Festivals of India: Makar Sankranti

A harvest festival celebrated across India and the subcontinent, Makar Sankranti, Uttarayan, Maghi, or just Sankranti, which is celebrated today is also known as Poush Sankranti in Bangladesh or Tirmoori in Pakistan, is a harvest festival day, dedicated to the Sun God Lord Surya. It is observed each year the day the Sun enters the zodiac sign Capricorn, which corresponds to January as per the Gregorian calendar and marks the first day of the sun’s transit into the Makara Rashi or Capricorn.

It is celebrated on either 14 or 15 January due to the addition of the extra day in leap years. The festival, which is a harvest festival is celebrated with colourful decorations, children singing and asking for treats, fairs, dances, kite flying, bonfires and feasts. Some go to sacred rivers and lakes and bathe in a ceremony of thanks to the sun and every twelve years, the Kumbh Mela, the largest mass pilgrimage festivity is observed in conjunction with Makar Sankranti. Here, devotees pray to the Sun God and bathe at the confluence of the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, known as the Triveni Sangam in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, a tradition attributed to Adi Shankaracharya.

Makar Sankranti is known by various names across the country. It is known as Magh Bihu in Assam, Maghi, in Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh, Sukarat in central India, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, Ghughuti in Uttarakhand, Makara Sankranti in Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal where it is also known as Poush Sankranti, and as Sankranthi in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Outside of India, it is known as Maghe Sankranti in Nepal and Tirmoori in Pakistan.

Makar Sankranti is set by the solar cycle and corresponds to the exact time when the sun enters the sign of Capricorn and usually falls on 14 January or 15 January during a leap year according to the Gregorian calendar.

Makar Sankranti is dedicated to the Sun God, Surya whose significance is traceable to the Vedic texts, particularly the Gayatri Mantra, a sacred hymn found in the Rigveda. It marks the termination of the winter season and the beginning of a new harvest season. From this day, the sun begins its northward journey or Uttarayan or the northern hemisphere and so the festival is also known as Uttarayan.

As per legend, Sankranti killed a devil named Sankarasur and so the day after Makar Sankrant is called Karidin or Kinkrant. On this day, she slew the devil Kinkarasur. As per another legend, the Sun God, Lord Surya forgave his son Shani who visited him on Sankranti. And that’s why people distribute sweets and urge everyone to let go of any negative or angry feelings. On this day people take a holy dip in rivers, especially the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri because bathing in the rivers on this day is believed to result in merit or absolution of past sins. The Sun God is also prayed to and thanked for successes and prosperity. For most parts of India, this period is a part of the early stages of the Rabi crop and agricultural cycle, where crops have been sown and the hard work in the fields is mostly over. The time thus signifies a period of socialising and families enjoying each other’s company, taking care of the cattle, and celebrating around bonfires. On Makar Sankranti, people wear black which is otherwise a huge no-no on other festival days. As Sakranti falls in the winter months, wearing black adds to body warmth which is the reason for the colour.

In Assam, Makar Sankranti is known as Magh Bihu and the festival is marked by feasts and bonfires. Young people erect makeshift huts, known as Meji and Bhelaghar, from bamboo, leaves, and thatch, and in Bhelaghar they eat the food prepared for the feast and then burn the huts the next morning. celebrations also feature traditional Assamese games such as tekeli bhonga or pot-breaking and buffalo fighting. In Goa, people distribute sweets in the form of granules of sugar-coated sesame seeds among family members and friends and newly married women offer five sunghat or small clay pots filled with newly harvested grains, betel leaves areca nuts and tied with black beaded threads tied around them, to the deity. Uttarayan, as Makar Sankranti is called in Gujarati, is a major festival that lasts for two days. Kites made of special light-weight paper are flown and the festival is eagerly awaited.

In Haryana and Delhi, the festival is celebrated similarly to Western UP and the border areas of Rajasthan and Punjab. This includes ritual purification by taking a holy dip in rivers with sweets like kheer, churma, halwa and distributing a sesame and jaggery sweet called til-gud. Brothers of a married woman visit her home with a gift pack, called Sindhara or Sidha with gifts of clothing for her and her family. In Jammu, it is celebrated as Uttrain and is celebrated a day before Lohri by the Dogra community to commemorate the end of the Poh or Pausha month. Among the Dogras, there is a tradition of Mansana or charity of Khichdi of Maah Dal and that is why this day is also referred to as Khichdi wala Parva. There is also a tradition of sending Khichdi & other food items to house of married daughters and fairs are organised in holy places and pilgrimages are taken. In Karnataka, it is celebrated as Suggi and on this day, girls wear new clothes to visit near and dear ones with the Sankranti offering on a plate and exchange the same with other families in a ritual called Ellu Birodhu. The festival signifies the harvest of the season since sugarcane is predominant in these parts. Gifts are exchanged by women and newly married women give away bananas for five years to married women from the first year of their marriage. Kite flying, drawing rangolis, giving away red berries known as Yalchi kai are some of the intrinsic parts of the festival. In rural Karnataka, a display of decorated cows and bulls and their procession is done and they are also made to cross a flame and this custom is known as Kichchu Haayisuvudu. In Maharashtra, on Makar Sankranti day people exchange multicolored halwa and sweetmeats made from sesame seeds and jaggery known as til-gul laadoo. Married women invite friends and family and celebrate with guests given til-gul and some small gift, as a part of the ritual and women make it a point to wear black clothes on this day.

In Odisha, on the day of the festival, people prepare makara chaula and along with uncooked newly harvested rice, banana, coconut, jaggery, sesame, rasagola, Khai/Liaa and chhena puddings offer It to the Gods and Godesses. The Sun God at the Konark Sun Temple is worshipped with many starting the day with a ritual bath while fasting. In Puri special rituals are carried out at the temple of Lord Jagannath. In Punjab, Makar Sankranti is celebrated as Maghi which is a religious and cultural festival. Bathing in a river in the early hours on Maghi is important with Hindus light lamps with sesame oil as this is supposed to give prosperity and drive away all sins. A major fair is held at the Sri Muktsar Sahib on Maghi which commemorates a historical event in Sikh history. In Rajasthan and Western Madhya Pradesh, the day is celebrated with special Rajasthani delicacies and sweets. Women in this region observe a ritual in which they give a gift to 13 married women. The first Sankranti experienced by a married woman is of significance as she is invited by her parents and brothers to their houses with her husband for a big feast. Kite flying is traditionally observed as a part of this festival.

In Tamil Nadu, Makar Sankranti is celebrated as the four-day festival of Pongal with day one celebrated as Bhogi Pongal, day two as Thai Pongal, day three as Maattu Pongal and day four as Kaanum Pongal. On Maattu Pongal, many villages in the state will have a Jallikattu, or taming the bull, contest, which is an ancient Pongal tradition. In Uttar Pradesh, the festival is known as Kicheri and involves ritual bathing. Over two million people gather at their respective sacred places for this holy bathing such as Allahabad and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. In Uttarakhand, Makar Sankranti is known by various names in the different parts of the state. In the Kumaon region the festival is known as Ghughuti, Ghughuti Tyar, Ghughutia, Kale Kauva or Uttarayani with the famous Uttarayani fair held in Bageshwar town. During the fair, people bathe before daybreak at the confluence of the Saryu and Gomati rivers, followed by an offering of water to Lord Shiva inside the Bagnath Temple. Those who are more religiously disposed of, continue this practice for three days in succession, which is known as Trimaghi. On this day, people also give khichdi, a dish made by mixing pulses and rice in charity, take ceremonial dips in holy rivers, participate in Uttarayani fairs and offer deep-fried sweetmeats consisting of flour and jaggery to crows and other birds as a way to pay homage to the departed souls of their ancestors. In West Bengal, Sankranti is also known as Poush Sankranti. The freshly harvested paddy and the date palm syrup in the form of Khejurer Gur is used in the preparation of a variety of traditional Bengali sweets made with rice flour, coconut, milk and khejurer gur or date palm jaggery and known as Pitha. Goddess Lakshmi is usually worshipped on the day of Sankranti. In Darjeeling, the festival is as known as Magey Sakrati and is associated with the worship of Lord Shiva.

The Hindu Sindhi community in western regions of India and southeastern parts of Pakistan, celebrate Makar Sankranti as Tirmoori. On this day, parents send sweet dishes and ladoos and chiki or Laaee made of sesame seeds to their married daughters. In Bangladesh, Makar Sankranti is known as Shakrain and is observed with the flying of kites. In Nepal, Maghe Sankranti as it is known in the country, is celebrated as the new year and is a major festival of the Magar community. Observant Hindus take ritual baths during this festival and the oldest female in each household wishes good health to all family members.

So here’s wishing you a very Happy Makar Sankranti with a greeting from my home state of Maharastra which goes like this: “Til gud ghya, god god bola” which means eat the sweet made from sesame and jaggery, say good and positive thoughts and words and leave all the bitterness and negativity of the past behind.

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