Vijaya Dashami is not only the celebration of the triumph of good over evil but is also a time for new and positive beginnings. A significant ritual of the day is Ezhuthiniruthu or Vidyarambham, also known as Aksharabhyasam for children between the ages of 3 and 5, where they write their first letters on either rice or sand, thus setting a pious start to their education. Thousands of tiny tots are initiated into the world of letters on this day, which marks the culmination of Navaratri festival.
Educational institutions, cultural and literary organisations, and churches are known for organising Vidyarambham wherein children seated on the laps of gurus (poets, scholars, teachers, priests, litterateurs and artistes), help children write their very first letters. Temples such as Panachikkad Dakshina Mookambika Temple and Attukal Bhagavati Temple also saw a surge of devotees as parents bring their young wards for the ceremony.
However, Vidyarambham donned a subdued tone this year due to the Covid pandemic. Although simple ceremonies were held in temples, with strict adherence to Covid protocols, only those who registered online were allowed into the programme. However, many families took the State Health Department’s advice about avoiding the ceremony at public places, to heart.
Let's take businessman Rana Chandran, for instance. He held the Ezhuthiniruthu ceremony for his daughter at his residence in Thiruvananthapuram. “My daughter, Abhedya is two-and-a-half years old. After a pooja at home, as per tradition, I wrote Om Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah on my daughter’s tongue with a gold ring. Then, I helped her trace the alphabets on a tray filled with rice grains. My family and I distributed sweets to our neighbours after the ceremony,” he says.
Techie Rahul T also held the Ezhuthiniruthu ceremony for his younger son, Sidharth Rahul, at his residence in Thiruvananthapuram. His wife, Shilpa, conducted the Harishree. “I got my wife to do it so that in case my son does not turn out a genius, I can lay the blame on her. We did the same for my elder son,” he laughs. His elder son Adhinath, who is artistically talented, also chipped in the ceremony as he helped his younger brother trace the alphabets on the rice.
Apart from the world of letters, Vidyarambham is also a day when children are initiated into the world of dance, music and art. Elders too registered for lessons on the day. Dance instructor Girija Chandran, who runs the Regatta Dance and Music School in Thiruvananthapuram, recalls how the roads in front of her institute and its branches in the city, would be jammed on the day. “There would be a lot of traffic as parents would come with their wards to register for the various cultural classes at the institute,” she says.
This year, there is no footfall. Instead, the traffic seems to have moved digital as parents enrolled their children for online lessons. “We sent a link along with a time slot to those registering for classes. At the allotted slot, the student is welcomed and taught a basic lesson. For instance, I taught the beginner dance students how to do the Namaskaram today. Only a limited number of old students visited the institute today and that too at pre-slotted times,” says Girija.
According to a staff member at Guru Gopinath Natanagramam, the institute saw just a handful of students registering for classes today. “Although we offer classes for a variety of art forms, we saw registrations for just Ottamthullal, Kerala Natanam, and Carnatic vocal,” he says.
However, Hindustani musician Abhradita Banerjee, who runs Mukthaangan, says there has been a surge in registration at her cultural institute this year. “Most of them are from other corners of the world. A few of my old students, settled abroad, have registered for classes as well,” says Abhradita.
Tirur Thunchan Parambu, the birthplace of the father of Malayalam, which usually witnesses a rush during Vidyarambham as litterateurs introduce children to the world of letters in a mega event, saw just a few students and their parents coming to collect their books, which they had kept at the centre for pooja.
The authorities at the Panachikkad Dakshina Mookambika Temple had placed great importance to the Covid protocols. They made sure to check the temperature of the devotees before allowing entry into the temple. Those who registered in advance were permitted entry into the temple. Parents were encouraged to conduct the ritual of writing Harishree themselves under the guidance of the temple priests. If the Kollur Mookambika Temple witnessed 1,600 children writing their first letters at the temple last year, this year, there were only 80 due to Covid restrictions.