Twenty nine states, 1,652 languages, 1.3 billion people and 365 festivals– when you live in a culturally diverse country like India, every day is a festival. It is a celebration of life. Along the plains, hills, deserts and coasts of this vibrant country, festivals are celebrated with much enthusiasm as they add cheer into the routine and monotony of the busy lives.
We have festivals to mark the beginning of seasons, we celebrate the harvest, we welcome the rain, we thank Mother Nature for blessing us with plenty, we celebrate the new year, the victory of good over evil and everything that is close to us, especially nature. Nature cannot be separated from our existence. The cycle of life is entwined with nature. It has been integral to our culture, traditions and mythology. By extension, nature forms the core of our festivals. Hundreds of years ago, festivals were celebrated according to climatic conditions, locations and evolving landscapes. Over time, the hues of festivals changed, but the essence and ethos remained the same.
In India, most of the Hindu festivals are based on the lunar cycle for which the dates tend to change every year. But the Hindu festival of Makara Sankranti follows the solar calendar, hence, falling on the same day every year. Sankranti is celebrated India on January 14. Nonetheless, due to Earth’s revolution around the sun, the date is postponed by a day once in 80 years.
Makara Sankranti marks the entry of the sun into the zodiac sign of Capricorn (Makara) on the celestial path. Sankranti means movement. On this day the sun moves from Tropic of Capricorn to Tropic of Cancer. The festival also marks the beginning of the spring season with longer days and shorter nights.
Predominantly a harvest festival, Makara Sankranti is celebrated across the southeast Asian countries, including Thailand. It is one festival with many names. It is Makara Sankranti in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Uttaryan in Gujarat, Bhogali Bihu in Assam, Lohri in Punjab, Maghe Sakrati in Nepal, Songkran in Thailand and Thingyan in Myanmar. Like the many names the festival has, there are many legends associated with Makara Sankranti. Soulveda presents some of the lesser known legends.
Nandi’s story is humorous and also carries a message with it. According to the Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva ordered his gatekeeper Nandi, the bull, to visit the earth and tell his disciples to take an oil bath every day and eat once a month. Meanwhile, the confused Nandi asked Shiva’s disciples to consume food every day and take an oil bath once a month. When this came to Shiva’s notice, he was enraged with Nandi due to this error. As a punishment, Shiva called Nandi and ordered him to go back to the earth to help his disciples with the agriculture activities as they had to produce food grains for their daily consumption. This is why Nandi is worshipped during the festival. People thank Nandi for his contribution to farming. During Sankranti, cattle are given a bath and prayers are offered thanking them for their relentless service.
Another interesting legend associated with Sankranti is the story of Lord Krishna. Krishna is known for his antics. During Bhogi day (as it is called in Andhra Pradesh), Krishna asked his friends to worship the Govardhan mountain instead of Lord Indra. This irked Indra and he wreaked havoc by creating torrential rains accompanied by floods. Enraged by Indra’s actions, Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain on his little finger to protect his friends from the misdeeds of Indra. Ashamed by his act, Indra begged Krishna for forgiveness. Krishna granted a wish to Indra that he would be worshipped on the Bhogi day.
Another popular belief is that if a person dies during Sankranti, he goes to heaven and is never reborn on the earth.
According to the puranas (Vedic scriptures), Sankranti is the day when the sun visits his son Shani (Saturn) and stays with him for a month. Though the father-son duo are at loggerheads, the sun still stays with Shani. The story is about the father-son bonding amidst their differences. Another common belief is that if a person dies during Sankranti, he goes to heaven and is never reborn on the earth.
Sankranti is known as much for its legends and beliefs as it is known for the delicious sesame seed sweets and kite-flying. It is said that in the bygone era, people flew kites early mornings when the sun was pleasant and not harsh on their skin. It was believed that basking in the early morning sun would help keep infections at bay and cure ailments contracted during the winter season. Flying kites not only helped people bask in the sun but also helped them bond with their families, kith and kin. Distributing sweets helped foster good relationships, bury the hatchet and start anew. These beliefs continue to be part of the celebration of Sankranti today.
Life is about not stagnating. It is about progress and movement. And Sankranti is symbolic of this movement. Movement from bad to good, old to new, darkness to light, and sadness to happiness.