Makar Sankranti and Thai Pongal: Indian harvest festivals are time to celebrate nature, introspect

There will be festivities galore across the length and breadth of our nation over the next few days. Even though large parts of the country are shivering under the influence of the intense cold waves, the fields are green again and the harvest is beckoning, the gods have woken up and the sun has begun its northward journey. There is enough and more reason to rejoice as India gear up for its harvest festivals.

Hindu priests cook pongal during the Thai Pongal harvest festival. Reuters

Hindu priests cook pongal during the Thai Pongal harvest festival. Reuters

In the Northern and eastern states, it's known as Makar Sankranti. The word "sankranti" in Sanskrit means "passage from one point to another, a transition". On Makar Sankranti, the sun moves into the zodiac sign — Makar (Capricorn) and it is considered to be one of the most important sankrantis of the year (there are 12 through the year). The days are now gradually getting longer, the longest night of the year is behind us – this is the period of uttarayan – the period when the sun travels north. The period of uttarayan is believed to be the day of the devatas (gods) (dakshinayan is night for them) and hence mortals hope to be showered with their bounty and express their gratitude for this bounty.

Lohri is regarded as the coldest night of the winter in Punjab. On the night of Lohri, there are ritual fires around which families and communities gather, and sing and dance. The mesmerising blazing flames are fed with gazak (a traditional sweet of sesame and jaggery), popcorn, kheel and rewri. The sound of traditional folk songs and laughter pierces through the chilly winds and the warmth of the fire turns a cold night into a night of fun and frolic and thanksgiving.

In the Southern parts of the country, the festival is variously known as Pongal (primarily Tamil Nadu) and Sankranti. The festivities last typically for three-four days. The day before Sankranti is Bhogi — a day when the old — old possessions (material) which are no longer useful and old thoughts which inhibit growth and movement are to be burnt in fire. The second day is Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu. The new rice is offered to the gods before being partaken by mortals. In a common ritual, the new rice is cooked in open pots with milk in open spaces and allowed to boil over. The boiling over (the word ponga implies this) is symbolic of prosperity and bounty. The next day is important — it is the day of Kanumma (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) or Mattu Pongal. It is a day when the cattle are worshipped — cows who sustain us with their milk and the bulls who help in tilling the land.

In Assam, this is the time for Magha Bihu — celebrating the harvest. In most parts of the country, sankranti or sankrat or khichadi is characterised (with regional variations) by ritual bathing, flying kites (particularly in Gujarat and Maharashtra), til (sesame) ladoos or other delicacies made of til (sesame keeps the body warm), khichadi (primarily in UP and Bihar, khichadi is made of rice and lentils), daana (giving) and offering of food prepared lovingly from the new crop to the gods who nurtured it all along.

Makar Sankranti is also the time for melas (fairs) on most major and minor river banks of the country. The ones at Prayag (Allahabad) and Gangasagar deserve special mention and a dip in the holy waters of the sangam on this day is considered to be a boon. It is also the day when thousands of pilgrims gather at the Sabarimala Temple to witness the makarjyothi.

The festivities are truly representative of the diversity of our land. And yet there is subliminal unity in the thought behind these ritualistic celebrations. Bathing is symbolic of purification not only the physical body but also an essential cleansing of the mind and the soul. Daana or giving is perhaps the most important virtue of being human. It is enjoined upon us to first give and then partake for self-consumption only from what remains. The harvest is a gift of nature. The rituals of Sankranti exhort us to thank those elements that are external to human beings and are yet sine qua non for our lives and livelihoods. The Surya (sun), the agni (fire) and the cattle are worshipped because they are representatives of our environment, of vasudha (earth) and are essential to our being. Sankranti is a time to celebrate but it is also a time to introspect

Garima Chaudhry is an independent business consultant, mentors startups and is an Indic Studies enthusiast.


Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 09:26 AM

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