As the earth pirouettes on its axis to swing to the northern hemisphere, this astronomical confederation in the Hindu calendar is known as Uttarayana— ‘uttara’ being north and ‘ayana’ as abode. This movement takes place on the last day of the Hindu month of Poush and falls on the 14th day of January in the Gregorian calendar, making Uttarayana unique. For, it is the only Hindu festival that follows the movement of the sun in a dating system that is essentially lunar.
Besides, as per the lunar calendar, on this day, the sun crosses over from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn and India celebrates its biggest harvest festival, Makar Sankranti—the ‘transmigration of the Sun’ (samkrant) into the zodiac sign of ‘Makar’ (Capricorn). While the day finds mention in ancient Vedic literature, the legends and stories vary regionally.
Few clues to the antiquity of the harvest festival lie in folklore and adages. Makar Sankranti is celebrated by the indigenous tribes of Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha, and the tea tribes of Assam as Tusu puja. The name ‘Tusu’ comes from the word tush, a word for rice husk. Goddess Tusu is worshipped solely by unmarried girls. After cutting off all the paddy, the last stack that remains in the field is called dinimai, another name for the goddess.
The head of the family brings the dinimai from the agricultural field and young girls establish Tusu, marking the beginning of a month-long festival, which ends on Makar Sankranti. As per the Kurmi tribe of Bengal and Jharkhand, the worship and care of Tusu is symbolic of a girl growing up in the loving care of her family. The immersion thereafter in water is symbolic of a newly married girl leaving for her marital family.
It’s interesting—the linkage between the festival and sesame seeds, so much so that in many parts it is called the Til Sankrant. One answer to this connection lies in the Tamizh calendar, based on the ancient Hindu lunisolar calendar, followed in Tamil Nadu. “Aadi pattam, thedi vidhai (The month of Aadi is best for sowing seeds),” is an adage based on this calendar that prescribes Aadi (July-August) as the ideal month for sowing seeds, including sesame (gingelly). Given that sesame has a four-month harvest period, the processed seeds are ready by December-January.
One of the first written references to Uttarayana is found in the Mahabharata. In his narration of the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna of two paths taken by departed souls, one towards light and salvation, the other towards darkness. The period of Uttarayana is mentioned in relation to the path of light, traversing which one finds salvation and release from the material realm. Later, in the battle of Mahabharata, Bhishma chooses this day to depart the world. It is evident that the significance of the day pre-dates Mahabharata as well.
It is also believed to be a day of reconciliation between the father—Surya (Sun) and the son—Shani (Saturn). Surya puts aside all their differences to come and reside at the son’s house this one day of the year. Another Puranic legend states that on this day, Ganga followed King Bhagiratha, dived into the nether regions and vivified the ashes of his sixty thousand ancestors in Kapil Muni Ashram in Sagardwip, West Bengal, before meeting the Bay of Bengal. On Makar Sankranti, better known as Poush Sankranti among Bengalis, large number of pilgrims throng the Ganga Sagar Mela, which is the second biggest fair of India after the Kumbha Mela.
In some parts of Odisha, people celebrate the bond of friendship in a tradition known as Makara Basma. It is believed to have started with the practice of sharing produce with near and dear ones, evolved into a friendship bond over time. A friendship band is tied to symbolise this relationship. A male friend is addressed as Maharshad while the female friend is called as Makarathe.
In the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, as well as in Maharashtra and Goa, regional lore assigns this day to goddess Sankranti, a deity who derives her energy from the Sun. As the tale goes, Sankranti descended on earth on hearing the cries of humans and slayed the demon, Sankarasur, on this day. The next day she slayed the demon Kinkarasur, hence the day is called Kinkrant. In Maharashtra, the day before Makara Sankranti is known as Bhogi and is dedicated Indra, the god of clouds and rain.
The legend of Sabrimala states that on this day Lord Rama and Lakshman, after meeting Sabari, had met Lord Ayappan or Shastha, born out of the union of Vishnu and Shiva, ‘Harihara’. On this day Lord Ayappan is adorned with his holy jewels, thiruvabharanam, which are believed to have been gifted to him by Vishnu. The jewels are brought out, in a ceremonial procession, from the Pandalam palace where, according to legend, Lord Ayyappa spent his childhood.
A lore in Gorakhpur Math goes that in Treta Yuga, Baba Gorakhnath had visited the Jwala Devi Mandir in Himachal Pradesh. On seeing him, the goddess appeared and offered him a feast, which he refused, insisting on eating a meal made only with the alms that he received. The goddess agreed and put a pot of water to boil, while Baba Gorakhnath walked all the way to Gorakhpur, begging for alms. There, at the confluence of the rivers Rapti and Rohini, he put down his pot of alms and sat down to meditate on Uttarayana. Passers-by started putting rice and dal into his pot as alms, but found that the pot remained only half full. They soon realised that he was an enlightened one and since then people have been offering khichdi to Baba Gorakhnath on the day. Uttar Pradesh celebrates it as khichdi parv.
At its heart, this is a harvest festival, which is celebrated as Sankranti, Pongal, Lohri, Uttarayana, and worships the sun and the elements of nature for bountiful produce. As every state and region celebrate Makar Sankranti with its own set of rituals and food made with the new rice, sesame and jaggery; at the core of it is the gratitude for a good harvest and prayers for a safe and abundant produce.
Tanushree Bhowmik has nearly 20 years of experience as a development professional, working with international agencies on energy, infrastructure and gender. She also wears the hat of a food historian and runs ForkTales.