Thoughts & Ideas

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Celebrating Makar Sankranti
Til good dh, good good bola!

Makara Sankranti is one of those truly pan-Indian festivals celebrated with great fan-fare in almost all parts of India, as well as in Nepal and  South East Asia countries, in a myriad of cultural forms with distinct names, rituals, mythologies, and associated legends. It is known as Pongal in Tamil Nadu; Bihu in Assam; Khichadi  in parts of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh; Uttarayan in Gujarat; Maghi in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab (the day before, people of Punjab celebrate Lohri); Shishur Saenkraat in the Kashmir Valley; and Makara Sankramana in Karnataka.

In other South East Asian countries the day is celebrated but under different names and in different ways, eg, in Nepal as Maghe Sankranti , in Thailand as Songkran, in Laos as Pi Ma Lao, in Myanmar as Thingyan, in Cambodia as Moha Sangkran and in Sri Lanka as Pongal and Uzhavar Thirunal. 

Makara Sankranti marks the transition of the Sun into the zodiac sign of Makara rashi (Capricorn) on its celestial path. It is a solar event making it one of the few Indian festivals which fall on the same date in the Gregorian calendar every year - 14 January, with some exceptions when the festival is celebrated on 13 or 15 January. The movement of the Sun from one zodiac sign into another is called Sankranti and as the Sun moves into the Capricorn zodiac known as Makara in Sanskrit, this occasion is named as Makara Sankranti. The day is also believed to mark the arrival of spring in India, is a traditional harvest festival, and also marks the cessation of the northeast monsoon in South India. 

In popular conception the date on which Makar Sankranti is celebrated remains almost constant with respect to the Gregorian calendar, however, precession of the Earth's axis (called ayanamsa) causes Makara Sankranti to move over the ages. A thousand years ago, Makara Sankranti occurred on 31 December and is now on 15th January.

Makara Sankranti is also regarded as the beginning of an auspicious phase in Indian culture. It is said as the 'holy phase of transition'. It marks the end of an inauspicious phase which according to the Hindu calendar begins around mid-December. It is believed that any auspicious and sacred ritual can be sanctified in any Hindu family, this day onwards. Scientifically, this day marks the beginning of warmer and longer days compared to the nights. In other words, Sankranti marks the termination of winter season and beginning of a new harvest or spring season in the northern hemisphere.

Many Indians conflate this festival with the Winter Solstice, and believe that the sun ends its southward journey (Sanskrit: Dakshinayana) at the Tropic of Capricorn, and starts moving northward (Sanskrit: Uttarayaana) towards the Tropic of Cancer, in the month of Pausha on this day in mid-January.

There is no observance of Winter Solstice in the Hindu religion. Further, the Sun makes its northward journey on the day after winter solstice when day light increases. Therefore, Makara Sankranti signifies the celebration of the day following the day of winter solstice.

Scientifically, currently in the Northern Hemisphere, winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 22. Day light starts to increase from 22nd December and on this day, the Sun begins its northward journey which marks Uttarayaana. The date of winter solstice changes gradually due to the Axial precession of the Earth, coming earlier by approximately 1 day in every 70 years. 

Happy Sankranti – or as the Marathis say “til good dh, good good bola”