Thursday, 23 June 2011

Makar Sankranti

Makar Sankranti 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.

Sankranti is the Sanskrit word in Hindu Astrology which refers to the transmigration of the Sun from one Rāshi (sign of the zodiac) to another. 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 signs and houses of the zodiac are calculated using sidereal time, not tropical. As such it does not account for the Earth's precession. The festival therefore takes place around 21 days after the winter solstice (between December 20 and 23) that marks the starting of the phenomenon of 'northward apparent migration of the sun' or Uttarayana, literally meaning 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, Ayanamsa 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 9,000 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 Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer or from Dakshinayana to Uttarayana, in the month of Pausha in mid-January, it commemorates the beginning of the harvest season and cessation of the northeast monsoon in South India. The movement of the Sun 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. 14 January every year (or may be sometimes on 15th January (leap 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.

Scriptural and cultural significance
1. 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.

After giving seven days of speeches before 500 Hindu scholars, Jagadguru Kripalu Maharaj was named fifth Jagadguru (world teacher) on Makar Sankranti Day 1957.

In Maharashtra on the Makar Sankranti day people exchange multi-colored halwa (sugar granules coated in sugar syrup) and til-gul ladoos (sweetmeats made from sesame seeds and jaggery). Gul-polis (flat bread stuffed with jaggery) are offered for lunch. While exchanging tilguls as tokens of goodwill people greet each other with the words, "Til-gul ghya, god god bola" meaning ‘Accept these tilguls and speak sweet words’. The under-lying thought in the exchange of tilguls is to forget the past ill-feelings and hostilities and resolve to speak sweetly and remain friends.

This is a special day for the women in Maharashtra when married women are invited for a get-together called ‘Haldi-Kunku’ (literally meaning turmeric and vermillion) and given gifts such as utensil, clothes etc. Typically, women wear black sarees or black coloured outfits on this occasion. The significance of wearing black is that Sankranti comes at the peak of the winter season and black colour retains and absorbs heat, helping keep warm