Lohri is here. If one were to understand India’s diversity, one may study the so many names and rituals with which this Sankranti is celebrated all over India in mid January. Yet none can miss the underlying unity that binds all of India during this exact time of the year.
It is observed as Paush Sankranti in Bengal, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Bhogali Bihu in Assam, Lohri in Punjab and Jammu, Maghi in adjoining Haryana and Himachal, as Makara Sankramana in Karnataka and Saen-kraat in Kashmir. It is called Makara Sankranti in Odisha, Goa, Maharashtra, Andhra, Telengana and Kerala and in Gangetic north India. It is Sukaraat in Madhya Pradesh and Khichdi Parwa in parts of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. This is not only in India — our festival becomes Maghe Sankranti in Nepal, Songkran in Thailand, Moha Sangkran in Cambodia, Thingyan in Myanmar and Pi Ma Lo in Laos.
Its astrological significance is that the sun enters Capricorn (Makara) zodiac constellation and this ends the inauspicious phase of Paush (mid-December to mid-January). It also marks the commencement of the northward journey of the sun, Uttarayan.
Tamils celebrate with a lot of fervour for four days, burning all old clothes in a bonfire, and up in Punjab too the Lohri’s ceremonial fire is as important. Telugus also celebrate it over four days too, but the joy of the Tamils is that their winter monsoon crop is ready by. They boil the new rice and some moong-dal with milk and jaggery, until it all spills over. It is greeted with cheers of “Ponggalo Pongal” and the blowing of many conch shells.
All over the north, sweets made of sugar-cane and sesame (rewri and gajjak) are distributed. As we know, four items are essential for every kitchen, two, namely salt and spices, were in abundance in India. But our ancients were always worried about the other two i.e., oil (from sesame) and sugar. Til is the mother of all vegetable oils in India, which is why the word tailam or tel is derived from if. Sankranti was basically a form of rejoicing at the arrival of both crops and both these two critical kitchen items.
But in ancient Bengal, sugar cane or sesame were not plentiful and therefore palm trees supplied an aromatic gur and grated coconut was more in use. That is why Bengal’s sweet delicacies like pulir pitha, paati-shapta and tiler naru are made from palm sugar and local coconuts.
Assam also gets a new rice crop and its Bohgali Bihu is thus a harvest festival — marked with fast, feast and bonfires. All over the north, from Punjab to Bihar, a kihchdi of dal, rice and seasonal vegetables, is an additional treat, other than til, jaggery and milk-based sweets. Halwa is yet another popular in certain States like Punjab and Maharashtra, and many use suji as a base. Tamils and some others prefer milk, rice pudding and sweet payasam.
But Ganga snan, the annual ritual holy bath, is a common binder throughout India and people who stay far away make do with their local river. Legends say that all the 60,000 sons of Raja Sagar were burnt to ashes by Kapil Muni in his rage (for insulting him) on Sagar island. They were restored to life when Sagar’s great grandson, Bhagirath, got the Ganga down to earth, through the locks of Siva’s hair — to flow over Sagar island and his ancestors’s ashes.
Cattle too go through this mandatory bath Some southern States organise bullock cart races and Tamil Nadu goes one step ahead, by conducting dangerous ‘bull taming’ contests, called Jalli-kkattu. In Kerala, the erstwhile Buddhist deity ‘Saastha’, who now resides in the extremely popular Hindu temple of Sabarimala, also receives his dues from lakhs of pilgrims who undergo a lot of self torture for penance, just to meet him on this very day.
Many states like Gujarat and Jharkhand celebrate by flying kites on this day. Bhuinya tribals of Odisha and the western frontier of Bengal celebrate their ‘Tusu’ during this period, while in Manipur, many tribes pray to Lining-thou, their supreme god. In far off Arunachal Pradesh, the Ramayana, Mahabharat and Kalika Puran are invoked during this seasonal worship. Incidentally, even crows are invited with claps and rhythmic folk songs in the hilly regions of Uttarrakhand: the variety is, thus, mind boggling!