One of the charms of cultural diversity in India lies in its various festivals and their observance. There are not just different festivals but also the same festival which goes by different names and celebrated in different ways. The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is one such example. While this is how it is known in the Hindi heartland of the country, in Karnataka it is called Suggi Habba; Pongal in Tamil Nadu; Magh Bihu in Assam; Shishur Saenkraat in Kashmir; and Lohri in Punjab. Not just that, in Nepal it is known as Khichdi Sankranti; in Bangladesh, it is Poush Sangkranti; and, Tirmoori in the Sindh region of Pakistan.
The other interesting aspect of Makar Sankranti is that it is perhaps the only Hindu festival that has a fixed date every year: January 14. Most other festivals, whether it is Diwali, Holi, Krishna Janmashtami, Ram Navami, Raksha Bandhan etc, come on different dates in different years, according to the Hindu calendar. While many other festivals are observed according to the lunar calendar, this one is based on the solar (or Gregorian) calendar, and thus it’s extremely rare for the date to shift. The other common feature of Makar Sankranti, in whatever way it is celebrated across the country, is that it heralds the harvest season — a reminder of the connection between nature and religion and the role of farming in our cultural ethos.
That Makar Sankranti should be based on the solar calendar is not surprising, given that it is in obeisance to the Sun god or Surya. It marks the first day of the sun’s transit into Capricorn (Makar), bringing along longer days and the beginning of the end of the winter solstice. The Sun god has played an important role in Hindu tradition, and the Gayatri Mantra from the Rig Veda is dedicated to Savitr — a form of the Sun god. It has been not just absorbed by Hindus worldwide but has also been a subject of many dissertations by scholars. Several interpretations and translations have been offered across the decades by academics ranging from Monier Monier-Williams to Sir William Jones, Swami Vivekananda and S Radhakrishnan. There are also many temples in the country dedicated to the Sun god. At the same time, the sun is also an energy-giver, and, therefore, significant outside of the religious connotation. Surya Namaskar as an element of Yoga should, therefore, not be confused with being part of the Hindu form of worship but a symbolic act of acknowledgement of a star (the sun) in the sustainment of humanity.
Given the variety with which Makar Sankranti is celebrated, it would be no exaggeration to say that it perfectly reflects India’s unity in diversity. This unity of diversity is a message to not just Indians but the global community as well. After all, the Sun god is an important deity across the world. In Greek mythology, it is referred to as Apollo (Olympian god of light), Helios (Titan god of light), Neaera (goddess of the rising sun); the Incans believed in Inti (Sun god and patron of the Inca empire); in Mayan mythology, Ah Kin was the god of the Sun, the protector against evils associated with darkness and the Turks too have a solar goddess named Gun Ana. There are so many more that it’s difficult to list them all here. The Africans alone have as many as four deities, and the Australian aboriginal mythology list no less than five (and so do the Aztecs). The Celts have an even longer list — almost 10 deities either directly or indirectly related to the solar wonder.
The sheer variance in the celebration of Makar Sankranti is a lesson in itself about India’s syncretic culture. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it’s a four-day event marked by decoration and sumptuous feeding of cattle, the lighting of a bonfire in the nights to get rid of the old and herald the replacement of the new, and recreational activities such as bullock race and kite flying. The last bit is the highlight in Gujarat, where the festival is known as Uttarayan. In the north and parts of east India, such as Jharkhand, Makar Sankranti is an occasion for the distribution of khichdi — a popular dish with a mix of rice and lentil primarily. In fact, in many of Uttar Pradesh, Makar Sankranti is also referred to simply as the festival of ‘khichdi’. The Pongal event in Tamil Nadu is a colourful celebration, with people placing leaves of Neem over the roofs and walls of their homes to ward off evil and indulging in various sweet dishes. The festival of taming wild bulls — Jallikattu — is also part of the tradition. Of course, in recent months, Jallikattu has acquired a controversial character with the Supreme Court banning the practice and the Government making amendments to the law to enable the tradition to continue with certain safeguards.
But the biggest highlight — nationally speaking — of Makar Sankranti is the Kumbh Mela (fair). When held on the banks of Triveni in Allahabad — where the confluence of the Ganga, the Jamuna and the now invisible Saraswati rivers take place — it becomes the world’s largest human gathering in one region for nearly a month. The Kumbh is also held at Nashik, Haridwar and Ujjain. The Kumbh fair does not happen every year — its observance is generally once in 12 years at any given place in the Purna Kumbh (or full Kumbh) form — but when it does, it is always to mark Makar Sankranti. The Kumbh Mela has recently been inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In Allahabad, it is slated to be held in 2019, for which Uttar Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has invited the former Nepal king — who recently paid a visit to Lucknow and met the Chief Minister.
It is said that in the tussle between gods and the evil forces during the churning of the ocean, drops of nectar had fallen on certain places, and these have become the site of the Kumbh fair. The fight between good and evil goes on in this era too, and Makar Sankranti is an apt occasion to not just revel but also introspect on whether we are on the right side of law and religion.
(The writer is Visiting Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal).