Come, celebrate the sun

The sun is off on his travel to the northern hemisphere. So, it's time to make merry as we wish him a wonderful journey.

Updated - January 10, 2011 06:30 pm IST

Published - January 10, 2011 06:29 pm IST

For a sweet pongal: A little sugarcane. Photo: L. Balachandar

For a sweet pongal: A little sugarcane. Photo: L. Balachandar

You must have been hearing about the skyrocketing prices of veggies recently. Your moms must have been complaining but have you been secretly cheering that this means less icky stuff on your plate?

Have you wondered why this is happening? One of the reasons (there are many) is a poor harvest. Whether the cause was weather (unseasonal rain or drought), soil fertility or farming methods, the end result is that both the farmer and those who buy what he produces suffer. I can hear you ask: why all this now?

Because at the end of the week India will celebrate its harvest festival: Sankaranti (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal); Pongal (Tamil Nadu), Lohri (Punjab), Bhogali Bihu (Assam)...

Sankaranti means transition or crossing over and the term refers to the sun's movement through the different zodiac signs. Remember we're talking lunar calendar here, so though the signs are similar the dates will be different. This means there are 12 sankarantis, since the sun moves through all the zodiacs at some point in the year. But the most important sankaranti — celebrated as a festival — is the one that's just coming up: Makara Sankaranti or the sun's transition from Dhanur rasi (Sagittarius) to Makara rasi (Capricorn), which marks Uttarayan or the sun's northward journey bringing it closer to the northern hemisphere.

The festival is also a reminder of man's move to a settled agrarian life. As a farmer, man needed to watch the weather eye open and that meant keeping an eye on the heavens above. Obviously the sun's movement came in for some attention.

Different states, different cultures, different styles

Uttar Pradesh: Makara Sankaranti is the beginning of the month-long Magh Mela at Allahabad. People also gather here for a dip in the holy sangam. In the hilly areas of Uttaranchal, Ghugutia welcomes the birds back from the winter migration. Sweets are made in the shape of drums, knives or swords are strung into a necklace. Bits are broken off to offer the birds as the children sing a folk song Kale kauva.

West Bengal: Ganga Sagar (where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal) is the scene of a huge mela. According to Hindu mythology, this is where the Ganga is believed to have sunk into the netherworld to liberate the ancestors of King Bhagirath. A special sweet called Pithey is made from the freshly harvested paddy, Khejurer Gur (date palm syrup), coconut and milk.

Maharashtra and Gujarat: This is a time to forgive and forget. People give each other sesame (til) sweets with the words: Til gul guhya, god god bola” (take these til sweets and speak good words). Women have special haldi-kumkum get-togethers. Gujarat also hosts a kite festival at this time.

Orissa: Makar Mela is held at various places including Cuttack, Puri and Balasore. The special dish here is Makar chaula made of uncooked newly harvested rice, banana, coconut, paneer and milk. The Bhuya tribals of Orissa have a Magh Yatra, in which they sell home made items. Bonfires are lit and community feasts are the order of the day.

Tamil Nadu: A three-day festival, Tamil Nadu enjoys a long holiday in the middle of the month, thanks to Pongal. The first day is Bhogi when all old stuff is cast off. Earlier it meant, people re-thatched their houses and burnt the old thatch with leftovers from the fields and used the ashes as manure. Today, Bhogi bonfires are a major cause of pollution in cities. Sankaranti is Pongal. A pot of milk and rice is allowed to boil over signifying 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 festival has similarities with that of both Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Like Maatu Pongal, there is a day to worship cattle. Like Maharashtra, sesame sweets are the order of the day.

Punjab: Lohri begins on the eve of Makar Sankranti. Sweets, sugarcane and rice are thrown into huge bonfires, while villagers dance around it and sing traditional folk songs. On Maghi, people gather in religious places. The day also commemorates the Chali Mukte or the 40 Liberated Ones who died defending Guru Gobind Singh from the Mughal army.

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

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