India followed the lunisolar calendars traced back to the 1st millennium BCE. The British Empire adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 and its radius of influence gradually influenced its adoption in India. Today most people in India have only a limited understanding of the ancient calendaring system. But its influence exists in many aspects of life in India. Firstly the festivals have different dates each year because the festivals follow the Lunar cycle. 

For example, Diwali coincides with the dark night of the Lunisolar month Kartika, on the 15th of the month. In the Gregorian calendar, Diwali night falls between mid-October and mid-November.

Star Birthdays

In India, most people will recognise the meaning of a “Star Birthday”. For example, mine is on Bhishma Ashtami, I was born on Ashwini Nakshatram (meaning dominant star in the constellation). When I was growing up we celebrated two birthdays. The Star Birthday and the actual date of birth. The star birthday entailed an oil bath first thing in the morning. A word that means something else in India than its literal interpretation. It meant your mother massaged warm oil vigorously into the scalp and hair. And then you took a bath. Of course, the bath didn’t mean bathing in a bathtub. And likewise, a shower didn’t mean a long sojourn with unlimited and uninterrupted hot water jetting out of a shower head. Both modes of bathing were non-existent and alien to my growing-up years. So, a bath or a shower simply meant washing up from a bucket of water placed in the bathroom. Conservationists would rejoice if we can convince the world to go back to this, we would save a lot of water.

But back to birthdays, after the ritual of taking a bath, it was customary to go to the temple to offer prayers. Then we had a meal at home which included piping hot payasam or kheer (Rice Pudding) along with other personal favourites lovingly prepared by my mother. As I get older I realise how very comforting these simple traditions are. This was considered the main birthday and we celebrated it together with the family. Then the actual date of birth was another type of excitement. 

Birthdays in School

Like almost all schools in India, mine required all students to wear a uniform (pink and white) to school every day. The only exception was our birthday. We were allowed to wear a new dress to school. The dress itself was described and discussed in detail for weeks before with friends during breaks. And there was much anticipation and oohing and aahing on the said day. And we were allowed to share sweets or treats with friends, but we had to make sure everyone in the class got the same thing, the teachers ensured no one got a special treat leaving other children behind. 

This tradition of birthdays continued for me from kindergarten through high school. We typically took a box of eclairs to share. In our self-secluded world with limited other exposure, Éclair meant only one thing then, and that is not the traditional cream-filled pastry. It is an inexpensive Cadbury product, hard toffee with a soft chocolate centre. But for where I came from then it was something special to share with classmates in school. 

Those days were the Best of Birthdays because so little made us so happy and there was a lot of joy and I recall the simple charm and anticipation of celebrating birthdays. We had no concept of receiving any gifts or cutting a cake or blowing a candle or making a wish. Cakes were a rarity and relished it when we had the opportunity, usually when my Dad took us to a bakery which is another story for another time. 

I grew up with birthdays being discreet affairs, and small private celebrations. And somehow over the many years, I have never managed to claim back the serenity and warmth and satisfaction of what I remember of my childhood celebrations. So I have been planning some personal retreats for my birthdays for the last few years. A couple of years ago, I walked 50km with a group of friends fundraising for Oxfam, breaking the mental barrier that I couldn’t do it. The year after that, I spent the day at a spa and went to a movie with a few friends. In the subsequent one, I was away at a meditation retreat and staying away from all things digital.

I had the best of birthdays, I always feel refreshed and renewed. I am grateful to have wonderful family and friends who always take out the time to wish me and make my day special.

Let me know what makes The Best of Birthday for you.