Makara Sankranti will soon be upon us. But what's it all about? It is the sun's movement from one zodiac sign to another.

Just back from Christmas vacation, it's time for another set of holidays. Unfortunately this year Makara Sankranti falls on a Sunday. So that's one holiday wasted. Makara Sankranti is known by different names across India: Sankranti (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal); Pongal (Tamil Nadu), Lohri (Punjab), Bhogali Bihu (Assam)...

But why is Makara Sankranti a holiday? Sankranti (transition or crossing over) refers to the sun's movement through the zodiac signs. Most of us can reel off the 12 signs of the zodiac but here we're referring to the lunar calendar. So while you can still say Capricorn, Sagittarius and Aquarius, the dates will be different from the solar calendar, which is what you get to see if you look at your daily/weekly forecast in the newspaper.

Remember the sun moves through all the zodiac signs through the year, so there are actually 12 sankrantis. But the most important of all is the one that falls this Sunday: Makara Sankranti, which marks the sun's transition from Dhanur rasi (Sagittarius) to Makara rasi (Capricorn).

This also means the sun is on its northward journey or Uttarayan bringing it closer to the northern hemisphere.

Today all this info may not mean much to us but it meant a great deal to the early farmers. It's an indication of how early man — as he moved from a hunting-gathering nomadic life to an agrarian settled life — needed to keep an eye on weather patterns. Think of it as the beginning of our more sophisticated weather forecasts.

This is also the time that farmers across India offer thanks for a good harvest. Most of us buy our groceries from supermarkets so we don't really worry too much about the weather unless it spoils our plans. But spare a thought for those whose livelihoods are dependent on the vagaries of Nature. Newspapers tell us how farmers in India face problems like drought and flooding. So join them as they celebrate a good harvest.

How it's done:

Uttar Pradesh: It's time for the month-long Magh Mela at Allahabad, as people gather to have a dip in the sangam. In Uttaranchal's hills, the festival is called Ghugutia. As the birds return from their winter migration, they are offered sweets in the shape of drums, knives or swords. These are strung into a necklace, as children sing a Kale kauva, a folk song.

West Bengal: Again it's mela time at Ganga Sagar (where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal). This is the spot where, according to Hindu mythology, the Ganga sank to the netherworld to liberate the ancestors of King Bhagirath. This is also the time for Pithey, a special sweet made of freshly harvested paddy, Khejurer Gur (date palm syrup), coconut and milk.

Maharashtra and Gujarat: Sesame (til) sweets are exchanged with the words: Til gul guhya, god god bola” (take these til sweets and speak good words). Women have special haldi-kumkum get-togethers. In Gujarat the kite festival is popular.

Orissa: Most places play host to the Makar Mela and Makar chaula — made of uncooked newly harvested rice, banana, coconut, paneer and milk — is a must. The Magh Yatra is the celebration of the Bhuya tribals. Bonfires are lit and community feasts are held.

Tamil Nadu: The state enjoys a long holiday in the middle of the month, thanks to the festival. The first day is Bhogi. All old stuff is cast off. In farming communities people re-thatch their houses and burn the old thatch with leftovers from the fields and use the ashes as manure. However the tradition of Bhogi bonfires has become a major cause of pollution in cities, with people resorting to burning any garbage they can lay their hands on including rubber and plastic. Sankaranti is Pongal. A pot of milk and rice is allowed to boil to signify overflowing prosperity. The third day — Maatu Pongal — is when the farmer's friend, the cow, is worshipped. Andhra Pradesh follows a more or less similar line.

Karnataka: The state borrows elements from both Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. A day to worship cattle just like the Tamil Maatu Pongal. Like Maharashtra, sesame sweets are the order of the day.

Punjab: Lohri begins on the evening before Makar Sankranti. Bonfires are lit and sweets, sugarcane and rice are thrown in, as villagers dance and sing traditional folk songs. On Maghi, people gather in religious places. Sankaranti is also the day to remember the Chali Mukte or the 40 Liberated Ones who died defending Guru Gobind Singh from the Mughal army.

Assam: Magh or Bhogali Bihu is celebrated with a huge bonfire (meji). The firewood is got mostly by stealing. On Sankaranti, the bonfire is lit and a community feast held. The ashes are strewn on the fields and orchards to increase fertility.