by Syed Iliyas Ali Rizvi and Mona Hossaini ‘Araste’
(Nowrooz celebrations in Afghanistan.)
Nowrooz, contrary to the popular perception, is not merely a community centric tradition. It is a philosophy, a concept, and tradition, which will always have the contemporary significance. Even after hundreds of years, these annual celebrations have not lost their significance, but on the contrary have become livelier or Pour Rangtar.
These annual celebrations help the campaigners of culture and heritage to unite irrespective of the community they belong to. It strengthens their ability and resolve to rise in the new way of life which is the core of the celebrations of Nowrooz.
Nowrooz celebrations are carried out in all parts of the world. In addition to Persia, major celebrations are observed in Afghanistan and Central Asian countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and others nations which lie on what has been the oldest cultural route – Silk Route.
With the rebirth of nature Nowrooz is celebrated with rich cultural traditions. With distinct variation across different countries, Nowrooz is a time to come together and enjoy the changes that come with the change in the nature. Celebrated first in Persia some 4000 to 5000 years back, the day came to be known as Nowrooz originated among the people of the world’s oldest religion – Zoroastrianism.
Let us talk about how Nowrooz is celebrated in Afghanistan – the country only in news because of the wars. It was quite exciting for us to explore the place, as we both belong to the land of conflicts.
Studying at an International University, with friends from different nations, gave me an opportunity to explore different cultures, the people and their traditions. The most exiting was to explore Afghanistan.
This place has not been seen through the dimensions of life which one wants to explore as a traveller or as a student of art, literature, history or anthropology.
While studying, we used to share some of the experiences about our traditions and cultures and it interested us to know how the people celebrate Nowrooz differently in different countries.
Celebrated almost in all the central Asian countries, Nowrooz starts with what is called Spring Cleaning. From the foods to the singing corals, the celebrations are warm. Like other places, the celebrations in central Asia and Afghanistan start almost a month before. When the Nowrooz nears houses are decorated with fresh colours and the women are busy doing the inner decorations of their houses.
Nowrooz starts with what is called Tamiziye Khanaha. People are busy with the annual Nowrooz cleaning. There are different versions of Nowrooz traditions in different parts of Afghanistan which are more localized. From Kabul, Herat, and Bamyan to Mazar-e-Sharif all cities wore a bridal look. One can feel every person’s attire.
Being interested in travelling and exploring different cultures and people, we explored the celebrations of Nowrooz in Afghan society. The hustle and bustle and the richness among the old and the young start with Nowrooz. Bazaars and streets are decorated and lighted. Everyone comes out to get things for Haft Miwe. It is customary to buy at least one set of new clothes. Through old city and bazaars one sees the traditional herald of Nowrooz which symbolises the rebirth of the New Year and announcing New Year.
One of the symbolic rituals of Nowrooz is Chaharshanbeh Souri or the eve of red Wednesday. In Afghanistan this symbolic ritual of Nowrooz is known as Atash Bazi or ‘the eve of fire’. People are seen, in their respective neighbourhoods, singing together around a bonfire. According to traditions, the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia celebrated the creation of life by offering with symbolic objects representing Truth, Justice, Good Thoughts, Good Deeds, Virtue, Prosperity generosity and immortality – Seven Trays – Haft Siin.
The contemporary Haft Siin Spread includes seven of the following items (in addition to the Holy Book): Sabzeh, Samanoo, Senjed, Siir, Siibh, Serkeh and Sonbol. While the Haft Siin is symbolic in nature, there are different versions of it.
Like Samanoo of Persia, in Afghanistan they call it Samanak. All the women and girls of a family or a neighbourhood join together at a place preparing Risheye Gandhoom. The main tradition of Samanak is the preparation of a sweet dish with Gandhoom. While women are busy preparing it, girls sing special corals like:
“ . . . Samanak Dar Josh Ma Kaphka zaniim. Dukhtarhan Sheeshta Dabha zaniim. . .”
“. . . Samanak Nazr Bahaar Ast, Mileye Shab Zende Dar Ast,
In Khoshi Saali Yak Bar Ast, Samanak Dar Josh Ma Kaphka zaniim . . .”
(. . . Mixing the Samanak, girls sing and play the drums. Samanak is the alms of the spring, Festival for those who are awake through the Night of Nowrooz. The happiness just comes once in a year . . .)
In Afghanistan the tradition of Nowrooz is more cultural than religious and is considered as the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. The traditional herald of Nowrooz symbolises the rebirth of the Afghan New Year. Days before “Tahweel-e-Nowrooz women and children visit door to door, knock and while singing say Nowroozi Bidhiid. They ask families money, rice, maize and other things like food and announcing to welcome the New Year. Virtually except clocks and watches, everything comes to a standstill at the time of Tahweel – when all the family members come together on what is called Sufreye Tahweel meaning the Blessed Spread and recite the Holy Quran and other supplications and pray for the whole humanity and ask for the forgiveness and blessings from the Almighty Allah. On the day, all are dressed in new clothes and visit different relatives for Salaam.
In Afghanistan the traditional Nowrooz spread is known as Sufreye Nowrooz ya Haft Miwe – Seven fruits. The tradition is to have seven dry fruits each representing the symbol of its own. The Haft Miwe spread includes Qunjid, Chahar Maqhz, Badaam, Pista, Kishmish, Senjed, Shaft’aaloo. A few days before Nowrooz they are soaked in water, mixed and prepared and served at the time of the Tahweel.
Nowrooz celebrations in Afghanistan last only for few days. Almost a week before there is tradition of Nowroozi – term specific in its use.
In Afghan society, on the special occasions like Eid, special gifts are given to the newly engaged girl. This is known as the tradition of Eide Baraye Aroos.
The same is true for Nowrooz when the gifts are sent to the parental home of a newly engaged girl. The gifts include Mahi, Jaleebe, and Miwe with a pair of dress.
The women from the groom’s family visit the Aroos or Bride. First they knock the door and start dancing and singing. They even organize what is named Majlis when all elder women of both the families share Shireeni. In return the bride’s family sends the Nowroozi for the groom.
Nowrooz is the day of Rukhsat – national holiday when the Afghans start their new calendar with Hamal as the first month. Every month is represented by a figure. Hamal is represented by Bouz – Goat. At the time of Tahweel, people gather at the famous shrines in Mazar-e-Sharif and Ziyarat-e-Sakhi in Kabul for the ceremony known as Janda Baala.
In the ceremony people tie knots, locally called Greh Zadan, and offer special prayers and then the same is hoisted on the eve of New Year when people gather to see the Janda Baala.
The tradition is important among people who come in thousands to observe smooth hoisting of Janda Baala – a good omen for the people who believe that the year will pass with happiness and peace. If it does not hoist smoothly, it is taken as a bad omen and the year ahead is said to be hard.
On the morning of the Aval-e-Nowrooz people visit the family of the Khuneye Mordadaar – the family who has lost someone in the previous year. The near and dear ones visit and pay condolences to the family on the Tahweel-e-Rooz, pray and ask for the restart of normal life in the New Year. They are served Khurma, Chaye va Sheer.
On the second day of Hamal – the first Afghan month, day after Nowrooz starts is named as Roz-e-Dehghan. On the day the plantation of trees is carried throughout the country. The third day of Hamal is named Saal-e-Tahsili – the time when the schools and the universities open, for the new academic year, after almost three months of winter vacations or Rukhsati.
Mail-e-Gule Sorkh, a month long “women festival of flowers” is celebrated on four Wednesdays of the first month of Hamal. As Gul-e-Lala in Ziyarat-e-Sakhi is the main attraction of this traditional event when all women within the families move outdoors on four Wednesdays, for picnics. In the celebrations they dance and sing folks like Shad o Awal Rooz. Another tradition exclusively for women is Sabze Lagad when they move out on the first three days of New Year to see greenery around. As green represents the symbol of life they believe that they will remain fresh with happiness and peace.
Fish is one of the core representations of Nowrooz. The traditional meals of Nowrooz in Afghanistan include Mahi, Sabzi Pulao and Palak.
Traditionally, in old villages, they are prepared in the Kaseye Sofali – earthen pots and even served in them. The traditional Nowrooz Dish includes the fish that are fried and cooked in different styles. The use of earthen pots keeps the food fresh for a few weeks. There are special sweets and cakes for the guests like Kolcha and Bosraqh. The new cuisine has influenced the traditional ones and is rarely available. After the Nowrooz feast the families plan to travel outside and enjoy the fresh nature.
Celebrations also include playing different traditional games like Tukhm-e-Murgh Janghi or Tukhm Janghi. The people, mostly children, gather in their neighbourhoods and play games by breaking the boiled eggs. People watch it with keenness as who will win and take all the eggs. Another game, played by youth, is named Bouz Kashi. Considered the national game of Afghanistan, the game is played in the open fields during the Nowrooz season and is very popular.
During the game, a goat is placed in the field and the players, who ride on the horses, fight to take this goat. The one who is able to take away the goat is named the winner. At times the game turns ugly when someone gets hurt while playing.
At end, one could feel the traditions have changed with time. Under the influence of the new cultural, economic and industrial growth of the modern life, the essence of Nowrooz is under threat. Due to conflict, age old customs and traditions have failed to root in new generations. The Afghans call this Kam Rang Shudhan. Owing to the changes that have occurred within the Afghan society, almost every dimension has been affected. Because of conflict celebration of Nawrooz is mellowed down to a great extent.
There were times when Nowrooz was declared un-Islamic. Nowrooz in those times was not being celebrated the way it used to be in the past. With old traditions fast vanishing from the Afghan society, few are still seen and celebrated. Children used to get the Nowroozi from the elders – the tradition that is rarely seen now in Afghanistan.
The youth in Afghanistan are working for the revival of the traditional heritage which has been affected by the conflicts. The government has initiated revival of Bagh e Paghman in Kabul to celebrate first day of Hamal during Nowrooz where people from all over would come and witness the celebrations. This includes Mushaira, Nowrooz concerts and cultural programs of central Asia.
The occasions like Nowrooz play a vital role in bringing people together in general and in the conflicts zones like ours in particular. The occasion bridges the gap that has engulfed entire world. Almost a week long celebration concludes what can be termed as Afghan’s Nowrooz-e-Pour Rang.
Note: Iliyas Rizvi, a Kashmiri is a Researcher on Environmental Health, a Traveller and an Oral Historian and Mona Hossaini ‘Araste’, an Afghan student, graduated in ‘Kashmir and South Asia Studies’ from UMIKS, University of Kashmir.