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Not all tidings received in the middle of nights are ominous. But with the ringing of the bells on every 31st December, the world greets another New Year. The bells that tong world over are the harbinger of forthcoming prosperity, sunshine and happiness
in the New Year ahead.

In India, the New Year begins with Makar Sankranti – a very important religious observance and festival of the Indians. On this day, the sun travels from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, in a motion referred to as ‘uttarayan’. The festival falls on the 14th of January every year according to the Solar Calendar and indicates the end of winter and the beginning of summer. This day has a very special significance because the day and night on Makar Sankranti are of equal hours. This day is celebrated as a festival right from the times of the Aryans and is looked upon as the most auspicious day by the Hindus.

The Indo Gangetic plain begins celebrating Sankranti with taking dips in the River Ganga and offering water to the Sun god. Bathing in the confluence of the river Ganges and Jamuna is important and called the Prayag Snan. The dip is said to wash away all the sins and purify the self and bestow ‘punya’. A special prayer is offered as a thanksgiving for good harvest. According to folklore, girls who take the holy dip get handsome husbands and boys get beautiful brides.

Celebrations of the harvest festival ‘Makar Sankranti’ differ from region to region in India. However the use of sesame usually called ‘til’ is found in all the states. Til and rice are two important ingredients of this festival. Til or sesame seeds contain lot of oil and have a quality of softness in them. ‘Til-gul’ is a symbol of friendship. The festival is symbolized by the distribution of this til-gul – meaning sesame seed and jaggery. The sesame brimming with fragrant and delicious oil, stands for friendship and comradeship and jaggery for the sweetness of speech and behavior. The distribution of til-gul, therefore, forms a touching aspect of the Makar Sankranti celebration. Therefore, firstly the use of sesame in sweets is good for health and secondly being soft, their exchange means exchange of love and tender feelings. People are encouraged to emulate the quality of ‘til-gul’ and stick together in permanent union and love.

During Sankranti, the people of Maharashtra exchange multi-colored til-guls made from sesame seeds and sugar and til-laddus made from sesame and jaggery. Til-polis are offered for lunch and these are specialties of Maharashtra. Maharashtrian women are proud of their excellence in preparing these delicacies. While exchanging til-guls as tokens of goodwill people greet each other saying – “til-gul ghya, goad goad bola” meaning “accept these til-guls and speak sweetly”. The idea behind this exchange is to forget the existing ill feelings and hostilities and resolve to speak sweetly and be friends. This is a special day for married women who are invited for a get-together called ‘Haldi-Kumkoo’ – Turmeric and Vermillon ceremony and they are given a gift of a utensil, which the woman of the house purchases on that day.

‘Uttarayan’ also marks the change of winds, hence in the state of Gujarat it is celebrated by filling the skies with kites in order to compliment and challenge the strong winds. The Gujaratis observe the festival in the same manner as Maharashtrians but with a difference. The elders in the family give gifts to the younger family members. The Gujarati Pundits on this auspicious day grant scholarships to students for higher studies in astrology and philosophy. This festival among the Gujaratis thus helps the maintenance of social relationships within the family, caste and community.

While the festival is celebrated as Bhogali Bihu in Assam, in Punjab the eve of Sankranti is celebrated as ‘Lohri’ and it marks the end of winter. One of the most important parts of the Lohri festival is the bonfire. The countryside is dotted by bonfires around which people gather to meet friends and relatives and sing folk songs and Bhangra dance. It is part of the festival to throw sweets, puffed rice and popcorn into the fire. A puja is performed besides the bonfire and the ‘Prasad’ comprises of six main things: til, gazak, gur, moongphali, phuliya and popcorn is distributed. Children go from door to door singing and ask for the Lohri prasad. This is particularly a happy occasion for the couples who for the first time celebrated Lohri after their marriage and also first Lohri of a new born child either a girl or a boy in a family. The following day, which is Sankranti is celebrated as ‘Maghi’.

In Tamil Nadu, Makar Sankranti, called the ‘Pongal’ is a three-day harvest festival that is celebrated predominantly. It is worship for the Sun God. Pongal takes its name from the surging of rice boiled in a pot of milk. It is celebrated to mark the withdrawal of the southeast monsoons as well as the reaping of the harvest. The advent of Pongal is associated with spring-cleaning and burning of rubbish, symbolizing the destruction of evil. Decorative designs or rangolis are traced on floors and on the day of the Pongal, the newly harvested rice is cooked in homes to acclaim the bounty of the gods. Pongal denotes a sweet preparation made from rice. Rice and pulses cooked together in ghee and milk is offered to the family deity after the ritual worship. Each of the three days is marked by different festivities. The first day, Bhogi Pongal, is a day for the family. The second day, Surya Pongal, is dedicated to the worship of Surya, the Sun God. Boiled milk and jaggery is offered to the Sun God and friends greet each other asking, ‘Is it boiled?’ And they answer: ‘Yes, it is.’ The third day of Pongal, Mattu Pongal, is for the worship of cattle known as ‘mattu’. Cattle are bathed, their horns polished and painted in bright colors, and garlands placed around their necks. The pongal that has been offered to the Gods is then given to cattle and birds to eat. In Chennai, a rath yatra procession is taken out from the Kandaswamy Temple. In Madurai, Tanjore and Tiruchirrapalli, where Pongal is known as Jellikattu, bundles of money are tied to the horns of bulls, and villagers get the bundles from them. The animals are decorated and are included in some races, both to entertain and to boost their endurance capacity. These races include cockfights, bull fights and ram fights. All the three days, rich and poor alike, have a good time.
In Uttar Pradesh, Sankranti is called ‘Kicheri’. A ritual bath in the river is important and mandatory on this day and according to a popular local belief in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, one who does not bathe on Makara Sankranti is born a donkey in his next birth. The belief probably originated in cold climates to compel some reluctant people to observe certain rules of hygiene. So a bath on this day is very important in the confluence at Prayag where the rivers Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswathi flow together.

In Karnataka, during Sankranti the family attired in colorful tunics visit friends and relatives and exchange pieces of sugarcane, a mixture of fried sesame, molasses, pieces of dry coconut, peanuts and fried gram. The significance of this exchange is that sweetness should prevail in all dealings. As part of the festival, cows and bulls are given a wash and the horns are painted with bright colors and decorated with garland. In the evening, the cattle are led out in procession to the beat of drums and music. In the night a bonfire is lit and the animals are made to jump over the fire.

Makar Sankranti is a big event for the people of Andhra Pradesh. They call it the ‘Pedda Panduga’ meaning the big festival. The whole event lasts for four days. The first day Bhogi, the second day Sankranti, the third day Kanuma, and the fourth day, Mukkanuma. People in rural Andhra look forward to this harvest festival, which has different attractions for different people. Farmers give new clothes and grain to the laborers who work for them. Houses are spruced up, cattle are bathed and decorated. Womenfolk vie with each other displaying their skills drawing a variety of eye-catching and artistic flower patterns on the floor in their neatly swept front yards sprinkled with cow-dung and water.

The tribals in India too celebrate Makar Sankranti. They begin their New Year from the day of Sankranti by lighting bonfires, dancing and eating their particular dishes sitting together. The Bhuya tribals of Orissa have their Maghyatra in which small homemade articles are put for sale. There is also a fair in the Western Ghats at a place called Shabari Mala, where the temple of the Community Goddess is decorated with dazzling lights. The Goddess is worshipped by touchables and untouchables and the ‘bhog’ to the Goddess is cooked by both. Experts say that this festival comes to the Indians from those olden times when the caste system did not exist in India as it emphasizes on communal harmony. Thus we see that this festival symbolizes the victory of Order over Chaos and of Love over Hate.

Makar Sankranti has become so popular that it has turned into an International Kite Festival and on January 14 people from all over the world go to Ahmedabad and fly exotic kites of various designs and shapes. Kites and ‘manjha’ are sold everywhere. Manjha is a line that holds the kite and it is cured with a special mix of glue and ground glass. It is a joyous day with a bright sun, clear skies and breezes strong enough to lift the kites aloft. After dusk, the kites carry oil lamps, lighting the city in splendor. Friends, neighbors and strangers battle for supremacy and cries of triumph rend the air when someone cuts the line of a rival.

We have below the recipe of the Indian sesame sweet specially prepared for Makar Sankranti:

2 cups cleaned white sesame
2 cups grated jaggery
1/4 teaspoon ginger powder
1 ½ teaspoon powder of cardamoms
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg powder
1 ½ cups refined flour
oil as required.
• Rub in 1 ½ tablespoon oil, a pinch of salt to the flour and knead into soft dough and cover it with a wet cloth.
• Heat sesame in a pan on low fire, stirring continuously so that they do not splutter. When cooled, pound them.
• Add the grated jaggery and pound once more to make the mixture even and smooth.
• Mix powders of cardamoms and nutmeg.
• Make small balls of the ready dough.
• Place a ball in the left-hand palm and make an indentation in the middle and in this hollow put a small portion of the mixture.
• Pull up the sides, gather at the top and press down.
• Smear a wooden board with oil, place the stuffed ball on it and roll out into a thin circular round.
• Using enough oil fry it on griddle to deep golden color till it is crisp.
• Roll out the rest and the Til Polis are ready.

On Makar Sankranti the biggest religious fair on the face of the earth, called the Mela, is held once in twelve years at the holy confluence of Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. The ‘Kumbha Mela’ draws one crore of devotees from all castes and creeds, sects and languages, states and provinces, saints and commoners. Sankranti, which signifies light, also gives the message of intellectual illumination. It is the capacity to discriminate between the right and the wrong, the just and the unjust, truth and falsehood, virtue and vice. The festival is a vital significance for national welfare – the warmth of love and fellow feeling among the people of a country that ultimately makes them stand up in unison in adversity or in prosperity. In short, Makar Sankranti embodies the ardent prayer of every Hindu heart and for every Sanskrit lover it reads like this: –

Asato maa sadgamaya
Tamaso maa jyotirgamaya
Mrityoormaa amritam gamaya

Lead me, O Lord, from untruth to Truth
from darkness to Light and
from death to Immortality.

Shanti Mahadevan
(2068 words)