India is a land of customs and traditions. We Indians have festivals to celebrate anything and everything – the festival of colours, a festival of lights and even harvest festivals. Agriculture is the primary occupation of the majority of Indians. Hence, celebrations like Lohri, Pongal and Makar Sankranti commemorate the season of harvest and beginning of a new agriculture year in the entire nation.
Traditionally, this Punjabi festival celebrates the harvesting of rabi crops. It also marks the beginning of a new financial year for farmers. It falls on January 13 every year. The date is significant as it marks the fall of winter as the Earth moves towards the Sun, initiating the auspicious Uttarayan. Lohri glorifies fertility and rejoices in the joy of life. Farmers and their families light huge bonfires, and they set up a camp around it. The festival is grander in houses with a newlywed couple or a newborn baby. There is a majestic function, and lots of goodies are exchanged and distributed.
The day begins with young boys and girls go around the town, knocking on the doors of houses from where they get sweets and money. The evening begins with lighting up of bonfire to worship Agni Devta (lord of fire). They dance around the fire, doing the bhangra and gidda on beats of dhol. People also toss sesame seeds, rewary and jaggery in the fire as a token of gratitude. Roasted corn of the new harvest, Gajak, jaggery, groundnuts, popcorn and traditional Punjabi dinner of sarso da saag and makke di roti comprise the must-be-eaten list of the festival. Dressed in their best attire people dance and sing ‘sunder mundriye’, in the memory of Dulla Bhatti. According to Punjabi folklore, Dulla Bhatti was a Punjabi who lived at the time of Emperor Akbar. He used to steal money from the rich and rescued the abducted poor girls who were to be sold in the market. He then used to get those married and also would give them the money from his thefts. Some people believe that Lohri originates from the word ‘loh’ that signifies the warmth and brightness of fire. According to another Hindu legend, Holika and Lohri were sisters. While Holika perished, Lohri survived with Prahlad.
Makar Sankranti, also called Magha, Mokor Songkranti and bhogi, is a Hindu festival dedicated to Surya Dev (Sun). As the month with winter solstice ends, the Sun moves into Makara (Capricorn) on this day. This day marks the beginning of longer days as the Earth moves closer to the Sun. Unlike many other Hindu festivals, Sankranti is celebrated according to Solar Cycles instead of lunar cycles. This day usually falls on 14th and seldom on January 15 depending on the Hindu calendar.
The ritual of bathing in sacred rivers (like Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri) and offering prayers to Sun (chanting of gayatri mantra) is enriching and fulfilling. This holy dip is said to free people from their past sins and is said to bring positivity. Throughout the nation, festive air flows with colorful decorations, kite flying competitions, small fairs (mela), bonfires and feasts. Magha mela is held annually at Prayagraj on the day of Makar Sankranti. In North India, people donate household items (like buckets, baskets), clothes, pulses, popcorns, rewary etc. to underprivileged families.
Pongal is a Dravidian four-day long harvest festival celebrated widely in the state of Tamil Nadu of Southern India. It usually falls around mid-January(12-15) as it marks the beginning of the month of Tai according to Tamil calendar Pongal means ‘to boil, spillover’ and is symbolized through boiling of rice till they overflow from the cooking pot. History of this festival can be seen originating from somewhere between 200BC to 300AD, i.e. Sangam Age. It is celebrated to express one’s gratitude to God for harvest.
Pongal is associated with legends of Lord Shiva and Nandi and also Lord Krishna and Govardhan Mountain. Legend has it that to break Lord Indra’s overconfidence over his powers; Lord Krishna ordered villagers to stop worshipping him. This angered Lord Indra, and his wrath brought heavy rains to the village. To protect his villagers and animals, Lord Krishna lifted Govardhan on his little finger, on what is said to be the first day of Pongal. Another mythical story says that Lord Shiva asked Nandi to go to Earth and tell people to bath daily with oil and eat once a month. Unfortunately, Nandi got confused and asked humans to shower once a month and eat every day. Lord Shiva got angry at this mess and sentenced Nandi to live on Earth and serve humans by toiling and ploughing fields to increase their harvest of food.
The Bhogi festival, Surya Pongal, Mattu Pongal, and Kaanum Pongal are the four days of the festival respectively. On the first day, i.e. Bhogi festival falls on the last day of marghazi month. On this day people get rid of their old possessions by gathering together and burning them in a bonfire under the evening sky. The towns and houses are decorated, painted and dusted to commemorate the festive spirit. Animals used in the fields like ox, buffaloes, and bulls are bathed, and then their horns are painted. People put on their best attires while they worship Lord Indra (God of rains) to thank him for the certain amount of rain in the past and the upcoming year as well.
The second day or Surya Pongal is dedicated to Lord Surya (Sun). It is the first day of the quartet as it is the first day of the month Tai. On this day, Pongal, which is a traditional dish prepared in an earthen pot with rice, milk, jaggery and lentils under sunlight, is eaten widely. Near the pot, newly harvest sugarcane or turmeric plants are kept. As the rice boils and spills out of the pot, it symbolizes the wish for greater fortunes in the upcoming year. The dish is offered to Gods and Goddesses, and then people share it amongst themselves. The third day or Mattu Pongal is reserved for the cattle. On this farm, animals are painted and then fed with delicious food as a token to thank them for their services like their dairy products, fertilizer and agricultural help in the fields. On the last day, i.e. kaanum Pongal spreads the message of socializing. This day promotes people to meet and strengthen their bond. As women gather they perform a ritual called Kanu pidi in which they offer the leftover Pongal dish to birds and especially crows. They pray for the well-being and success of their brothers. The extended festive air is brought to rest on this day as people gather and relax together with zeal and zest.
Lohri, Makar Sankranti, and Pongal are all harvest festivals that are celebrated between 12-15 January. Though the way they are celebrated and the story behind them may differ, they serve a common purpose –of rejoicing in the harvest of the season and thanking almighty for his blessings and asking for a prosperous financial year ahead. They are just different names of a festival. Well, in a country like India, where cultural diversity units the nation, these festivals are an example of how we Indians can turn a harvest season into a festive environment throughout our country. These festivals also signify Indian values of thanking nature for everything that it has bestowed upon us. Offering nature the products we obtain from its services before we consume them ourselves is a reflection of our respect towards our resources. The festivity and positivity that these festivals shower at the very beginning of the year is stunning and exquisite.