Introduction to Festivals in India
It feels proud to be part of a rich culture and heritage where our ancestors showed us the way to a life of righteousness, the path of dharma, the way one ought to lead his life with values and principles.
These values and principles act as pointers in today’s rather busy lives, bridging the gap between yesterday and today.
The values our ancestors created for themselves, which our parents taught us and is now in the hands of the current generation to take it forward in the next leap.
A rich legacy of traditions and customs lie in our backyard, which our countrymen have followed since ages and definitely a strong purpose and message in each of these observances and if one digs the real reason, he would find scientific points attached to them.
Our country celebrates a great number of festivals. Festivities and celebrations among different religious groups bring in the feeling of being a true citizen of this nation. India stands for ‘unity in diversity’.
That means, our country believes in tolerance and respect for other religious faiths and practices and preaches the values of communal harmony among all religious groups.
We believe in universal brotherhood and that is exactly what binds us together as citizens of this country.
If we have certain customs of our own and our neighbor has different practices, we don’t undermine or speak against their culture.
We instead knock on their doors during our festivals, make them part of our festivities, bring in the good cheer and let a smile appear on all the faces.
Such is the richness which has brought prosperity to Indians both within the country and outside, and we carry this legacy from our elders and continue to inspire the future generations with the same gift of values and principles.
Message from Ancient Cultures
Each and every religion in India has their own unique ways of celebrating festivals. Festivals mean celebrations at home.
A time to bond with our families, a time to get together with our loved ones, prepare tasty dishes together, wear new clothes, visit religious places of importance, respect the elders at home and follow in their footsteps and finally, understand our inner purpose of living and pray to God for the well-being of our family, friends and loved ones.
They bring in the goodness of festive spirit combined with a traditional touch of customs and practices. Each festival has its own unique way of celebration plus each of them has a special significance behind why it is celebrated.
Different festivals find different ways of celebration in different regions of the country, but the feeling of a festive mood is enough to bring in the season of celebration at homes.
The Meaning of Makar Sankranti
Let us explore more into the Hindu festival Makar Sankranti. Let us try to understand the meaning of Makar Sankranti. It is a very important day in the Hindu calendar as the Sun moves from the tropic of Cancer to the tropic of Capricorn.
This change in the sun’s position causes days to become longer and nights to become shorter. It is interesting to note that the day of Makar Sankranti falls on the 14th of January every year.
That is pretty strange, since the festival is celebrated by looking up to the solar calendar and not the lunar calendar.
Image Credit: Source
Usually, in Hindu traditions it is a norm to follow the lunar calendar to find out the precise dates of festivals and almost all festivals are decided by referring to the lunar calendar only.
Makar Sankranti is an exception. Sometimes, the festival falls on the 15th of January and most of the times it is on the 14th of January.
The Sun holds a very important place in Hindu traditions. Sun signifies knowledge, power and the transition from a dark phase towards a bright phase.
It is famously quoted that every night has to give way to the next day, meaning darkness has to give way to something bright and here the sun finds its true significance.
When somebody says there is light at the end of the tunnel, it means that however bad a situation may be, there ought to be something bright in the end which one should look out for.
The sun provides the main source of light and plants draw energy from the sun’s rays to prepare food on earth.
Food chains on earth directly or indirectly depend on sunlight for their survival. Photosynthesis is a major activity which requires sunlight and that so how we draw food from plants. Sun is thus the main source of heat, light and energy on earth.
We cannot imagine a day without sunlight in our lives. From a health point of view it is good to spend sometime in the early morning allowing the sun’s rays to penetrate our body as this gives a lot of vitamin D and keeps our skin glowing and gives healthy bones.
If we had to spend an entire day in darkness, the whole world would look gloomy and doomed in night-life. The sun therefore signifies light, brightness, radiance and effervescent energy all around.
In Hindu traditions, it is a custom to pray to the sun god early in the morning and people worship the sun god in many ways.
Importance of the Festival
The event marking the transition of the sun from the tropic of cancer towards the tropic of Capricorn is thus considered a very important custom to be celebrated and that is why we celebrate Makar Sankranti every year. From then on, nights become shorter and days become longer.
This also has another belief attached to it. Capricorn is the star of the planet Saturn. Saturn is considered as the son of Sun God.
It is therefore as auspicious as the Sun God coming to his son’s home to visit him. Such beliefs exist in Hindu traditions from a long time and are part of the customary practices followed since ancient times.
The Sun god going to visit his son is an ancient belief, in other words it is to signify the messages of universal brotherhood and maintain cordial relationships with everyone.
Image Credit: Source
We are in this world only for a short period of time. We don’t know exactly when we would exit from here. When we do exit, our absence should be felt and marked by people instead of feeling relieved that we left them.
So, till the time we are here, throughout our life, we should try to be good to others, we should be kind enough to maintain good relationships with everyone; we shouldn’t hurt others with our harsh words. We have to treat everyone around us kindly.
In case we do have differences with anyone, we must bury them as soon as possible to bring in a feeling of harmony and well-being amongst ourselves. This is the message being sent out through the celebration of the festival of Makar Sankranti.
Significance of the Celebrations
This is the time when days get longer; nights get shorter due to the transition of the sun’s position. Indian women pray for the longevity of their husbands on this day of maker Sankranti.
They pray to sun God to bless their husbands with prosperity in their chosen career fields, to bless them with long lives and good health and wealth.
This practice is especially true in case of North Indian women who believe strongly in these customs and traditions, having flowed down since ages.
The beginning of the auspicious season of Kumbh Mela begins after the festival of Makar Sankranti. People gather in large crowds to take a holy dip in the river Ganges and pray to the Sun god to offer them solace in life and rid them of all the problems and worries they are facing.
Even on the day of Makar Sankranti, people take a holy bath in many rivers across the country, in their own region, as a mark of true respect to the lord. They seek relief from their tensions and pray god to bless them with health, wealth and prosperity.
Image Credit: Source
It is also around this time that the famous pilgrimage of Sabarimala draws an end to devotees and pilgrims who observe strict practices during their tour to Sabarimala.
The viewing of the religiously enlightened flame in the temple premises makes them draw an end to the pilgrimage they had undergone since many days.
Meaning of the Transition
Let us now understand what the transition of the sun from one zodiac sign to the other actually signifies. ‘Movement’ as we know, brings in change, a new process sets in, a new world is created, and we shift from one kind of thinking to another. Our perspectives change.
We move into a newer, fresh thinking that makes us think about the same thing in a different way. The significance of ‘movement’ in this context describes the transition from one world to another, from one position to another. Let us contrast this with our own lives.
When we are leading a comfortable life, we don’t evaluate the need for money, not to a very large extent at least. We turn spendthrifts and spend endlessly with or without our knowledge.
When life moves on, and we are caught in a difficult situation at some point of time, the same spendthrift mind inside us becomes a little more cautious when spending money without thinking.
The mind now stays alert to all the expenditure it does and calculates the savings very cautiously. So life keeps changing. There cannot be one stagnant position where we can idle ourselves and spend the whole of our lives.
Changes are necessary for us to experience life fully. We learn lessons from life, become more careful, learn to respect resources all because there are changes happening around us which make us learn important life lessons to become better human beings.
The same thing universally applies to all natural bodies occurring in nature. Changes are mandatory. Nothing can be stationary for ages without anything occurring on them.
If we see a glacier standing still in the ocean today, we can soon find it melting down when the heat increases in the environment and thus it transforms from one state to another. This is the rule of nature and that’s why we see the movement of the sun from one zodiac sign to the other.
When the sun does change its position, it has many effects on human beings. Right from their health, mental thoughts, everything gets affected in both good and bad ways and it is up to us to change ourselves accordingly.
We can find the mention of this festival in historic Vedic texts as well. Sages of yore have described this festival as the day when people thanked nature, for the mass of wealth it has given human beings. Nature consists of sun, the powerful provider of energy and light on this earth.
The wind, rains, trees, plants all work in perfect harmony to bring beautiful gifts to man.
The endless services of nature for man is totally matchless with anything else and the only way man can offer his thanksgiving to mother earth and nature is by celebrating her greatness and offering humble prayers to her.
Stories associated with Makar Sankranti
There is the famous story in Mahabharata where Bhishma, the wise old person, pierced with arrows hit by Pandavas, all over his body, lies on a bed of arrows, but life keeps flickering faintly in his heart.
He happens to lie on this bed of arrows during the Dakshinayan period, so he chooses to get liberation from his life in the Uttarayan period and therefore keeps himself alive till that point of time.
He finally leaves this world according to his own desire on the auspicious day of Ashtami, the eight day after the onset of the Uttarayan period and gets liberated from this world.
This day is so auspicious that anyone passing away on this day is said to be relieved from the curse of re-birth and is also believed to reach heaven directly after separating from this world.
A New Season Begins
The festival of Makar Sankranti officially marks the onset of the spring or summer in India. Leaves that has withered from trees and fallen all over the trees making a huge pile of dried leaves, no longer continue to be there.
We can find fresh, small springs of leaves here and there and slowly after a couple of months, they start flowering in full bloom and make the whole ambiance look colorful.
Nature looks at its best when the trees are full, flowers blossom in all their true colors, attract birds and insects, trees get completely filled with chirping birds and create beautiful noise all around.
Winter slowly draws a close with the beginning of summer, sending it off away for some more months. With the onset of summer, warm clothes get into the wardrobes and juices, ice creams and candies make their appearance all around.
Right after Makar Sankranti, the auspicious Uttarayan period begins according to Hindu customs. It is the auspicious time of Hindu followers.
According to beliefs, if a person passes away during the time after the festival of Makar Sankranti till the next six months in that year, he is supposed to reach heaven directly and is believed to not have re-birth again.
Whereas on the contrary, if a person passes away in the latter six months, during the Dakshinayan period, that person is believed to have re-birth again and will take some form of life again in his journey.
Celebrations in different parts of the Country
Let us now focus on the celebration part of the festival. India as we know is a land of many religions and customs. Traditions and practices vary from one region to another.
People speak in different languages and beliefs vary from one part of the country to the other.
In south India, this festival is called Pongal. In the north, particularly in Punjab and Haryana this festival is celebrated with much fervor and is called Lohri.
Image Credit: Source
In other regions of the country, this festival is also known as Bihu in Assam, Khichdi festival in Bihar and other regions situated closely.
Traditions vary according to the place where they are celebrated, though people indulge in celebrations and Pooja at home.
People take bath early during the day, pray to the sun god, exchange sweets with families, get together for lunch and big families stay together to enjoy the day with traditional lunch preparations.
In Karnataka, it is customary to exchange sugarcane, a preparation of coconut, sesame seeds, jaggery and groundnuts on this day.
People prepare a special dish called ‘Pongal’ and indulge in sweet preparations to mark the special day.
Importance of using Sesame on this day
Let us now come to the significance of the usage of sesame during Makar Sankranti. Just when December sets in, our skin starts turning dry and we feel a white patchy kind of skin due to this.
When the transition of the sun happens on the day of maker Sankranti, this effect becomes even more.
We can see that our skin gets easily irritated due to dryness, and we can see white flakes on the skin due to this. Endlessly using cold creams and moisturizers may be a common sight, but the purpose of using sesame during the festival is exactly to overcome this.
Sesame contains sesame oil within it and is very effective in curing the dryness of the skin that is easily caused during this time around.
The sesame oil acts as a moisturizer and brings in some heat to the body to resist against the change and brings in a smooth effect on skin.
People prepare sesame mixed with jaggery laddoos, which are sweet preparations specially made to mark the occasion of Makar Sankranti.
Variety of Fairs & Exhibitions
Many fairs and exhibitions are set up in towns and rural backdrops where people spend the day with much more fervor than how people in cities celebrate the festivities.
That’s a big difference. People in the rural areas are more attached to the festival like no other.
There’s a specific reason behind this as well. Farmers are basically from a rural and agrarian economy. To them, the land they own is equivalent to the love of their mother. They treat their profession in a very noble way. When farmers get a good produce, they rejoice.
When farmers don’t get enough harvest, they have to bear the brunt of it as well. In short, the farmers are entirely dependent on nature for their harvest and produce and hence it’s a day of thanksgiving for the Indian farmer to the strong forces of nature and the sun god in particular.
The Harvest Season
The dawn of the day of Makar Sankranti is also a celebration of the harvest festival. Farmers who have toiled in agricultural fields and looked after their crops in return for a good produce celebrate and rejoice about it.
The harvests produced from the crops are looked at with great feast in the eyes and it’s a day for farmers to go great with enthusiasm on this big day.
The harvest season marks the hard efforts of the Indian farmers in producing a rich harvest or production of crops after toiling for the full year in the fields, overlooking the rains, wind storms and daring the natural forces.
It is a day when the farmers thank god for the gift they have got as the sons of the Indian soil and rejoices for the prosperity they have been able to earn through their hard work and efforts.
Celebration in Big Cities
In cities, festival celebrations begin a fortnight ago when markets start bustling with activity and people come shopping for purchases related to the festival. People buy all essentials required for the puja and decorative items to deck up the houses and gifts for the family.
Children’s are given new clothes and the whole house is cleaned and decorated to invite guests and loved ones to the family to enjoy the day. Elders in the house teach youngsters about the tradition that has come from ages and needs to be followed as part of our culture.
In cities, many working professionals do not get a day off for the festival and are forced to attend office even on many festival days.
In order to respect and retain our culture and let the flow pass on to the next generations, it would be nice if the working community takes a break from their work and spends time with their families on festival days.
Young children imbibe values taught to them by parents, so it is the responsibility of the parents to teach younger generation about the values and customs in practice in our country to preserve the rich culture and heritage of our nation.
The Kite Festival
A popular practice in Gujarat where elders, younger generation folks, small children – all of them gather together to happily rejoice and have fun with festivities is the famous kite festival.
The kite festival signifies that the days get longer with the onset of Makar Sankranti; hence a lot of time could be spent outdoors to get the goodness from sun, at the same time strengthening bonds and ties with our families.
Not only persons from the same family, but neighbors, friends, well-wishers – almost the entire locality gathers together to fly kites with a competitive spirit and the person who make it to the winning spree get goodies and hampers to rejoice.
Young children love to see their elders in a different mood, out of their daily chores and spending good time with them and being happy about it too.
Last but not the least, the festival of Makar Sankranti carries with it a message of goodness, a calm feeling of ending the ugly and bitter thoughts we have and resolving conflicts within our mind.
Swami Shivananda is quoted as saying this about sun god; he talked about the greatness of sun – the vast power it is composed of, the power that we should realize in bringing ourselves from our darkness, from our conflicts, from our unending desires and march towards the path of peace and prosperity.
A disturbed mind wanders here and there in search of the correct answer for its sufferings. It toils in the dark without finding answers for its worries.
We should learn to shine like the sun. We must come out of our inner worries and release our tensions by being in a state of calmness with ourselves.
We should practice patience; we should see the goodness and joy within ourselves. We can make this day more meaningful by spreading the message of joy with our near and dear ones and bury differences created in the past, make healthy and strong relationships.