Most Hindu festivals are closely attuned to cycles of nature and holistically linked to the interplay between spirituality and the environment. The festival of Basant Panchami which marks the beginning of the spring season is no different. The word ‘Basant’ or ‘Vasant’ means ’’the spring season” while ”Panchami” means fifth – in this case the fifth day of the month of Magha, in the Shukla Paksha, as tracked by the Hindu Lunar calendar. It also starts the countdown to the widely popular festival of Holi, which follows 40 days later.
Widely celebrated throughout the Indian subcontinent with varying regional flavors, Basant Panchami is distinguished by the worship of Devi Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and Music. She also symbolizes creative energy and is said to have been born on this day. It is believed that without Devi Saraswati, the world would be shrouded in ignorance, so worshiping her is the ideal time to embark on new journeys of discovery.
Consequently, in many communities, Basant Panchami is considered an especially auspicious day for young children to embark on a life of learning with traditional ceremonies like Aksharabhyasam (Akshar + Abhyasam) meaning learning the practice of letters, or Vidyarambham (Vidya + Aarambham), meaning the beginning of Vidya (education).
As may be expected, students of all ages, stressed by exams and grades, seek the blessings of Devi Saraswati in their quest for knowledge. As part of the Saraswati puja, it is traditional to worship books, the arts, and musical instruments. The festival is considered an extremely auspicious time for new beginnings like a job, marriage, or a housewarming ceremony (griha pravesh).
The color yellow enjoys special significance on Basant Panchami. Yellow motifs that exemplify the brilliance of nature and the vibrancy of life appear repeatedly through the day – on the white and yellow garments adorning Devi Saraswati, in the yellow flowers offered during puja or used to decorate homes, and in the yellow foods like khichadi, saffron rice, and sweets. In many communities, people traditionally wear yellow-colored clothing that reflects the hues of the mustard fields which grow bright yellow blooms at this time of the year across the Indian subcontinent.
Regional Variations but Common Threads
The festival of Basant Panchami is an eagerly awaited milestone in many parts of the subcontinent.
As cold winters loosen their grip on the northern plains, Delhi experiences the arrival of spring with thousands of flowers blooming in its parks, traffic roundabouts, and gardens that draw admiring visitors. Saraswati Puja is an important way of celebrating Basant Panchami in Bihar, Tripura, Assam, West Bengal, and even among the minority Hindu communities in Bangladesh. On both sides of the border, pandals are set up with life-size moortis of Devi Saraswati, and in Kolkata, young people throng the streets dressed in brand new clothes.
In the northern UP region, special fairs and celebrations mark newly sown crops, while Punjab, Haryana, and other north Indian states, celebrate festivities with kite flying, public feasts, and spring carnivals.
Until a few years ago, Lahore and parts of Pakistan celebrated Basant with great enthusiasm. The skies would be filled with colorful dueling kites, and the atmosphere rang with festive music, fun, and food. Despite the current ban, residents remain hopeful of reviving their traditions someday.
In South India, students celebrate Sri Panchami with special fervor. (Sri is another manifestation of the omnipresent Devi). In Karnataka, Basant Panchami marks a time to give thanks for a bountiful harvest with traditional sweets like payasam. Similar celebrations can be traced as far afield as Bali and Indonesia, where Hindus celebrate the day as “Hari Raya Saraswati” and worship Devi Saraswati, by wearing bright clothes while children offer traditional cakes and fruits at school prayers.
Here in the Bay Area, the official advent of spring is still weeks away – but it is possible to see the rhythms of nature at play as our cherry trees start to bloom and our very own “fields of mustard” erupt in a riot of color just a few weeks after – as part of the wildflower blooms. Like other diasporic Hindu communities, local mandirs (including the Fremont Hindu Temple, Shiv Durga Temple in Santa Clara, Shiva-Vishnu Temple in Livermore, Sri Siddhi Vinayaka Temple in Fremont, and many more) are organizing special pujas and family-oriented functions to honor the occasion.
Pushpita Prasad has a passion for storytelling and Indic causes. A communications professional with a background in working in media, technology and history, she is passionate about topics related to India, Hinduism, and Human Rights.