I convey my heartfelt wishes on the eve of the festivals of Lohri, Makar Sankranti, Pongal and Magh Bihu. “On the auspicious occasion of Lohri, Makar Sankranti, Pongal and Magh Bihu, I extend warm greetings and good wishes to all my well-wishers. May these harvest festivals bind the communities and regions of India in fraternal love and affection. May the festivals mark the commencement of an era of abundance, prosperity and new opportunities.”
Traditional singing and dancing accompanied with sumptuous feast and bonfire sets up the mood for nonstop celebrations for Lohri festival. This festival is believed to burn all the moments of sadness and brings in warmth of happiness and love.
Lohri marks the end of the harvest in Northern India, and is characterised by the worship of fire. The Lohri fire gets sanctified and is respected as a deity. This fire (Lohri Bonfire) is considered a representation of energy and spiritual strength and is lit during the festival in every household. Various grains like peanuts, popcorn, puffed rice and similar goodies are ceremonially ‘fed’ to this fire. What follows, of course, is plenty of feeding to everybody around as well!
The main ritual during Lohri festival includes chanting prayers in front of the fire for abundant crops and taking parikramas (three rounds of the pious fire) while throwing peanuts and sweets in the sacred fire. After this ritual ‘prasad’ is distributed that includes mainly six things- sweets like gur, gazak and revdi, peanuts, popcorn and puffed rice.
The first Lohri of a bride or a newborn baby is considered extremely important in India, which calls for a great feast. Lohri celebrations are never complete without music and dance, and feasting is invariably rounded off with a vigorous bit of shake-a-leg. The traditional dinner on Lohri includes appetizing traditional Punjabi food like ‘makki ki roti’ and ‘baajre ki roti’ with ‘sarson ka saag’.
Makar Sankranti marks the end of winter, when the sun moves into the northern hemisphere- thus symbolising regeneration and the start of a new period. Besides being a significant date in the zodiac, Makar Sankranti is also a harvest festival and is celebrated throughout the region as the end of one agrarian cycle.
Traditionally, Makar Sankranti is observed by a ritual bath- in Uttar Pradesh, in fact, there’s a local belief that anybody who doesn’t bathe on Makar Sankranti will end up being born a donkey in his or her next incarnation! The sacred ‘sangam’ at Allahabad- the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna- is especially an important place for ritual baths, and is the venue for a local fair. All across North and West India, flying kites and feasting on rice and sweets made from sesame seeds is an integral part of the festivities.
In western India Gujarat and Maharashtra Makar Sankranti is celebrated by flying colourful kites and kite competitions.
In Southern India the end of the harvest is observed as a four-day festival called Pongal which begins on January 14th and last till January 17th every year with the auspicious time to celebrate Pongal being from 7 am to 9 am. The Pongal festival is one of the biggest festivals celebrated in South India and is a thanksgiving for the plentiful harvest received.
The Pongal festival is celebrated with great pomp and show and people clean and decorate their houses with flowers and rangoli (kolam) and buy new clothes. This is when farmers bring newly harvested rice home and feed their cattle a rice dish called Pongal- from where the festival got its name, and is dedicated to Lord Surya.
Pongal festival is also celebrated as Tamil Nadu’s New Year Day. The Pongal festival also happens to coincide with Makar Sankranti that is a harvest festival celebrated in northern and other parts of India. In other regions it is known as Lohri, Bihu, Hadaga, and Poki. The festivities of Pongal also vary to some extent in celebration.
Bhogi Pongal, the first day of the Pongal festival is dedicated to the worship of the rain God Indra. On this day people rise early, clean their homes well and decorate it with Kollam and flowers. They then get dressed in new clothes and offer flowers to the Lord Vinayaka made from cow dung or turmeric and light traditional lamps.
The second day of the festival is called Surya Pongal is devoted to Surya, the Sun God. The special Pongal dish is prepared in all homes. This is essentially a sweet rice dish cooked in milk and is offered to Lord Ganesha and then to cows and then it is distributed as prasad.
The third day Mattu Pongal is a day dedicated to cattle and other animals. The day is marked by the worship of the Goddess Parvati and her son, the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha. This is also the day when cattle- an indispensable part of life in all villages- are bathed and decorated, then paraded through the villages. The procession is followed by cattle races, and in some instances, bullfights which are locally known as ‘jallikattu’- bags full of money are tied to the horns of bulls, and young men endeavour to wrestle with the bulls to get the bags off (and keep the change for themselves, of course!)
The fourth and the final day of the Pongal festival which is traditionally known as Kannum Pongal is the day when the families relax, visit each other and have lunch with friends and family. This is considered a very auspicious day when people visit their family and friends and rejoice. On this day there are folk dance performances accompanied by music and song.
The Assamese equivalent of Makar Sankranti and Pongal, Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu too is a harvest festival. Magh Bihu marks the end of the rice harvesting season, and is especially important in agrarian communities. For the occasion, a hut-like structure, called a meji ghar, is constructed from thatch and firewood. It’s erected in the shorn rice fields, and is ritually set aflame during the festivities. Community feasts are held near the meji ghar, and are accompanied by much merrymaking, including dance and music, bullfights and birdfights.
From ancient times Bihus are the national festivals celebrated in Assam. There are three Bihus celebrated, that signify the different phases of farming. Read more for details on Bihus, special events in Assam.