The colourful kite-flying festival of Makar Sankranti or Uttarayan, which falls on January 14 each year, marks the end of a long winter and the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere. Hence the name Uttarayan.
According to Hindu astronomy, it is on this holiest day in the Hindu calendar, that the sun enters the zodiac of Makara or Capricorn, heralding the northern journey of the sun. The day is also of special significance, because on this day, the day and night are of equal hours.
Celebrated since time immemorial, among Hindus all over India, the day finds a mention even in the epic Mahabharata. We are told that the warrior hero Bhishma Pitamah, even on being fatally wounded and lying on a bed of arrows, lingered on till Uttarayan set in, to breathe his last.
It is believed that the person who dies on his auspicious day escapes the cycle of birth and rebirth and that the soul mingles with the almighty.
Makar Sankranti heralds the arrival of spring, the season of fruitfulness and plenty. And nothing signifies this better than the soft seeds of til or sesame. Across India, housewives prepare sweetmeats made from til – whether it is a basic mixture of til and jaggery, or laddus, or the famous til-poli of Maharashtra. In the southern part of India, the day is celebrated as Pongal, where a fullsome meal of lentils and rice liberally dashed with ghee is offered to gods, and then to family members.
In the northern states, like Punjab, the festival is celebrated as Lohri, where the end of a bitter winter is marked with the burning of huge bonfires liberally fed with handfuls of til sweets, rice and sugarcane. In Uttar Pradesh, the festival is called Khichedi and a typical rice and lentil preparation (called Khichdi), with the mandatory dash of ghee, is offered not just to the Gods, but is also distributed among the poor.
Interestingly, this is a time of celebration for Muslims too. Just out of the month-long fasts of Ramzan, Muslims celebrate the festival of Id just a few days prior to Makar Sankranti. Prayers and hectic preparation of food and the famous seviyan, or vermicelli pudding cooked in milk mark the day which is a time to eat the best and wear the brightest. Its a time of plenty, and a time to give, especially to those who are needy.
The most colourful celebration of Makar Sankranti can be seen in the western states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Colourful kites dot the skies as each one attempts to outdo the other. As the sun sets, children and adults desperate to extend the day, add floating oil lanterns to the tails of their kites – a sight that brings to life the true meaning of the day: a return to light, to warmth, to the life-giving sun.
A famous Sanskrit Shloka that expresses it best reads:
Asato maa sadgamaya Tamaso maa jyotirgamaya Mrityoormaa amritam gamaya
Lead me, O Lord, from untruth to Truth from darkness to Light and from death to Immortality.