Thursday, January 13, 2011
Makar Sankranti, the festival of the transmigration of the Sun from one Rāshi (zodiac sign in Indian astrology) to the other
Makar Sankranti or Sankranthi marks the transition of the Sun into Makara rashi (Capricorn) on its celestial path. Traditionally, this has been one of many harvest days in India.
Owing to the vast geography and diversity of culture in India, this festival is celebrated for innumerable reasons and in innumerable ways depending on the climate, agricultural environment, cultural background and location.
Makar Sankranti is celebrated since last 6000 years, as archeological findings in Latin America prove that the Mayans celabrated something similar to Sankranthi with Pongal, Pala kayalu, as some kind of spring festival.
Makar Sankranti, the Sanskrit word, which refers to the transmigration of the Sun from one Rāshi(zodiac in Indian astrology) to the other. Hence there are 12 such sankrantis in all. However, the Sankranti festival usually refers to Makara Sankaranti, or the transition of the Sun from Dhanu rashi (Sagittarius) to Makara rashi (Capricorn).
For this purpose, the Zodiac signs are considered sidereally, and not tropically, as in western astrology, thus not accounting for the Earth's precession. The festival therefore takes place around 21 days after the tropical winter solstice (between December 20 and 23rd) that marks the starting of Uttarayana, which means northward journey of Sun.
Considering the Winter Solstice marks the beginning of the gradual increase of the duration of the day. Scientifically, the shortest day of the year is around December 21–22 after which the days begin to get longer, hence actual Winter Solstice begins on December 21 or December 22 when the tropical sun enters Makara rashi. Hence actual Uttarayana is December 21. This was the actual date of Makar Sakranti too. But because of the Earth's tilt of 23.45 degrees and sliding of Equinoxes, Ayanamasha occurs. This has caused Makara Sankranti to slide further over the ages. A thousand years ago, Makar Sankranti was on December 31 and is now on January 14. Five thousand years later, it shall be by the end of February, while in 9000 years it shall come in June.
While the traditional Indian Calendar is based on lunar positions, Sankranti is a solar event. So while dates of all Hindu festivals keep changing as per the Gregorian calendar, the date of Makar Sankranti remains constant over a long term, 14 January. Makar Sankranti is celebrated in the Hindu Calendar month of Magha.
Makar Sankranti is a major harvest festival celebrated in various parts of India. According to the lunar calendar, when the sun moves from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn or from Dakshinayana to Uttarayana, in the month of Poush in mid-January, it commemorates the beginning of the harvest season and cessation of the northeast monsoon in South India. The movement of the earth from one zodiac sign into another is called Sankranti and as the Sun moves into the Capricorn zodiac known as Makar in Hindi, this occasion is named as Makar Sankranti in the Indian context. It is one of the few Hindu Indian festivals which are celebrated on a fixed date i.e. 14th January every year.
Makar Sankranti, apart from a harvest festival is also regarded as the beginning of an auspicious phase in Indian culture. It is said as the 'holy phase of transition'. It marks the end of an inauspicious phase which according to the Hindu calendar begins around mid-December. It is believed that any auspicious and sacred ritual can be sanctified in any Hindu family, this day onwards. Scientifically, this day marks the beginning of warmer and longer days compared to the nights. In other words, Sankranti marks the termination of winter season and beginning of a new harvest or spring season.
All over the country, Makar Sankranti is observed with great fanfare. However, it is celebrated with distinct names and rituals in different parts of the country. In the states of northern and western India, the festival is celebrated as the Sankranti day with special zeal and fervor. The importance of this day has been signified in the ancient epics like Mahabharata also. So, apart from socio-geographical importance, this day also holds a historical and religious significance. As, it is the festival of Sun God and he is regarded as the symbol divinity and wisdom, the festival also holds an eternal meaning to it.
In year 2011 Makar Sankranti will be celebrated on the 15th January 2011. Though it is usually celebrated on the 14th of every year, 2011 is an exception where the festival falls on 14,15 and 16th of January, where 14th beging Bhogi, 15th Makara Sankranthi and 16th Kanuma.
Sankranti is celebrated all over South Asia with some regional variations. It is known by different names and celebrated with different customs in different parts of the country.
In India it is known by different regional names:
Makar Sankranti or Sankranti - Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Goa, Sikkim, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Uttarakhand.
Uttarayan- Gujarat and Rajasthan
Maghi - Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab
Pongal - Tamil Nadu
Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu - Assam Valley
Shishur Saenkraat - Kashmir Valley
Makara Vilakku Festival - Sabarimala Temple (Kerala)
In other countries too the day is celebrated but under different names and in different ways
Tharu people - Maghi
Other people - Maghe Sankranti or Maghe Sakrati
In Thailand - Songkran
In Laos - Pi Ma Lao
In Myanmar - Thingyan
In Cambodia - Moha Sangkran
Many Melas or fairs are held on Makar Sankranti the most famous being the Kumbh Mela, held every 12 years at one of four holy locations, namely Haridwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Ujjain and Nashik. The Magh Mela (or mini-Kumbh Mela held annually at Prayag) and the Gangasagar Mela (held at the head of the Ganges River, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal). Makar Mela in Odisha. Tusu Mela also called as Tusu Porab is celebrated in many parts of Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Mythology and cultural significance:
According to the Puranas, on this day Surya(Sun) visits the house of his son Shani(Saturn), who is the lord of the Makar rashi(Zodiac Capricorn). Though the father and son duo did not get along well, the Surya made it a point to meet his son on this day. He, in fact, comes to his son’s house, for a month. This day thus symbolizes the importance of the special relationship between father and son.
From Makar Sankranti starts the ‘day’ of devatas(Gods), while dakshinayana (southward movement of the sun) is said to be the ‘night’ of devatas, so most of the auspicious things are done during this time. Uttarayana is also called as Devayana, and the dakshinayana' is called Pitrayana.
It was on this day when Lord Vishnu ended the ever increasing terror of the Asuras(Demons) by finishing them off and burying their heads under the Mandara Parvata. So this occasion also represents the end of 'negativities' and beginning of an era of righteous living.
Maharaja Bhagiratha, performed great penance to bring Ganga down to the earth for the redemption of 60,000 sons of Maharaj Sagar, who were burnt to ashes at the Kapil Muni Ashram, near the present day Ganga Sagar. It was on this day that Bhagirath finally did tarpan with the Ganges water for his unfortunate ancestors and thereby liberated them from the curse. After visiting the Pataala(underworld) for the redemption of the curse of Bhagirath’s ancestors the Ganges finally merged into the sea. A very big Ganga Sagar Mela is organized every year on this day at the confluence of River Ganges and the Bay of Bengal. Thousands of Hindus take a dip in the water and perform tarpan for their ancestors.
Another well-known reference of this day came when the great grand-sire of Mahabharata fame, Bhishma, declared his intent to leave his mortal coil on this day. He had the boon of Ichha-Mrityu(death at his will) from his father, so he kept lying on the bed of arrows till this day and then left his mortal coil on Makar Sankranti day. It is believed that the person, who dies during the period of Uttarayana, becomes free from transmigration(rebirth). So this day was seen as a definite auspicious day to start a journey or endeavours to the higher realms beyond.
Sikhs celebrate it as Maghi. The tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh tore the Beydaava written by 40 Sikhs and gave them Mukhti on this day. These 40 Sikhs later came to be known as 40 Mukhtas.
Traditions, rituals and celebration:
Makar Sankranti is one of the most auspicious days for the Hindus and is celebrated in almost all parts of India in myriad cultural forms, with great devotion. Millions of people take a dip in places like Ganga Sagar (the point where the river Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal) and Prayag and pray to the Sun God (Surya). It is celebrated with pomp in southern parts of India as Pongal, and in Punjab as Maghi.
In the western Indian state of Gujarat, the celebrations are even bigger. People offer thousands of their colorful oblations to the Sun in the form of beautiful kites. The act stands as a metaphor for reaching to their beloved God, the one who represents the best. In the rural and coastal areas, cock fights are held and is a prominent event of the festival. Makara Sankranti is also to honour, worship and to pay respect to Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge). At the start of this significant event, there is also worship for the departed ancestors.
Makara Sankranti identifies a period of enlightenment, peace, prosperity and happiness followed by a period of darkness, ignorance and viciousness with immense sorrow. The six months of northern movement of the sun is followed by six months of southern movement.
Since the festival is celebrated in mid winter, food prepared for this festival is such that it keeps the body warm and gives high energy. Laddu of til made with Jaggery is a specialty of the festival. In the western Indian state of Maharashtra it is called 'Tilgul'. In Karnataka it is called 'Yellu-Bella'. In some states cattle are decorated with various colors and are made to jump over a bon-fire.
It is celebrated differently in different regions of India.