Makara Sankranti, a very important Hindu festival, is celebrated in India and Nepal in January. Each year, the festival brings in new hope, and it is a time to rejoice with family, friends and community. It is also an opportunity to rekindle our connection to nature and to our higher selves. Festivals in general invoke a sense of belonging and togetherness, and give us a chance to contemplate on the spiritual aspects of life. By doing so, they tend to promote oneness.
This festival, which marks the sun’s transition into the Northern Hemisphere, has different names in different parts of India. It is known as “Pongal” in Tamil Nadu and “Lohri” in Punjab, and is celebrated with different practices in each region. The festival also has religious, social and spiritual significance.
Sankranti is perhaps the most popular harvest festival in the southern part of India. There are 12 Sankranti festivals per year, each signifying the transmigration of the sun from one zodiac sign into the other. Of these, Makara Sankranti is the most celebrated, and it is among a few festivals celebrated on the same day every year, normally Jan. 14, (sometimes on the 15th). The festival commemorates the beginning of longer days, and is an homage to the sun’s passage through the winter solstice, from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn.
In the state of Tamil Nadu, the Sankranti festival comprises four days: On the first day, old clothes are burned to signify the rebirth of the spirit — shedding old practices for new. On the second day, the sun is worshiped and thanked for providing the life energy — light energy the sun provides. On the third day, farmers thank their cattle for their role in tilling the land and giving milk, and on the fourth day, relatives and friends are celebrated and thanked for their roles. Makara Sankranti is a festival of showing gratitude for what is given to us, and for seeking guidance for our future. In general, on all four days the goddess of inspiration, Saraswati, is worshiped for guidance.
Festivals are the most anticipated events for students in schools. I remember waiting eagerly for Sankranti, as I used to get four days off from school. In general, most Hindu festivals are associated with a variety of foods, each type of food specific to the festival and sometimes to the region. In most of the southern states in India during Sankranti most of the dishes are rice based, because the main crop used to be rice. Desserts are also prepared as they are used to signify joy and happiness.
In some other parts of India, kite flying is an integral part of the Sankranti festival. As people begin to embark on new pursuits, their journey is signified by the ups and downs of a kite trying to reach bigger heights. The mind is the string that needs to be tough to hold the kite. The wind signifies the higher power that is helping and guiding humans in their physical and spiritual ascent.
The Sankranti festival is a time for thanksgiving — appreciating the sun (nature), farm animals like cattle and family and friends. It is also a time for spiritual rebirth, shedding old habits and unnecessary physical and mental baggage. It is another opportunity to start on a journey of spiritual and physical ascent, with the help of our minds guided by a higher power.
Soundar Kumara is the Allen E. and Allen M. Pearce professor of industrial engineering at Penn State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.