nowruz today”.
Biruni also remarked on the custom at Nowruz to sow seven kinds of grain around a plate, “and from their growth, they drew conclusions regarding the corn of that year, whether it will be good or bad.” The seven items represent the virtues of the good mind, truth, righteousness, perfection, and other qualities expressed in Zoroastrianism that can lead one to self-realization of God – Khodah (Khod – self).
The seven virtues represented by a candle, garlic, wine, sweets, a hunt, nectar, and a comb were named in an old quatrain:
From the time of the Kiyanian
Iranians celebrated the Nowruz
On display they placed
sham’, shir, sharab, shirini, shikar, shahd, and shaye.
The modern counterpart is called sofreh haft seen, and importantly, sharab (wine) has been replaced.
After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, there were renewed attempts to dampen public enthusiasm for Nowruz. Tensions arose between the celebration of Nowruz and expressions of nationalistic sentiments, but they were toned down after the demise of Ayatollah Khomeini by depicting Iran as being religious yet culturally proud of its ancient heritage. The incorporation of Nowruz into the country’s Shiite religious literature and culture also helped in the acculturation process. The survival of the pre-Islamic tradition is thus comparable to the high regard accorded to another rich and beloved Iranian national symbol, the Shahnameh, the epic of Persian Kings, which too, at one time, suffered a temporary eclipse.
The secular celebration of Nowruz in many countries where Persian culture was spread has evolved over many centuries into a series of “charming and poetic customs.” Muslim dynasties of the Indian subcontinent observed Nowruz rites ardently and fully, as did the Ottoman Sultans, the Amirs of Bukhara, and celebrations abound in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In Azerbaijan, the four Wednesdays before Nowruz commemorate the acts of creations of Water, Fire, Earth, and Air, respectively. In Afghanistan, Nowruz is treated as a holiday, and in the Balḵh area, it is also called “the Feast of Red Roses” (jašn-e gol-e sorḵ). Afghans arrange a Nowruz table with seven types of fresh and dried fruits, called haft mewa. In Tajikistan, Nowruz is acknowledged as “the Great Festival” and “inherited national festival,” symbolizing the renovation of all beings. Kurdish people, too, celebrate Nowruz with enthusiasm, even in lands where their traditions may not meet with official sanction.
The rites associated in these countries with the welcoming of the holiday – cleaning houses and buying new clothes, preparing sweet dishes and elaborate meals, school holidays, visitations, exchange of gifts, partaking of sweets and fruits – are much the same as they were in Persia.
At a time of raging human conflicts and wars, Nowruz celebrations remind us of the desirable values of peace, fraternity, and friendship that remain attainable among all humankind.
Dedicated to the memory of the late Tejinder Singh, Editor, India America Today & White House Correspondent, who graced the Washington area Zoroastrian community with his presence at a gahanbar religious ceremony held at the Zoroastrian Center in Boyd, Maryland. The ceremony performed just prior to Nowruz 2019, included a welcome address to Montgomery County Executive, Marc Elrich, who issued a proclamation in honor of Nowruz, and the extension of condolences to the victims of a deadly attack on an Islamic Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.