Jafarey, Dr. Ali Akbar
Legend and History
Almost all of us know that
the year is approximately 365.25 days long. All of us know that the seasons
are regular and March means the coming of spring, June the beginning of
summer, September the beginning of fall, and December means the coming of
Many know that spring begins
with the vernal equinox on about 21 March, summer with the summer solstice
or about 22 June, fall with the autumnal equinox on about 23 September, and
winter with the winter solstice on about 23 December.
Some know that the
"tropical," solar, or seasonal year is of exactly 365 days, 5 hours, 48
minutes, and 45.5 seconds, or 365.2422454 days, that one day is added every
four years to compensate for the loss of four 5 hr 48 min 45.5 sec, that
each of the equinoxes and solstices have their precise time of beginning
pre-calculated and published by many world observatories and other
astronomical establishments, and that the astronomical and astrological
worlds follow the tropical year.
Very few know that the
official Iranian and Afghani calendars, both of Zarathushtrian origin, are
tropical. Only a small number of us know that if the beginning of the year
is considered from the precise start of vernal equinox, there shall never be
any need to have a leap year at all -- the reason why the ancient
Zarathushtrians did not have it!
The Iranians of old had a
tropical calendar for many centuries. The downfall of the Sassanian Empire
in 7th century disrupted the astronomical structure of the religion and the
state. The 365-day year, followed by the majority of Zoroastrians in India
and Pakistan with little astronomical knowledge, for the last eleven hundred
years has advanced the calendar to where Nov-Ruz now occurs in the late
summer. However, almost all Zarathushtis in Iran and a minority of Parsis of
India and Pakistan follow the "Fasli" or seasonal calendar. It is an almost
tropical calendar. It is corrected by observing the leap year.
Iranians, converted to Islam, observed and are observing the Muslim lunar
calendar for religious purposes, the Iranian calendar was soon restored
within a century for administrative and economical reasons.
Legend and History
Nov-Ruz [pronounced NO-ROOZ]
in Persian means "New[-year]-day". It is the beginning of the year for the
people of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Other Asian
republics of the former Soviet Union are joining the group, and the latest
report says that Turkey too has decided to declare Nov-Ruz a holiday. It is
also celebrated as the new year by the people of the Iranian stock,
particularly the Kurds, in the neighboring countries of Georgia, Iraq,
Syria, and Turkey. It begins precisely with the beginning of spring on
vernal equinox, on about March 21.
Tradition takes Nov-Ruz as
far back as 15,000 years-before the last ice age. King Jamshid (Yima or Yama
of the Indo-Iranian lore) symbolizes the transition of the Indo-Iranians
from animal hunting to animal husbandry and a more settled life in human
history. Seasons played a vital part then. Everything depended on the four
seasons. After a sever winter, the beginning of spring was a great occasion
with mother nature rising up in a green robe of colorful flowers and the
cattle delivering their young. It was the dawn of abundance. Jamshid
symbolizes the person/people who introduced Nov-Ruz celebrations.
Avestan and later scriptures
show that Zarathushtra improved, as early as 1725 BCE, the old Indo-Iranian
calendar. The prevailing calendar was luni-solar. The lunar year is of 354
days. An intercalation of one month after every thirty months kept the
calendar almost in line with the seasons. Zarathushtra, the Founder of the
Good Religion, himself an astronomer, founded an observatory and he reformed
the calendar by introducing an eleven-day intercalary period to make it into
a luni-solar year of 365 days, 5 hours and a fraction.
Later in the post-Gathic
period, the year was made solely a solar year with each month of thirty
days. An intercalation of five days was, and a further addition of one day
every four years, was introduced to make the year 365 days, 5 hours, and a
fraction. Still later, the calendar was further corrected to be a purely
solar year of 365 days 5 hr 48 min 45.5 sec. The year began precisely with
the vernal equinox every time and therefore, there was no particular need of
adding one day every four years and there was no need of a leap year. This
was [and still is] the best and most correct calendar produced that far.
Some 12 centuries later, in
487 BCE, Darius the Great of the Achaemenian dynasty (700 to 330 BCE)
celebrated the Nov-Ruz at his newly built Persepolis in Iran. A recent
research shows that it was a very special occasion. On that day, the first
rays of the rising sun fell on the observatory in the great hall of audience
at 06-30 a.m., an event that repeats itself once every 1400-1 years. It also
happened to coincide with the Babylonian and Jewish new years. It was,
therefore, a highly auspicious occasion for the ancient peoples. The
Persepolis was the place, the Achaemenian king received, on Nov-Ruz, his
peoples from all over the vast empire. The walls of the great royal palace
depict the scenes of the celebrations.
We know the Parthians (250
BCE to 224 CE) celebrated the occasion but we do not know the details. It
should have, more or less, followed the Achaemenian pattern. During the
Sassanian time (224 to 652 CE), preparations began at least 25 days before
Nov-Ruz. Twelve pillars of mud bricks, each dedicated to one month of the
year, were erected in the royal court. Various vegetable seeds-wheat,
barley, lentils, beans, and others-were sown on top of the pillars. They
grew into luxurious greens by the New Year Day.
The great king held his
public audience and the High Priest of the empire was the first to greet
him. Government officials followed next. Each person offered a gift and
received a present. The audience lasted for five days, each day for the
people of a certain profession. Then on the sixth day, called the Greater
Nov-Ruz, the king held his special audience. He received members of the
Royal family and courtiers. Also a general amnesty was declared for convicts
of minor crimes. The pillars were removed on the 16th day and the festival
came to a close. The occasion was celebrated, on a lower level, by all
peoples throughout the empire.
Since then, the peoples of
the Iranian culture, whether Zartoshtis, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Baha'is,
or others, have, under Arab, Turk, Mongol, and Iranian rulers, celebrated
Nov-Ruz precisely at the time of vernal equinox, the first day of the first
month, on about March 21.
Zartoshtis have six seasonal
thanksgiving festivals, called "Gahanbars," to celebrate in a year. Vernal
Equinox, called Hamaspathmaidhaya in Avesta, meaning "Middle of Equal
Paths," or in simpler rendering "vernal equinox" is the top celebration. It
was called in later days as "Nava Saredha" and still later Now Sal, both
meaning "New Year". Today it is known as Nov-Ruz, New Day. It is the first
day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
The early Zarathushtrians
counted their era, the Zarathushtrian Religious Era (ZRE), from Nov-Ruz
(vernal equinox) of 1737 BCE. It may be noted that the credit of precisely
calculating ZRE goes to an Iranian scholar, the late Zabih Behruz. Right
now, we are going through the last month of 3739 ZRE. It was practically
revived by the Zarathushtrian Assembly 12 years ago and has been happily
adopted by the Zartoshtis in Iran and abroad, including in North America.
The Zarathushtrian era was
abandoned when the Achaemenian monarchy was influenced by the prevailing
custom in the Mesopotamia. The year started with the accession to the throne
of every monarch. That is the reason why Zoroastrians-followers of the Fasli
(solar), the Shahenshahi (majority of Parsis), the Qadimi (a minority of
Parsis and Iranis of India and Pakistan) calendar-have the Yazgerdi era, the
year King Yazdgerd ascended the throne in 632 CE. Both Shahenshahi and
Qadimi reckoning have a year of 365 days only. They have advanced almost
seven months by gaining one day every four years. It means that they gave up
the leap year (avardâd sâlgâh) about 852 years ago-in about 1150 CE. All
Iranian Zoroastrians follow the Fasli, the seasonal or the solar calendar.
When Iranian Muslims
returned to the solar year, they reckoned with the Hejra year in solar
terms. It will be 1381 Khorshidi (solar) this Nov-Ruz. The months are
Zoroastrians-Farvardin, Ordibehesht, Khordad, Tir etc.-in Iran and Zodiac
months in Afghanistan.
Every house gets a thorough
cleaning almost a month before. Wheat, barley, lentils, and other vegetable
seeds are soaked to grow on china plates and round earthenware vessels some
ten days in advance, so that the sprouts are three to four inches in height
Today, the ceremony has been
simplified. A table is laid. It has a copy of the sacred book (the Gathas
for Zarathushtrians), picture of Zarathushtra (or a Saint's picture by other
creeds), a mirror, candles, incense burner, bowl of water with live gold
fish, the plates and vessels with green sprouts, flowers, fruits, coins,
bread, sugar cone, various grains, fresh, colorfully painted boiled eggs
like "Easter eggs," and above all, seven articles with their names beginning
in Persian with the letter "S" (seen) or "SH" (sheen). The usual things with
"S" are vinegar (serkeh), sumac (somâgh), garlic (sîr), samanu (consistency
of germinating wheat), apple (sîb), senjed (sorb), and herbs (sabzi). Those
with an initial letter "SH" include wine (sharâ), sugar (shakar), syrup (shîreh),
honey (shahd), candy (shîrîni), milk (shîr), and rice pudding (shîr-berenj).
The seven articles are prominently exhibited in small bowls or plates on the
The table is laid with a
white cloth. White represents spotless purity.
Let me repeat the brief play
put up by young members of the Zarathushtrian Assembly to define the
significance of the seven plates of "S" and seven plates of "SH." The
youngsters, dressed in tune with what they represent, tell us by themselves
their own significance. Those with "S" inform us:
First Plate: I am "Serkeh,"
the vinegar. I am sour but I am a good preservative. I add taste to the
things you want to preserve and relish. I symbolize tasty preservation.
Second Plate: I am "Sumac,"
exotic in my own way, I make your favorite kabobs have a tangy taste, a
taste you relish. I symbolize taste.
Third Plate: I am "Sir,"
garlic. Some may not like my aroma and others love it. I lower blood
pressure. I pacify. I symbolize peace.
Fourth Plate: I am "Samanu,"
a sweetish paste, a kind of "halwa," made from germinating wheat. I
symbolize the sprouting spring, the time for happy growth.
Fifth Plate: I am "Sib,"
apple. I symbolize the fruits of our world, both literally and
Sixth Plate: I am "Senjed,"
the tasteless berry of the sorb tree. I am the fruit of a tree which
provides shade in summer. I symbolize the shelter and security you need when
you want a rest.
Seventh Plate: I am "Sabzi,"
fresh green herbs. I come from green fields. I symbolize prosperity.
The seven plates with "SH"
First Plate: I am "Sharab,"
the wine. I am the nectar. I symbolize health and happiness, of course, if
taken in moderation! To your health!
Second Plate: I am "Shakar,"
sugar. I give your favorite foods their sweetness. I symbolize sweetness.
Third Plate: I am "Shir,"
milk, the first food one tastes in this world. I symbolize nourishing food.
Fourth Plate: I am "Shireh,"
syrup. I am the sap, the fluid essential for life, health and vigor. I
symbolize vigorous health.
Fifth Plate: I "Shahd,"
honey. I am the sweet produce of the cooperative bees. I symbolize the sweet
result of teamwork.
Sixth Plate: I am "Shirini,"
candy, loved by those who have a sweet tooth. I simply symbolize sweetness
with no sign of bitterness.
Seventh Plate: I am "Shir-Berenj,"
rice pudding, and a tasty food. I symbolize food for taste and health.
The copy of the Gathas
symbolizes guidance for a good life. The picture of Asho Zarathushtra
reminds us of the author of the Gathas, the founder of the Good Religion and
the Conveyer of the Divine Message. The mirror reflects our past and shows
us our present so that we thoughtfully plan our future. The candles are
light, warmth, and energy to lead a righteous life that would, in turn,
radiate light, give warmth, and provide energy for others. The incense
burner gives the fragrance we need to meditate, pray to God, and ask for
help and guidance. The gold fish symbolizes a happy life, full of activity
and movement. The plates of green sprouts represent creativity and
productivity, and so do the colorfully painted eggs.
As you see, the whole table
is beautifully laid. It symbolizes the Message and the Messenger, light,
reflection, warmth, life, love, joy, production, prosperity, and nature. It
is, in fact, a very elaborate thanksgiving table for all the good and
beautiful things bestowed by God.
Family members, all dressed
in their best, sit around the table and eagerly await the announcement of
the exact time of vernal equinox over radio or television. The head of the
family recites the Nov-Ruz prayers, and after the time is announced, each
member kisses the other and wishes a Happy Nov-Ruz. Elders give gifts to
younger members. Next the rounds of visits to neighbors, relatives, and
friends begin. Each visit is reciprocated.
Zarathushtra's Birthday and
Nov-Ruz festival are celebrated by Zarathushtis at social centers on about 6
Farvardin (26 March).
Singing and dancing is, more
or less for the first two weeks, a daily routine. The festivity continues
for 12 days, and on the 13th morning, the mass picnic to countryside begins.
It is called "Sizdeh-Bedar," meaning "thirteen-in-the-outdoors." Cities and
villages turn into ghost towns with almost all the inhabitants gone to enjoy
the day in woods and mountains along stream and riversides. People sing,
dance, and make merry. Girls of marriageable age tie wild grass tops into
knots and make a wish that the following Nov-Ruz may find them married and
carrying their bonny babies!