Nowroz or 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 on, these annual celebrations have not lost their significance, but on the contrary have become even more lively or what can be termed “Por 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 Nowroz.
In the next few weeks the Nowroz celebrations would be 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, indeed across the world from Afghanistan through Central Asia and Europe, Mid-East and into Indian sub-continent, Nowroz is celebrated with rich cultural traditions. With distinct variation across different countries, Nowroz 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 “Nowroz” originated among the people of the world’s oldest religion – Zoroastrianism.
Let us share how Nowroz is celebrated in Afghanistan – the country only in news because of the wars. As travellers we were not fully aware of the traditions and the cultures of different civilizations. While learning Persian and German Language, we came in close study of the cultures and the traditions of different people. And by writing about the nation which is always talked in the context of conflict was more exploring than others, as we both belong to “the Land of Conflicts”. Studying at an International University, with friends from different nations, is an opportunity to explore different cultures, the people and the traditions they live. One among them has been Afghanistan – a nation that has a history of its own. But never has it 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 both to know how the people celebrate Nowroz differently in different countries. Traditions of the Afghani Nowroz:
Celebrated almost in all the Central Asian countries, Nowroz starts with what is called “Spring Cleaning”. From the foods to the singing carols, the celebrations are warm. Like other places, the celebrations in Central Asia and Afghanistan start almost a month before. Near Nowroz the streets, alleys and pathways across Afghanistan look different and the celebrations are different too. The houses are painted with fresh colours and the women are busy doing the inner decorations of their houses. Nowroz starts with what is called “Tamiziye Khanaha”. People are busy with the “Annual Nowrooz Cleaning”. There are different versions of Nowroz traditions in different parts of Afghanistan which are more localized. From Kabul, Herat, and Bamyan to Mazar – e – Sharif all cities wear a “Bridal Look”. One can feel every person’s attire.
The hustle and bustle and the richness among the old and the young start with Nowroz. 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 Nowroz which symbolises the rebirth of the New Year and announcing the time of the New Year.
One of the symbolic rituals of Nowroz is “Chaharshanbeh Souri’’ – literally meaning – “the eve of Red Wednesday”. In Afghanistan this symbolic ritual of Nowroz is known as “Atash Bazi” – literally meaning – “the fire play”. 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 Quran): 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 the 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 all women are busy preparing it, the 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 Nowroz is more cultural than the religious one 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 becomes 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 Nowroz Spread is known as “Sufreye Nowroz ya Haft Miwe” – Seven Fruits, unlike Iran where it is known as “Haft Siin”. The tradition is to have the seven dry fruits each representing the symbol of its own. The “Haft Miwe” Spread includes Qunjid, Chahar Maghz, Badaam, Pista, Kishmish, Senjed, Shaft’aaloo. Few days before Nowrooz these all are soaked in the 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 “Nowrozi” - term specific in its use. In Afghan society, on the special occasions like Eid, the 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 what is called “Rukhsat” - the 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 - meaning 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 to the family of the “Khuneye Mordadaar” - the family who has lost someone in the previous year. The near and dear ones visit and pay the 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 what 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 Nowroz. The traditional meals of Nowroz in Afghanistan include Mahi; Sabzi Pulao; Palak. Traditionally, in old villages, they are prepared in the “Kaseye Sofali” – earthen pots and even served in them. The traditional Nowroz Dish includes the fish that are fried and cooked in different styles. The use of earthen pots keeps the food fresh almost for 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 “Nowroz 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 a game by breaking the ‘Boiled Eggs’ which they bring to play with. People watch it with keenness as who will win and take all the eggs. Another game, played among youth, is named “Bouz Kashi”. Considered the National game of Afghanistan, the game is played in the open fields during the Nowroz 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 as the traditions have been what is said “Makhfi Shudhan”. With the changing times have changed the traditional Nowrooz celebrations. Under the influence of the new cultural, economic and industrial growth of the modern life, the essence of Nowrooz has been under threat. Due to war and conflict, the Afghan customs and cultural traditions have not deeply rooted in new generations and one among them is the tradition of Nowroz. The Afghans call this “Kam Rang Shudhan”.
Analysis from Nowroz celebrations in Afghanistan is that its significance was more to them in past. Owing to the changes that have occurred within the Afghan society, almost every dimension has been affected. The conflict has been the main reason for the “dying heritage of Afghan society”. One gets to know from the people that there have been a lot of changes due to war which have directly, not only impacted the customs and traditions of the society, but the celebrations associated with them as well. There have been times when Nowroz was declared as un-Islamic. The Nowroz in those times was not being celebrated the way it used to be in the past generations. The new generation does not know about the dying traditions that even include the Nowroz. With the old traditions vanishing fast from the Afghan society, few are still seen and celebrated. Children used to get the “Nowrozi” 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 initiative in this direction has also come from the government like the “Revival of Bagh e Paghman” in Kabul for the celebration of first day of Hamal during Nowroz in which world cultural delegations come and explore the dying celebration of Nowroz. This includes Mushaira, Nowrooz Concerts and cultural programs of Central Asia.
As we close writing our travelling experiences, the world is going through very rough times in the history of mankind. The occasions like Nowroz play a vital role in bringing people together in general and in the conflicts zones like ours in particular. These occasion bridges the gap that has engulfed the whole world on the basis of color, race, religion, economic stratus. Unlike Persia, Nowroz in Afghanistan lasts only few days. Almost a week long celebration concludes and what can be termed as “Afghan’s Nowroz e Por Rang”.