The festival of Nowruz was celebrated with gaiety in three states of the Indian Union – Gujarat, Maharashtra and Jammu & Kashmir. Jammu & Kashmir is separated from the first two by hundreds of kilometers of land and is as different from them as chalk is from cheese. Located at the northern edge of the subcontinent, it is a rugged, snowy province perched on the towering mountains of Asia. Gujarat is a semi-arid coastal lowland in western India. Maharashtra is further to the south, stretching along a lush, tropical seaboard from where it extends deep into the hot, sun baked heart of the Deccan Plateau.

On the 20th of March, 2017, two communities – the Parsis of Gujarat-Maharashtra and the Shia Muslims of Kashmir observed the day, marking the vernal equinox and the arrival of spring. Nowruz is an ancient festival, going back to the very origins of Iranian civilization. The land of Iran holds a special place in the history of both the Zoroastrian faith and the Shia sect. It is the influence of Iranian culture that manifests itself across the length and breadth of Asia, from Turkey in the west to China in the east, on the day of Nowruz.

The Sun had a special place in the culture of the Indo-Iranians. It is the movement of the Earth relative to the Sun that determines the cycle of seasons and the cultivation of crops. The arrival of spring, after the harsh winter of the Iranian Plateau, must have been reason enough to celebrate for a people whose very survival depended on their pastures and farms. Festivities similar to those of Nowruz were observed as far back as the days of the Achaemenids (if one is to rely on descriptions provided by the Greek soldier Xenophon). The Arsacids and Sassanids had matching celebrations.

After the Arab conquest of Iranian lands, a new, syncretic culture emerged. Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the major religion of Persia and Turkestan but the languages and traditions of the Iranian people maintained their sway. It was the Persians who laid the foundations for a new civilization in Central Asia, combining the egalitarian values of Islam with the cultural heritage of the Sassanids. Nowruz, the great festival of Iran, continued to be celebrated. In fact, with the replacement of Arab rule by native dynasties, it became one of the most important events of the Central Asian calendar.

Today, it is celebrated not only by speakers of Iranian languages (Persians, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Kurds) and their descendants (the Parsis of Maharashtra) but also by communities deeply influenced by Iranian culture – Azeris, Turkomans, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kirghiz and Uighurs. The Albanian people of south eastern Europe represent the westernmost extension of this age-old tradition. In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz, and included it in the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a testament to its popularity and significance.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and based on a painting (dating back to 1891) showing the celebration of Nowruz in Iran.

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