Makar Sankranti, essentially a harvest festival, is celebrated across India under different names. The ancient Hindu festival is both religious and seasonal in nature, as it marks the beginning of the northward journey of the Sun. Makar Sankranti directly translates to the beginning of the Sun’s journey towards the North, ending the winter gloom and the consequent dry spell that sees little harvest.
The Sun’s journey northward ushers longer days and conducive weather conditions that ensure a good crop. Given that India was primarily an agricultural economy, it should not come as a surprise that the entire country celebrates this day.
Several aspects of the festival make it stand out from other Indian festivals, with some of the observances being specific to certain regions. However, what makes Makar Sankranti most unique is that unlike most Indian festivals, this follows a solar calendar and not the lunar calendar.
That’s not all. In the Sankranti celebrations in Maharashtra, devotees are allowed to wear black clothes, which is usually not desirable or acceptable in other religious events.
Til or sesame seeds gain immense importance during this time of the year and in most regions, it is compulsory to use it as an ingredient for the sweets prepared at home. Apart from qualifying as a winter food that keeps the body warm, sesame is regarded as a symbol of immortality according to Hindu mythology.
Sankranti is usually observed on January 14, although sometimes it falls on January 15. The day is marked by the exchange of sweets, bathing in Ganga, and kite flying. Ritualistic dips in the holy water, accompanied by offering prayers to Surya --the Sun God -- is practised across the country as it is believed to absolve one of his/ her sins.
North Indian Hindus and Sikhs celebrate Makar Sankranti as Maghi and indulge in merrymaking, ritualistic bathing, and lighting of lamps. In West Bengal, the day is observed as Poush Shongkranti and preparing sweetmeats using jaggery, rice flour, and coconut is a must. In Gujarat, on the other hand, kite flying continues to be the primary attraction, while in Tamil Nadu the celebrations go on for four days.
Interestingly, in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana region, farmers display their cattle in a pompous show of their prosperity, while residences are decorated with ornate patterns made of chalk or flour. Throughout the four days, people wear new clothes and offer various traditional food items to their ancestors.
In Assam, bullfights are organized while people gather for a feast at makeshift hutments that are burnt to the ground as a part of the celebrations the next day.
In Rajasthan and Goa, gifts are exchanged between married women to mark the day, apart from indulging in homemade sweets and offering prayers to the Sun.