The world Nowruz (Now + Ruz) — descended from Proto-Indo-European languages — means ‘New-Day,’ and its pronunciation varies across languages and dialects. The first day of the Persian calendar falls on 20th of March, which is the day when Sun enters the Zodiac of Aries after the vernal equinox. The exact moment of Nowruz is called Tahvi.
Nowruz celebration is rooted in the ancient religion of old Persia, Zoroastrianism; the festival of Nowruz is believed to have been invented by Zoroaster himself. This festival also finds a mention in the Avesta — the Zoroastrian religious text some scholars believe to predate the Rigveda. Historians are not sure whether the so-called Proto-Indo-Iranians, who lived before 2000 BC, celebrated Nowruz, but it’s reasonable to assume that these ancient people celebrated the New Year in some manner with the coming of spring around the vernal equinox (The Hindu New Year — Gudi Padawa — is also around the vernal equinox).
The day before Nowruz — Pateti or ‘the day of Penitence, Repentance, or Confession’ — is the day of introspection, and observers are supposed to repent all the sins committed in the previous year. Ironically, wishing someone celebrating Pateti, ‘Pateti Mubarak‘ is not incorrect. To understand this paradox, we must delve deep into the Patet Pashemani or Prayer of Repentance. The last paragraph of the prayer says
Pa neki sepasdar hom, az anai khorsand hom.
Loosely translated this sentence means
However much I thank the Lord for His goodness, it is not enough. Whatever trials and sorrows He may award; I accept happily: because in that lies my redemption.
Nowruz around the world
Nowruz is the largest festival in Iran, celebrated over two weeks. The festival consists of:
Khounek Tekouni – This is the complete cleaning of the house before spring which is followed by visiting each other’s houses.
Chaharshanbe Suri – The night before the last Wednesday of the year is celebrated as Chaharshande Suri, which means ‘the Festival of Fire.’ This festival signifies the victory of Light over Darkness, which is part of the symbolism at the heart of the Zoroastrian philosophy.
Haft-Seen – The traditional setting of the table with seven items, starting from letter S (Persian “س”). The seven items for Haft-Seen are Sabzeh (grain sprouts), Samanu (sweet pudding), Senjed (a dried fruit), Sir (Garlic), Sib (apples), Somaq (berries), and Serkeh (vinegar).
Sizdah Bedar – The thirteenth day of the festival is Sizdah-Be-dar or ‘passing of the 13th day.’
The followers of Twelver Shi’a, the state religion of Iran, also hold the day of Nowruz in high regard as Ali — the fourth rightly guided Caliph of Islam — is said to have been born on Nowruz. Ali, considered the true Caliph by Shi’as, is also said to have assumed the office of Caliphate on March 21st, 656 A.D.
Azerbaijan has seven public holidays on the occasion of Nowruz. The four Tuesdays of the month before Nowruz are devoted to the adulation of the four elements: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. On these Tuesdays, as a tribute to Fire symbolism, bonfires and candles are lit. Nowruz is a family holiday in Azerbaijan, and the celebrations include public dancing, sports, and other forms of entertainment.
Nowruz, also referred to as Farmer’s Day, is celebrated widely in Afghanistan. Celebration in Afghanistan consists of:
Guli Surkh Festival (Tulip flower festival)/Jashn-E-Dehqan
Buzkashi – A game like polo where a goat/calf carcass is dragged across a field by players mounted on horses.
Haft Mewa – Haft Mewa is a fruit salad made of seven dried fruits and sweet syrups.
Nowruz of the Kurds:
The Kurdish populations of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq celebrate the festival of Nowruz with infectious enthusiasm. The Kurds feast from March 18th to 21st on the occasion. The festival is also deeply attached to a strong nationalistic and political feelings among the Kurds — especially in Turkey, where they were not allowed to celebrate the festival till 2005, as the Turkish government found the festival more political in nature than cultural. Political rallies are common in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq on Nowruz.
Nowruz in India (Parsis):
Zoroastrians of the Indian subcontinent (also called Parsis) use the Shahenshahi or Kadmi calendars, which do not account for leap years; as a result, Nowruz has drifted by 200 days in these calendars. Currently, the Parsis celebrate Pateti in August (18th to 19th) on the day before the new year by their respective calendars, while celebrating the vernal equinox as Jamshed-i-Nowruz (around March 20th) along with the rest of the world. As most Parsis live in Western India (Maharashtra, Gujarat), both Jamshed-i-Nowruz and Pateti are celebrated prominently there.
Nowruz is also celebrated across many Central Asian and South Eastern European countries, like Armenia, Georgia, Albania, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Northwest China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, among others
Nowruz seems to have spread with the old Persian/Sassanid empire across Central Asia and the Middle East. The Turkic and the Mongol invasions of Persia (Iran) did not cause the abandonment of Nowruz but resulted in a further spread of the festival across other Mongol and Turkic territories. As a result, a host of varied communities and religions across the world like Zoroastrians, Sufis, Uyghurs, Shi’as, Ismailis, and Baha’i celebrate Nowruz. Nowruz is a public holiday in 13 countries. The uniquely singular and secular nature of this festival (for most of the people who celebrate it) makes it a truly remarkable festival.
The Zoroastrians, who amount for 0.000028% of the world’s population, are the only group in the world for whom this festival is cultural as well as religious. Most of the people who celebrate this festival are not Zoroastrians but members of different Muslim sects. The 3000-plus-year-old Nowruz, as one of the few existing festivals to find a mention in the Avesta, has managed to remain relevant even though the Zoroastrians who started this festival are a micro-minority among world religions today. Thus, Nowruz is not just one of the oldest festivals in the world, but also one of the most unique, diverse, and interesting.