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When Astronomy meets Human Spirit…


By Roli S
The planetary play will continue, and along with it the human design to find some meaning, some reason and some interpretation, and symbolisation to keep moving forward, to keep celebrating life.

‘Makar Sankranti’ is a festival celebrated on the 14th day of January every year in India. A truly Indian festival that has as many aspects and expressions as the number of Indian states that celebrate it! What makes it truly Indian is that even though it is celebrated by following different practices, the essence remains the same – the promotion of hope and joyful spirit as well as recognition of charity and brotherhood.

As most festivals that we celebrate here in India have some mythological tale associated with it, I wanted to know a few stories connected with ‘Makar Sankranti’.

So, the belief goes that, on this day, Mata Mahishasurmardini – a powerful form of Goddess Durga – had descended with the purpose of destroying Mahishasur. The Goddess had first set foot on earth in the Kataraaj ashram of Rishi Kardam and Devahuti. It is also believed that on this day, the Sun God visits God Shani, who is the owner of the constellation ‘Makar’. Since Shani is the foster child of the Sun, they do not share a good relationship. However, it is Shani’s responsibility to take care of his father. Hence, this day signifies the priority of responsibilities. Even in the epic of Mahabharata, an episode mentions how people in that era also considered the day as auspicious. Bhishma Pitamah, even after being wounded in the Mahabharata war, lingered on till ‘Uttarayan’ set in so that he could attain his heavenly abode.

‘Makar Sankranti’ is considered the most auspicious day of the year and marks the end of an inauspicious phase that begins around mid-December. The auspicious day of ‘Makar Sankranti’ also marks the beginning of warmer and longer days as compared to the nights.

When I delved deeper, I also came to know that whenever the Sun moves out of one zodiac phase and enters another phase, such transmigration of the Sun is called ‘a Sankranti’ in Sanskrit. That is why “Sankranti of Makara” (or transmigration of Sun into Makara or Capricorn as we know it in English) is celebrated as “Makara Sankranti”, which usually falls on 14th of January (or 15th on certain years). The Makara phase holds such great significance in astronomy because it represents revival of sunlight and energy!

After I educated myself on the origin aspect of the festival, I realised that this day coincides with the harvest season in India and is, hence, celebrated with a lot of pomp and show by almost all communities throughout the country, albeit by different names. It is celebrated as Lohri in Punjab, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Makara Sankranti or Makara Sankramana in Karnataka and Maharashtra, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Khichdi in UP and Bihar, Bihu in Assam. Almost all regions in India celebrate this festival, cutting across all castes and creeds because it is nothing but a tradition to observe and celebrate the revival of solar energy in our lives, irrespective of the religion we follow or region we belong to. The whole planet and humanity benefit from solar energy, isn’t it?

After having discussed the intellectual and expository aspects of ‘Makar Sankranti’, let me delve into the ‘Makar Sankranti’ or ‘Khichdi’ that I grew up celebrating. My mother and I used to give rice and lentils as ‘daan’ to whoever came to our house to collect it on that day. I remember ‘Makar Sankranti’ and the words ‘lapet, lapet’ and ‘kat gaee patang’ whenever I see colourful kites flying in the sky. ‘Makar Sankranti’ is what I think of whenever I make ‘tilkut’ or ‘til gud ke laddu’ or ‘urad dal khichadi’ with seasonal vegetables.

At my workplace here in Mumbai, ‘til-gul ghyaa, aani goad-goad bolaa’ meaning ‘accept this til-gul (sweet) and utter sweet words’ are exchanged by colleagues. The underlying thought in the exchange of til-gul is to forget the past ill-feelings and hostilities and resolve to speak sweetly and remain friends.

‘Meethe Gur me mil gaya Til, Udi Patang aur khil gaye Dil,
Jeevan me bani rahe Sukh aur Shanti, Mubarak ho aapko Makar-Sankranti.’

These words signify the hope, the joyful spirit, and the feeling of harmony that I grew up experiencing during my school and college days. These words are deep and project the warmth, the energy, and the life force.

On this day, people give ‘khichdi’ (a dish made by mixing pulses and rice) in charity, take ceremonial dips in holy rivers, participate in fairs all over India. From Gujarat in the west to Assam in the East and from Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the North to Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south, Makar Sankranti is celebrated all over India. And I cheer and applaud the buoyant, unflagging human enthusiasm at the slightest hint of nature’s presence!

Though I have only heard about it, but I would certainly want to be the part of the most fascinating Ghughutia or Kale Kauva festival in Uttarakhand that is celebrated to welcome back migratory birds from the plains. I have heard that during the festival of Kale Kauva, people make ‘Ghughute’, deep fried sweetmeats consisting of flour and jaggery, made in attractive shapes such as drums, fruits, and swords, etc. These ghughute are then fed to crows and other birds by the children on the morning of Makar Sankranti. Children while adorning necklaces made of the ghughute chant songs like:

O black crow, come eat this garland made out of ghughute; O black crow come, eat ‘lagad‘ (poori the puffed Indian flat bread)’ and ‘badaa‘ (Urad daal i.e. Lentils balls deep fried in oil)…

Bhagirath liberated his ancestors from a curse after bringing down the Ganga on this day. Big celebrations are held on this day such as the Ganga Sagar mela in West Bengal. The Sage Kapil ashram attracts a lot of visitors on this auspicious day. Vishnu buried the asuras under Mandara Parvata on this day!

I do not know how the day, which according to Indian belief has such a powerful and symbolic presence, has cultured into people and children hailing and welcoming birds, flying kites, cooking delicacies, but it will remain a characteristic so Indian. May the festival of ‘Makar Sankranti’ keep the human spirit of joy, brotherhood, and charity alive. The planetary play will continue, and along with it must continue the human yearning to find some decisive and clear meaning to its existence.

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai)