The Festival of Ridvan is an annual Bahá’í festival commemorating the 12 days (April 21-May 2, 1863) when Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, publicly proclaimed his mission as God’s messenger for this age. The first, ninth and twelfth days (April 21st, 29th and May 2) are celebrated as holy days where work is suspended and festivities take place.
The Bahá’ís believe in the essential value of all religions and in unity and the equality of all. Baha’u’llah had been exiled from His native Iran and had lived in the Ottoman city of Baghdad since 1853. Baghdad was close to the Iranian border, near several Shiite shrines and home to many Iranian exiles, and the Iranian authorities feared his growing prestige. The Ottoman Empire, at the insistence of the Persian government, decided that he would be asked to leave Baghdad and be summoned to Constantinople. Bahá'u'lláh had by this time become an Ottoman subject, and the summons was issued in the form of a polite invitation.
Residents of Baghdad were heart-broken at the news of his impending departure and a large number came to say their good byes. Bahá'u'lláh decided to move to the Najibiyyih Garden across the river Tigris, (which He called the Ridvan Garden or the Garden of Paradise) where he could receive a larger number of visitors.
This occurred on the afternoon of April, 22, 1863. There for the next eleven days he received farewell visits from a multitude of friends, including the governor. The river rose soon after his arrival, so it was not until the ninth day that his family was able to join him. The 12th day was appointed for departure. They started their trip the afternoon of the 12th day May 2, 1863 for the three-month journey to Istanbul.
This garden where he received his visitors was located in a large agricultural area immediately north of the walls of the city of Baghdad. It was on the eastern bank of the Tigris and was directly opposite the district on the river's western bank where Bahá'u'lláh lived during his stay in the city.
It was described as a wooded garden having four "flower-bordered avenues" lined with roses. The roses were collected by gardeners during Baha’u’llah’s stay and piled in the center of his tent to be offered to visitors. "So great would be the heap," a chronicler recalls, "that when his companions gathered to drink their morning tea in his presence, they would be unable to see each other across it." Nightingales were said to sing loudly in the garden, which, together with the fragrance of the roses, "created an atmosphere of beauty and enchantment."
Every year, Bahá’ís world-wide gather in their local communities on the first day of Ridvan to elect the nine members of their local spiritual assembly. The Bahá’í faith does not have designated clergy but instead members vote for leaders from their own congregation to serve for a period of one year. Every adult Baha’i at the age of 21 is eligible to be voted for. All Bahá’ís have the responsibility to participate and vote for these nine members of the community who will volunteer their time to run the administrative affairs and assist in the spiritual well-being of their respective local communities for the year ahead. The national conventions, have national spiritual assemblies. These are also elected each year during the latter days of Ridvan. The international convention presently held every five years also elects the Universal House of Justice during the Ridvan holy days
While there are few specific rules concerning the observance of Ridvan. It is usually observed with community gatherings for prayer and celebration on the three holy days. In some cities, it is also celebrated with outdoor activities, like visiting flower gardens.
For me and my family these are days of great joy as we think about the historical events surrounding these celebrations, discussing these with our children and in knowing that this same sentiment is shared by a world-wide Bahá’í community. There is also the great excitement of participating in an electoral process we think of as sacred. Devoid of campaigning or candidates, there is a sense of great accomplishment as this process unfolds — quite a contrast to the divisiveness accompanying our political processes.
Ajit Giani is a member of the Austin Bahá’í Community, and an iACT board member for where he is board secretary and a member of the executive committee.