Nowruz is more than just another Spring celebration

Nowruz is more than just another Spring celebration

Nowruz is a rite dating back to at least the 6th century BCE, marking the new year and ushering in spring. This historic rite is observed on 21st March in many countries along the Silk Roads, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Variously known as Novruz, Nowrouz, Nooruz, Navruz, Nauroz or Nevruz is thus celebrated by people of many different religions and cultures across this vast region.

Some of the festival’s earliest origins lie in Zoroastrianism, marking one of the holiest days in the ancient Zoroastrian calendar. The return of the spring was seen to have great spiritual significance, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow. Nowruz is also associated with a great variety of local traditions, including the legend of Jamshid, a king in Persian mythology.  To this day in Iran, Nowruz celebrations are sometimes known as Jamshidi Nowruze.  According to the myth, Jamshid was carried through the air in a chariot, a feat that so amazed his subjects that they established a festival on that day. Similar mythological narratives exist in Indian and Turkish traditions, while the legend of Amoo Nowrouz akin to the myth of Santa Clause is popular in the countries of Central Asia.

Over the last millennium, Nowruz has developed and expanded, incorporating new social, religious, and cultural influences as it spread along the Silk Roads. Although the traditions and customs that accompany the celebration of Nowruz vary from country to country, there are many unifying features.  In most regions, symbolic preparations for fire and water take place before the festival, and ritual dances involving leaping over fires and streams are performed. In Iran, these dances take place on the last Wednesday before Nowruz, known as Charshanbeh Sūrī or Charshanbeh-e Ātash, while in Azerbaijan, this practice is carried out over the four Wednesdays preceding the celebrations. In many places, households fill up their supplies of water on the last Wednesday of the year, and in Kyrgyzstan, all vessels in the house are to be filled on Nowruz Eve, in the hope that this will bring abundance in the new year and keep away misfortune. It is also customary across most regions to visit cemeteries before the Nowruz celebrations begin, with visitors bringing candles and offerings to remember the dead. Two candles are commonly placed at the door to the house on Nowruz Eve in Kazakhstan. In Azerbaijan, the dead are commemorated on the second day of Nowruz, known as the “Day of Fathers”.

On the day of Nowruz, there is much feasting, visiting family members and friends, and exchanging gifts. One widespread tradition is the preparation of a Nowruz table, on which a number of symbolic objects are placed. While these tables differ slightly from region to region, the most common features are: water, candles, dishes of green sprouts (or Sabzeh), a traditional dish made out of crushed wheat sprouts, mirrors, eggs, and various fruits. These objects symbolize purity, brightness, abundance, happiness, and fertility for the new year. In Iran, the table is referred to as the “Sofreh-ye Haft Sin”, and displays seven objects, each starting with the letter ‘S’. A similar table is set in areas of India in all Irani and Parsi Zoroastrian families.

Nowruz is also the occasion for traditional cultural activities, combining common practices with local customs. These annual traditions to welcome the spring have been passed on from generation to generation throughout the last millennium, Nowruz provides an opportunity not only to enjoy ancient cultural customs and traditional songs, music, dancing, rituals, foods, and storytelling but also to promote peace and solidarity within towns and communities and to strengthen deep-rooted bonds of friendship and exchange.

In recognition of the importance of this ancient rite, Nowruz was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Moreover, in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March International Nowruz Day.