Sankranti – The festival of harvest

7 January 2017

Imagine you are travelling from California to Florida and by the time you reach Florida, you see natives speaking a different language. You might think this is some apocalyptic science fiction but those who have been to India will understand this. There is no chance that you will find another nation where the official language changes across almost every state! This diversity is what makes India special. Infact, Unity in Diversity is one of the most upheld motto in India. Language is just one of the varieties they serve. Religion and Race are the other prominent ones. Needless to say, there will be no shortage of festivals in a nation with this kind of a mixture. Most states have at least one celebration of their own!

But Makar Sankranti is one festival celebrated across the entire nation. For fans of diversity, there is happy news here too! It is named as Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Poush Parbon in West Bengal, Maghi in puunjab, Suggi in Karnataka, Magha Saaja in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Sakrat in Bihar and Makar Sankranti in Andhra and Telangana! Talk about variety!. So what is this Festival all about.

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Customary Indian Calendar is all about Lunar Positions but Sankranti is a Solar event. It is the day on which Sun starts playing a little Columbus. That is, it starts its northward journey! The same day, sun also shifts from Cancer to Capricorn Constellation. According to Hindu beliefs, this marks the end of an inauspicious period. Light or day is considered as truth and virtue while Darkness or Night is considered as evil. From Makar Sankranti for a period of six months, days are longer than nights and hence it is considered as an auspicious period. In the epic Mahabharata, Bhishma Pitamaha, who had a blessing of death upon wish, refused to sacrifice his life even while lying on the bed of arrows during the Southward movement of Sun and waited for the Northward Movement to discard his body.

You know what Thanksgiving is. Makar Sankranti is more or less the same as it is primarily connected with expressing gratitude to the nature. It is auspicious and it has to be abundant! This period marks the end of traditional farming season and farmers begin to yield benefits of their hard work. Thus, it is a Festival of Harvest too.

Another unique feature of this event is that it happens the same day every year. However, precession of Earth’s axis causes Makar Sankranti to move over the ages. A millennium back, Makar Sankranti was on December 31 while now it is on January 14. It is calculated that starting 2050, Makar Sankranti will be on January 15 and occasionally on January 16.

So we now know the significance. But how do people celebrate it.

In Andhra and Telangana it is mainly a four day long Festival. As a wise man once said, change alone never changes and Indians never hold back to embrace change. Day one marks the beginning of change and people throw away their old items to replace them with new ones. At daybreak, they light a bonfire where they dispose their old materials and children are showered with Regi Pandu aka Indian Jujube to protect them from evil. Day two is Makar Sankranti, the main event. No major Indian Festival is complete without brand new clothes or delicious homemade food. The virtue of bond and togetherness is at the soul of them all. Makar Sankranti is no different. People sparkle in their new clothes and they all get a taste of delicious homemade food especially sweets. Besides that, most will have ‘Muggulu’, a form of drawing in front of their homes. Muggulu is drawn mainly using rice flours. To give while you receive is one of the important virtues in India. As they celebrate prosperity, it is equally important to consider other beings surrounding them. Thus, ‘Muggulu’ drawn in front of homes become food to ants, small insects and birds. What goes around, comes around says Karma and it plays a significant role in Indian culture and beliefs. A small good deed such as feeding other inhabitants of the Earth will have a subsequent good effect in the Family, believes every household. This oneness with the nature is another important feature of Makar Sankranti.

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Day three is called Kanuma and it is celebrated by feeding cattle and fourth and final day is for Recreational activities such as bullock or ox races, flying kites etc. Kite represents the spirit of the festival and it is a metaphor for high aspirations and elevated vision. The significance in every minute thing is a mind blowing aspect for most Indian Festivals, especially Sankranti!

Tamil Nadu, another prominent state in South India also celebrates Sankranti for a period of four days and it is named Pongal there. It is more or less celebrated the same manner as in Andhra and Telangana but on the second and most important day, an earthen pot decorated with Haldi and Kumkum is placed on fire and milk is boiled. When it starts to overflow, the entire Family join the chorus ‘Pongalo Pongal’. The overflowing milk signifies abundance and prosperity.

You might have visited Spain and watched it in real or you might have watched it through any other Modern Medium. Yes the Bull Fight. Be in Tamilnadu for the third day of Pongal and witness an Indian version of Bullfight known as ‘Jalli Kattu’! However ‘Jalli Kattu’ is different from Bullfight as it is not about slaying the animal. This is a bull hugging or bull embracing sport where the participants have to hold a bull by only its humps till the finish line. No stick, ropes or other tools can be used.

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The festival is called Uttarayan and it lasts for two days in the Westernmost state, Gujarat. Uttarayan roughly translates to Northern Movement indicating sun’s course. The first day is celebrated on January 14 and it is mainly celebrated by flying Kites. If you think it is easy cheesy wait until you see number of Kite competitions and Kite fights across the state! It’s a mini WWE out there!

The next day is called Vasi. Dishes like Undhiyu, a mix of Winter Vegetables and Chikki made of sesame seeds, peanuts and jaggery are served this day.

The significance, history and diversity of Sankranti is a material for Novels! The more one looks at it, the more there is to explain. However, it is one of the festivals strongly rooted in the rich culture of India.