Makar Sankranti – Indian festival of harvest
Makar Sankranti traditionally coincides with the beginning of the sun’s northward journey called uttarayan when it enters the sign of Makar (Capricorn) on the 14th of January every year. This day is considered to the most auspicious day for Hindus when days and nights are of equal length.
Update Jan 8, 2008: Links updated at the end of this post and 3 Sweet Pongal Recipes posted here
In the Mahabharata, Bhishma who lay wounded on a bed of arrows is said to have been waiting for the period of Uttarayan to set in, in order to breathe his last since it was believed that a person escapes the cycle of rebirth if he dies on this day.
According to legends, a deity is said to have slayed Shankarasur, a demon and hence the name Sankranti.
Makar Sankranthi / Pongal celebrated around India
Makar Sankranti is celebrated all over India. Sesame seeds (til) is used in sweet preparations. Sesame contains oil and is soft. Sweets prepared with sesame signify love and tender feelings.
People of Maharashtra prepare Tilgud, Til laddus and Til polis and exchange them with relatives and friends saying Til gul ghaya, god bola (accept these tilguds and speak sweet words). It is a special day for women.
In Gujarat too, the day is celebrated much the same way. Gifts are presented by elders of the family to the younger lots. In Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh, Sankranti heralds the onset of spring and the kite-flying season.
Natives of Bundelkand in Madhya Pradesh celebrate Sakarat with pomp and lots of sweets. In Uttar Pradesh, it’s called Khichdi. A month long Kumbh mela is held at the Prayag (confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the Saraswati rivers) and people take holy dips in this meeting palce.
For the Bengalis, it is the last day of the month of paush. They bathe at the Millat Ganga Sagar where Ganga is believed to have vivified the ashes of 60000 ancestors of bhagirath.
In Orissa, tribals light bonfires, dance on this day, for them the New Year. The Bhuya tribes of Orissa have Maghyatra and even have a sale of homemade articles.
For the Assamese, Maagh Bihu signifies the end of harvesting period and a time for feasting from their crop. It is also called Bhogaali Bihu or the festival of food.
For the south Indians, especially Tamilians, Pongal is a very important festival. Here again it is associated with harvest and is celebrated for 3 days. On the eve of Pongal, called the Bhogi, bonfires are lit and all old belongings are thrown into this fire. This is to signify the arrival of the new season. On Pongal day, rice is boiled in a pot of milk and sweetened with jaggery with everybody shouting “Pongalo Pongal”. Worship of the Sun God is an essential part of the festival. Maattu Pongal, the next day after Pongal, is a thanksgiving to the cattle where the cattle are decorated and fed well.
In Kerala, Sabarimala witnesses huge number of devotees from all over the country to witness the Makra Jyoti. The deity here, Lord Aiyappa is worshipped here and food offerings especially Ghee is made by the devotees of all castes.
Thus Makar Sankranti, Pongal, or Bihu is celebrated with great pomp in India to welcome in the new season and the victory of good over evil.
More Pongal resources: