Makar Sankranti is the Hindu Harvest Festival as per our Hindu Vikram Samvat Calendar. The festival is dedicated to the Sun God Surya Deva whose worship can be traced all the way to the ancient Vedic texts. Surya’s adulation can be found in the most ancient and powerful Hindu mantra, the Gayatri Mantra. Makar Sankranti known as Maghi or Sankranti is known by many other names in India depending on the state and its language. In Gujarat it is Uttarayan; Nepal, Maghe Sankranti; Assam, Magh Bihu; South India and Tamil Nadu, Pongal or Thai Pongal; Uttarkhand, Gughuti; Central India, Sukarat and in the Northern States of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh it is called Maghi and is preceded by a bonfire celebration known as Lohri.
It perhaps derives it names from the solar month of Makar which corresponds to the Gregorian month of January and the lunar month of Magha. Makar meaning Capricorn marks the first day of the Sun’s transition into Capricorn, the tenth sign of the astrological zodiac, and the start of longer days of daylight ending the winter solstice months. Unlike other Hindu festivals which follow a lunar-solar calendrical cycle this festival falls on the same day in the Gregorian calendar every year since it is charted by only the solar calendar which equates to January 14-15th every year.
Makar Sankranti is celebrated in many different ways. Many adherents gather together at sacred rivers, lakes and bathe in reverence to the Sun. Children also go from house to house singing and asking for treats. Many sweets are made and exchanged including ladoos made with jaggery and sesame seeds while others enjoy a nice piece of sugar cane. Houses are decorated with much beautiful rangoli designs that add to the color and pomp. Married women apply Haldi (saffron), KumKum (vermillion, sindoor) and flowers to their hair. Celebrations include kite flying and releasing large fire-lit lanterns and balloons into the sky that light up the night sky similar to a Chinese lantern festival. It is also a time to perform charity work. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where West Indians are descended from they make lots of meethai and halwa with specially prepared kichdi and dahi. They also make wonderful choka with achaar or “anchar” as we know it. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh they also fly their kites and take baths in the sacred waters. Remember it is in January that fires around Trinidad would signify the harvest of the sugarcane. At this time we would have already noticed the burnt cane being carried by the winds in the Caribbean if Caroni had not been closed.
Just like Divali lasts for five days, Makar Sankranti is celebrated for a certain number of days such as four days in South India. Bonfires are lighted up during the first day of Makar Sankranti in the south on Bhogi which is the first day as well as in North East Assam signifying a transformation. Sankranti the day we know as Makar Sankranti is the second day when Hindus pray to the Gods and offer food to the ancestors. The third day is Kanumma when cows are revered and food is shared for animals and birds while the fourth day is Mukkanuma when families spend time together and the kites are flown. Hinduism displays constant care towards the environment for plants and animals in its many festivals. On all festivals special days are set aside for the ancestors, family and nature. These are not coincidence but very scientific since during this time very real changes are occurring in the environment. The sun is returning to its glory and nature is coming alive. Plants are blossoming and birds begin to migrate as the sun moves north hence the other name for Makar Sankranti in Gujarat which is Uttarayan or “northbound.”
In Tamil Nadu Makar Sankranti is known as Pongal and is also celebrated for four days (Bhogi, Thai Pongal, Maattu Pongal and Kannum Pongal). However, on the third day of Mattu Pongal a competition is organized called Jallikattu. It is India’s ancient version of the Spain’s Pamploma ‘Running of the Bulls.’ However, it does not include any bullfighting as in Spain. This really is just a running with the bulls. The animals are not harmed or killed, are very much revered and taken care of. Such practices in India have been found dating at least to the Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilization. It has been found on frescoes in the Mediterranean of the ancient Minoan people from Crete famous for King Minos, the Minotaur and the palace at Knossos.
Lohri is a festival held the day before Makar Sankranti in the Northern Himachal and Punjab region of India. It is a midwinter celebration that welcomes the coming of longer days and the sun’s journey to the north. Hindus light bonfires on this day before going out to celebrate Makar Sankranti and official sun worship the next day. In ancient times, Lohri was held at the end of the month on which the winter solstice falls which means it would have been closer to the other pagan harvest festivals in the ancient world. Lohri combines both a midwinter and a crop season celebration. Sugarcane and roasted corn are used in the festivities. A very ancient form of trick or treat is played in the region. If the household does not supply enough treats they will be in for a trick from the youngsters. All of the sweets collected during Lohri is then shared at the bonfire in the night while people sing and dance around the fire to bhangra and dhol. A very ancient Hindu version of Halloween finds some of its practices and rituals in Lohri and Makar Sankranti. The Vikings might have recognized these ancient Hindu festivities as similar to theirs or maybe the precursors.
Falling in line with the Makar Sankranti festival is the Kumbha Mela and the Maha Kumbh Mela. Kumbh Mela means a “gathering around waters/nectar of immortality.” Every four years a Kumbh Mela is held constituting a large gathering of all the Hindus around the world descending upon India at one of four locations typically Prayagraj, Ujjain, Nashik or Haridwar. Every twelve years Jupiter makes one revolution around the Sun and so every twelve years a Maha Kumbh Mela is held with tens of millions of Hindus celebrating together. The largest gathering occurs at Prayagraj where the three sacred rivers the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati meet. It is the greatest Hindu pilgrimage on earth attracting a crowd that can be seen from space. The largest gathering place for pilgrimage in the world is not Mecca or Jerusalem it is in the Maha Kumbha Mela in India. At one Mela 70 million Hindus had gathered. The Magh Mela has been traced to a celebration going on since the Mahabharata War which occurred at least five thousand years ago. The Mahabharata mentions a bathing pilgrimage site at Prayag while the earliest references date to the Rig Vedic times. However, the ritual is believed to have originated during the Samudra Manthan or churning of the ocean when the Devas and Asuras gathered to churn the ocean. Yogis meditating deep in the caverns of the highest mountains and who are never seen descend for the Kumbh Mela including India’s warrior monks the Akharas of the Naga Sadhus tradition.
There are many Harvest Festivals around the world, many also having their roots in ancient pagan origins albeit they are not celebrated at the same times since the seasons are opposite in different hemispheres. When it is winter in the northern hemisphere it is summer in the southern hemisphere and so forth. Calendars have changed since then and so has the placement of certain astrological and astronomical alignments. Since much religion, language and customs in the Indo-European scheme of things seem to derive their origins from an Indian Hindu background it is no wonder many of the worlds other festivals also show some linguistic or historical connection to the Hindu Makar Sankranti. Makar Sankranti or Maghi shares a linguistic connection to the Persian Festival of Mehrgan. Mehrgan is a Zoroastrian harvest festival celebrated with much fervor since the age of ancient Persepolis with their Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism has its own Vedic connections and beliefs rooted in Devas and Asuras with their sacred text the Avesta being very much like the Vedas. The Gaelic festival of Samhain celebrated throughout Ireland, Scotland and by the ancient Britons had ancient Celtic pagan origins and marked the end of their harvest season and the beginning of winter. It has merged to become the all too familiar commercialized Halloween but there is a striking linguistic resemblance to the words Samhain and Sankranti. Samhain certainly is composed of an older Indo European word meaning summer. On both Samhain and another Gaelic festival known as Beltane bonfires are lit. Meanwhile, in Judaism, a monotheistic Abrahamic Western religion which is not Indo European but classed as Semitic celebrates their harvest festival as Sukkot sounding similar to Uttarkhand’s Sukkarat and Sankranti but is celebrated much further down in September/October. While the Semitic and Indo-European languages are very different in origin many of the Abrahamic religions may have derived some of their beliefs from the pagan religions around them.
So what’s the connection to Christmas and the ancient pagan winter solstice festivals? I have already done an article on the pagan origins of Christmas see the link here The Pagan Origins of Christmas – Indo Caribbean Diaspora News (icdn.today). In that article I explained how the pagan Romans and Greeks celebrated their winter solstice around the Christmas date of December 25th with pagan festivals falling on that date such as the birth of the Roman Sun God Sol as Dies Natalis or falling close to it such as the Saturnalia. Saturnalia starts on December 17th and lasts till the 23rd. In actuality these winter solstice celebrations go on for a long time culminating and intertwining with pagan harvest festivals. The Vikings celebrated midwinter and their decorations represented the longing for the coming of the sun and longer days symbolised in the evergreen plants they used for decorations. These celebrations also lasted sometimes for months from November into January such as the Viking and Germanic Yule festival with the burning of the Yule Log. In fact, there are two calculations for Makar Sankranti using the nirayana and sayana systems. The nirayana computes the date as January 14th but if the sayana system is used we would arrive at December 23rd the same time as the Roman Saturnalia. Minus the time and seasonal differences due to different calendars the rituals and festival activities are very much alike and for similar reasons. In all these pagan festivals the Sun is the center of worship. Just like the Vikings lit Yul logs for midwinter celebrations so do they light bonfires in Northern India such as during Lohri in Punjab as well as Bhogi in South India. Up Helly Aa is a modernized version of the Viking midwinter festival celebrated in the January-March months where a Viking ship is burnt as part of the ancient Yule festival to celebrate the coming of the sun again after a long winter.
Sun worship, sky lanterns and bonfires? Our Hindu festivals are not only ancient and informative they are simply fun! We need an infusion and revival of more Hindu festivals in the Caribbean region especially in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname. Hindus also need to have basic knowledge of their scriptures, beliefs, concepts, festivals, pilgrimage sites, deities and history. Since there is no supplemental education on Hinduism properly formatted for Hindus such information can be pivotal. It is the reader’s duty to absorb, do further research and read/send such articles to your family, friends, children and neighbors. Without knowing these aspects of our religion we are drifting aimlessly in an ocean of turmoil with the odds heavily stacked against Hindu Dharma. For us to survive we must arm ourselves with knowledge of the Hindu religion, history, our social and political issues to navigate the Kala Pani or the “dark waters” ahead of us. Indo Caribbean Hindus are no strangers to the Kala Pani we crossed it once and we will cross it again. Hindus growing up never hear about pilgrimage sites in India like the Maha Kumbh Mela. What important temples and sites do we visit? Most never know Lord Rama or Krishna have their birth place sites in India we can visit. Indo Caribbean Hindus must make their pilgrimage to India during the Kumbh Mela and to visit our sacred mandirs. We can also visit some of the famous sun temples like Modhera Gujarat and the Konark Temple in Odissa. Our Hindu institutions need to format and teach basic Hinduism to all the youth and find a way for this to enter every Hindu home through some type of religious instruction at the mandirs on a Saturday/Sunday school dedicated to Hindu teachings. We have Hindu schools but they will not be enough to reach everyone. Temples are closed all week except Sundays and festivals. They can be utilized more effectively. More must be done to defend Dharma.
Shubha Makar Sankranti