Millions of people across South Asia will be celebrating the festival of Makar Sankranti on January 14, 2018. It marks the transition of the Sun from the Dhanusha Rashi (a zodiac sign corresponding to Sagittarius) to the Makara Rashi (a zodiac sign corresponding to Capricorn).  The festival, based on the solar calendar, signals the northward movement of the Sun, the end of winter, and the lengthening of days. It is known by different names in different parts of the subcontinent:

  • Sindh: Tirmoor
  • Punjab: Maghi
  • Himachal: Magh Saaji
  • Uttarakhand: Ghughuti
  • Haryana: Sakraat
  • Uttar Pradesh and Bihar: Kicheri or Khichdi
  • Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh: Sankrant
  • Gujarat: Uttarayan
  • Nepal: Maghe Sankranti
  • Bengal: Poush Sankranti
  • Assam: Magh Bihu
  • Odisha: Makar Sankranti
  • Maharashtra: Makar Sankranti
  • Karnataka: Suggi Habba
  • Telangana and Andhra Pradesh: Makar Sankranti
  • Tamil Nadu: Thai Pongal
  • Kerala: Makar Sankranti

There are variations in the manner of celebration, given the great diversity of cultures that exist in South Asia. However, there are a number of commonalities as well. For example, in Sindh and Punjab in the Northwest, and Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in the Southeast, people gather on the night preceding the festival, and light bonfires (Lal Loi of the Sindhis, Lohri of the Punjabis and Bhogi of the Telugus).

Makar Sankranti is a harvest festival closely associated with the agricultural calendar of South Asian peasant societies. Among the Tamils, it is customary to cook rice along with milk and jaggery in pots, and let the contents boil over. The sweet preparation (Pongal) is offered to the Sun and distributed among family members, friends and well-wishers. Bengalis do much the same, making cakes (Pithas) out of rice flour, milk and jaggery. These are served to guests with date molasses.

Another crop closely associated with Makar Sankranti is sesame (Sesamum indicum). Marathis make laddoos (round sweetmeats) out of sesame seeds and jaggery known as Tilgul. To the far north, in the state of Bihar, the pounded seeds are mixed with jaggery to prepare Tilkut, a sweet associated with the festival. Livestock also play a key role in the celebrations. The Assamese organize buffalo fights while the Telugus and Tamils decorate and pamper their farm animals.

In the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, the festival involves kite-flying. People, young and old alike, gather on rooftops to fly and cut down kites. In Punjab, Sikhs gather in the town of Muktsar to undertake ritual baths and remember the martyrdom of their ancestors (who had been fighting the Mughal Emperor). This annual event is known as Mela Maghi. Another highlight is the Rauh di Kheer, where rice is cooked in sugarcane juice the night before and served cold in the morning.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and based on a late 17th century painting from Bundi, Rajasthan preserved by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It shows the Hindu deity Varuna riding a Makara (a mythical creature inspired by the South Asian Mugger Crocodile) that lends its name to the Makara Rashi.