Musings, Traditions

Makara Sankranthi- A celebration of the Sun

Makara Sankranti is an important pan-Indian festival observed on the 14th of January each year. It marks the first day of the sun’s transit into Capricorn (Makara), marking the end of the winter solstice. It is observed during the harvest season to celebrate nature’s generosity and the imminent arrival of spring. Since it is one of the few Indian festivals that is observed based on solar cycles, while most festivals are set by the lunar cycle of the lunisolar Hindu calendar, it almost always falls on the same Gregorian date every year.

Significance of Makara Sankranthi

The festival is dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, Surya and marks the beginning of a six months auspicious period known as Uttarayana. The Magha Mela mentioned in the Mahabharata places this festival to be around 5,000 years old.

Other names

Each region has its signature rituals and unique festivities but the common thread across the country is a spread of delicious food that pays homage to the season and its bounty. It is known by different names across the country. It is called Suggi, Makara Sankramana or Makara Sankranti in Karnataka, Thai  Pongal or Uzhavar Thirunal in Tamil Nadu, Pedda Panduga or Makara Sankranthi in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Makara sankranthi in Kerala, Chattisgarh, Goa, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Jammu, Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu in Assam, Magha Mela in parts of Central and North India, Maghi in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, Shishur Saenkraat in the Kashmir Valley, Lohri by North Indian Hindus and Sikhs, Sukarat in Central India, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Kichdi in Uttar Pradesh and West Bihar, Poush Sangkranti in West Bengal and Tila Sakrait in Mithila.

Traditions associated with Makara Sankranthi

Bathing in holy rivers like Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri on the day of Sankranthi is considered to absolve past sins. People also pray to the Sun God for success and prosperity. A shared cultural practice is the making of sticky, bound sweets using sesame (til) and a sugar base such as jaggery (gud, gur). This symbolises togetherness in peace and joy despite the uniqueness and differences between individuals.

Fairs (melas), dances, kite flying, bonfires (Lohri) and feasts are organised in all parts of the country. Every twelve years, one of the world’s largest mass pilgrimage, The Kumbha Mela, with an attendance of estimated 40 to 100 million people takes place to pray to the sun.

In some parts of Karnataka, a newly married woman is required to give away bananas to married women from the first year of her marriage and increase the number of bananas in multiples of five for the next five years. Some households also give away red berries called Yalchi Kai with the bananas. In north Karnataka, kite flying is a tradition. Drawing rangoli in groups is another popular event among women during Sankranti. An important ritual is the display of cows and bulls in colorful costumes in an open field. The cows are decorated for the occasion and taken on a procession and are made to cross a fire in the ritual called Kichchu Haayisuvudu in rural Karnataka.

Kites are a major part of Uttarayan celebration in Gujarat. It is believed that the tradition started as a means of basking in the sun after the long winter days to rid themselves of diseases. It is also believed to wake up the Gods and to offer prayers and thanks to them. Kite flying on Uttarayan is now a major sport with the organization of International Kite Festival where the competition is fierce and preparations begin as early as 6 months prior to the contest.

Traditions in other countries

Nepal celebrates Maghe Sankranti or Maghi or Khichdi Sankranti bringing an end to the ill-omened month of Poush. On this day, the sun is believed to leave its southernmost position and begin its northward journey. The Nepali Hindus bathe at the confluence of rivers and pray to the sun. Cha puja and Nara puja is conducted to protect the community from evil. Festive foods like laddoo, ghee and sweet potatoes are distributed.

Bangladesh celebrates Shakrain or Poush Sangkranti with the flying of kites.

Pakistan (Sindh) celebrates Tirmoori where Sindhi parents send ladoos and chiki made of sesame seeds to their married daughters.

Sri Lankan Tamil farmers honor the Sun God Suriyapakaran on the day that the sun enters the zodiac sign of Capricorn.

Food associated with Makara Sankranthi

Food plays a major role in all Indian festivals and it is the same with Sankranthi. Religious scriptures stipulate six ways in which til (sesame) must be used on this day, including oblation, charity and consumption as food. Til is believed to have been emanated from Vishnu and its usage washes away sins. A more practical explanation for the ubiquitous use of sesame seeds and jaggery for this festival is that both the ingredients help warm the body and are curative during this period of seasonal transition.

Chikkis, laddoos, small pellets of whole sesame and jaggery called rewri, tilkut (brittle made of pounded sesame), gajak (jaggery fudge that is perked up with roasted nuts) are typically made.

In Karnataka, ellu-bella (sesame-jaggery), along with dried coconut squares, roasted peanuts and fried chana dal that is made. Ellu Bella, Ellu Unde, bananas, sugarcane, red berries, haldi and kumkum and small gifts are often exchanged among women in Karnataka.

A rendition of the til laddoo, typically made for Lohri, with mawa and desiccated coconut is made by the Sikhs. In Maharashtra, the customary Makar Sankranti greeting “til gul ghya ani god god bola” (eat sesame seeds and jaggery, and talk sweetly) is usually accompanied by exchange of til gul vadis (a sesame and jaggery fudge traditionally made in moulds). These are often flavoured with cardamom or nutmeg and topped with shreds of desiccated coconut.

In Andhra Pradesh, sesame-crusted, sweetened rice pancakes called ariselu, pakundalu (jaggery-infused rice flour and coconut fritters) and khoya laddoos stuffed with coconut and jaggery are Makar Sankranti favourites. Assam has the iconic til pitha.  In Tamil nadu, it is customary to make two different kinds of pongal with the new rice and moong dal- the sweet, ghee-laced shakkarai pongal enriched with nuts and raisins and savoury ven pongal tempered with mustard, ginger and asafoetida.

All in all, Sankranthi is a festival where people gather outside under the clear blue sky and celebrate the end of the cold winter months and the end of a hard year of harvest. They look forward to sunny days and pray for a bountiful year ahead. Social gatherings and feasts pave way for the community to come together and forms bonds that were an important part of the olden way of life.

What are some of the harvest festivals that you know of? Do you celebrate the summer solstice? Tell me more on the comments below.