By Dr Rabin Das
Today, more than ever, we need to come together to understand the interconnectedness of people, faith and, of course, nature in our lives. It is only by recognizing the sacredness of all creation can we honour and protect it. It is exciting to see we have a reason to celebrate every season with friends and family. Today’s celebration of Makar Sankranti is a Hindu celebration of science and spirituality.
Among the most important Hindu festivals (utsav), Makar Sankranti deserves special mention on several counts: astronomical, agricultural, religious, economic, mythological and social. Hailing from an agrarian society, Hindus traditionally observe festivals in all seasons, offering prayers to their deities, seeking blessings and celebrating in a unique way in recognition of their connectedness to the five elements of the creation, namely earth, fire, air, water, space that make up the universe of which the Earth is a part. This is the dimension of the sacredness of Nature with its invisible and invincible forces, which makes them look upon the Earth as the ‘Mother’ who nourishes all of us.
There are twelve sankrantis, but the most important one is known as Makar Sankranti, celebrated on 14th January each year in several countries: India, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, America, Britain and Canada. In Sanskrit, makar means crocodile (L: Capricorn), sankranti means ascension or upward journey of the Sun, the Pratakshya Brahman (manifest Almighty), from one zodiac position to another. The Sun, self-effulgent, glorious divinity, ascends at this time towards the North zodiac position of Sagittarius (Dhanu) to Capricorn. The festival or utsav signifies removal of grief; ‘ut’ means removal and ‘sava’ is grief. It lasts for four days starting on 13th January, and marks the gradual waning of wintry dark nights and the onset of shining days of the spring season.
Known under different names…
This great festival is celebrated throughout India, but known under different local names such as Pongal (boiling) in Tamil Nadu, Pedha Panduga (big festival) in Andhra Pradesh, Lohri (loh: light or warmth of fire and revri: crisp toffee like dessert made from gur, spices and sesame) in Punjab, Maghi in Haryana and Himachal, Uttarayan in Gujarat and Rajasthan, Magh or Bhogali Bihu in Assam, Shishur (winter) Sankraat in Kashmir valley, and in Kerala it is known as Makara Vilakku. In Laos it is called Pi Ma Lao, in Thailand it is Songkran, whereas in Myanmar it is Thingyan. In Nepal, it is known as Maghe Sakrati and in Cambodia Moha Sangkran.
Nature and method of observance of the festival
It is celebrated in mid-January at the end of harvest season, i.e., month of Magh or Margashirsha of Hindu Calendar.
1st day: The day before the festival the house is cleaned, whitewashed and all old, broken furniture or worn-out items are set ablaze in a bonfire (Bhogi festival) and replaced with new items. In this way negative energies are dispelled ushering in new positive energy and vigour. On the first day, at sunrise (Brahma Muhurta) Hindus take their holy bath in a river and worship Lord Indra, the celestial god for rain.
2nd day: The Hindu women adept in making patterns known as kolam (Malayalam), rangoli (Marathi) or alpona (Bengali) with coloured rice powder, do so in front of the doors and on the floor. These depict the sun, the moon, the swastika, and the mangala kalash (pitcher). Mango leaves and flowers are used to decorate the house beautifully, as a heavenly abode on Earth. The main festival is observed on the second day. Newly harvested rice is boiled in new vessels, and everybody participates wearing in new clothes and ornaments. Milk, milk-made sweets, fresh jaggery, vegetables, kheer (rice pudding) etc., are prepared.
At an auspicious moment in the morning the priest makes oblations to the Sun and the Moon and offers, first to the Earth and all surrounding creatures, the season’s first food prepared as a gesture of gratitude. The conches are blown, the Gayatri mantra (om bhur bhuva swaha, tat savitur varenyam; bhargo devasya dhimahi, dhio yonah prachodayat) is chanted and cymbals are played. The children spend time in gaiety. The relations visit each other’s house, sinking all the differences and bitterness of the year past and bonds of love, respect and affection are established afresh. Makar festival is incomplete without kite flying and til laddus (sweets made up of sesame and jaggery). In North India it is common to hear a song:
Mithe Gur me mil gaye Til; Udi patang aur khil gaye Dil,
Jeevan me bani rahe Sukh and Shanti: Jai ho aap ko Makar Sankranti.
3rd day: The cows and bulls, an indispensable part in a farmer’s life, are decorated with new colourful ropes, jingle-bells are tied around their necks and embroidered clothes put on their body to protect them from the cold. The priest comes to pay homage to them with flower garlands and chants a Vedic mantra, ‘Gau brahmana hitaye cha’! The cattle are free on this day, and are fed lovingly with freshly harvested boiled rice, sugarcanes, lush green grass, vegetables and leaves of trees.
4th day: This marks the end of the festival. In the early morning, Hindu males go to a nearby river or the Ganges to pray and offer tarpana to their ancestors. Then with the family and children they go to picnic spots where they offer prayers in honour of the goddess of the forest, trees and wild animals. Nowadays people flock from far and wide to West Bengal at Ganga Sagar Mela to pray at Kapil Muni’s Ashram for their ancestors. Thus the age-old traditional Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti ends with blessings from the elders, ancestors, gods, Mother Earth and her five elements in joy and merry-making.
1. Astronomical: it marks the beginning of auspicious Uttarayana, the Sun’s northward ascension for six months as opposed to ominous Dakshinaayana, the southward movement. Scientifically speaking, unlike other Hindu festivals based on lunar Hindu calendar, Makar Sankranti is the only solar festival. The dates of all other festivals change except Makar which has remained fairly constant for many thousands of years. In the past millennium, this Makar festival had been held on 21st December and 5000 years later, the same would be held at the end of February of Gregorian calendar.
2. Agricutural: Agrarian Hindu communities all over the world celebrate the Makar festival with much enthusiasm. During the winter months before the harvest, the hard-working farmers undergo extreme anxiety and uncertainty about the crops. Everything is held off and awaits the rich harvest of winter (kharif) crops which become ready to reap, and hard cash flows, allowing for new transactions and enterprises.
3. Religious: Oft-quoted in Rig Veda, Indra, the god of rain (which is the most precious requirement for farming) is worshipped on the first day. The Sun, the symbol of divinity and wisdom, the source of energy or life personified and Moon, the sap or juice of plants and vegetables, are venerated on the second day. Mother Earth, the cows and bulls, which are essential for the cultivation of rural India, are similarly honoured on the third day. On the final day, the indispensable part and parcel of Hindu life, the forest and wild life are also offered prayers with utmost devotion.
4. Economic: All important events such as weddings and the sacred thread ceremony, purchase of gold, property, land and cattle, etc., are scheduled at this time. All old household items are replaced with new ones. Everybody wears new dresses. Women purchase new ornaments. Cartloads of new crops are sold in the market. A very big Ganga Sagar Mela (fair) is organized every year on this day at the confluence of river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, and it is a massive economic activity. Similarly, Magh Mela occurs every year in Prayag (Allahabad). Purna Kumbha Melas are held during this Makar Sankranti at four places: Hardwar, Prayag, Nasik and Ujjain at twelve-yearly intervals.
5. Mythological – a) In the Purana, it is described that Surya (Sun) father of Shani (Saturn; Lord of Makara), though cross with him, meets the son on this day and stays for a month in his house. In the Purana, Uttarayan or Devayana, most auspicious time, is the daytime of gods and Dakshinayana or Pitrayana, ominous time happens to be the night of the gods; b) Lord Vishnu, embodiment of righteousness destroyed the Asura or Demons (the negative forces) by burying them in Mandara parvat; c) Maharaj Vagirath, after great penance and austerity, fetched river Ganges from heaven down to earth to liberate his cursed ancestors, 60,000 sons of Maharaj Sagar, who were burnt to ashes at the hermitage of the great sage Kapila, presently at the confluence of the Ganges and Bay of Bengal. Millions of Hindus follow his footsteps to liberate their forefathers by doing tarpana, a special prayer to God with water from Ganges where it meets the sea; d) Another well-known anecdote is that the great-grand father of the Mahabharata, Bhisma, one of the Astavasus (eight gods), lying on a bed of arrows, declared his last desire to leave his mortal frame on this auspicious day to make an equally auspicious Uttarayan journey for ever; e). Lastly, on this day of Makara Sankranti, the10th Sikh Guru Govind Singh tore the pages from ‘Bedava’ (be: without and dava: claim), a written document disowning Guru by Bhai Mahan Singh and his 40 Sikh soldiers in the battle of Khidrana, now Muktsar in 1705 AD, and redeemed those brave warriors from the sin of treachery.
6. Social: This day symbolizes a special relationship day among friends and foes. Relatives meet and greet each other forsaking the bitterness of the past year. The father visits his sons leaving aside differences. Elders bless the younger ones. Sisters give gifts to brothers. It is simply a unique festivity of zeal and fervour, pomp and grandeur. Brothers give gifts such as saris and ornaments to their married sisters. Landlords give gifts such as blankets, sugarcanes, pumpkins and other items useful in winter to their workforce. People get ample opportunity to socialize with each other on this day. The cock-fighting in Andhra, bull-fighting in Tamil Nadu and Elephant Mela in Kerala are associated with a huge amount of illegal betting, and this continues as a tradition in this festival. Another notable feature of this Makar festival in South India is the tradition of Haridas (beggars) who sing, ‘til gul gaya; god god bola’ (take sesame sweets and talk sweetly), beg for alms and wish good luck to everybody.
The ultimate purpose of each religious festival observed by Hindus is to sing in praise of the Almighty and his creation. It is through festivals, pilgrimages and temple worship that Hindus experience their dharma. In the modern age, many Hindus are living outside India amidst alien cultures and influences, and festivals like Makar Sankranti serve as a reminder of their Hindu identity, the legacy of their ancestral lineage, traditions and ideals.
Dr Rabindranath Das is Professor, Department of Medicine, at the SSR Medical College, Belle Rive
You are welcome to contribute. Write to:
* Published in print edition on 12 January 2013