Makar Sankranti is a festival held across India under a variety of names to honor the God of the sun, Surya. Though often relegated to a secondary position relative to the three prominent Hindu deities – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, Surya was a key figure in the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, and is the subject of one of the most repeated texts of Hindu liturgy, the Gayatri Mantra. Many devout Hindus chant this mantra daily as a part of their morning ritual.
Makar Sankranti also heralds the end of winter and the arrival of spring throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Through the next six months, called the Uttarayan period, the days will become longer and warmer, and the whole period is considered as an auspicious time. The day is also tied to the just-celebrated Bhishma Ashtami, which remembered the death of the hero Bhishma from the ancient Hindu epic the Mahabharat, who chose to die just as the Uttarayan period began.
Kite flying is a common activity during this celebrated occasion. In 2010, as a part of Children’s Day, India Post issued a miniature sheet of four stamps portraying traditional toys played by children, of which a Rs. 5 stamp depicts a colorful kite (patang) and a spool (firki). However, this is not the first time kites have appeared on Indian stamps. Back in 1991, a Rs. 6.50 stamp was issued for India Tourism Year showing five kites flying in the sky. A greetings stamp issued in 2004 also portrays the theme of colorful kites.
Makar Sankranti is observed in the month of Magha as the sun enters Capricorn (on or near January 14 on the Common Era calendar). Being a solar date, it will vary from year to year on the Hindu lunar calendar. The celebration of kite flying is not limited to India. This popular event is depicted on postage stamps all over the world which can be seen in the below images.
The festival is known by many different names in different parts of India.
In Gujarat, it is customary to give gifts. Gujarati pandits grant scholarships to students for higher studies in astrology and philosophy. Flying kites is a way of celebrating a day when one embraces knowledge and leaves ignorance behind. Uttarayan also marks the biannual change in wind direction, an event crucial to the traders who have sailed from the coasts of Gujarat since earlier times.
In Maharashtra, Uttarayan is celebrated as the harvest festival. The custom is to exchange a sweet preparation called til-polis or til-ke-ladoos made from jaggery and sesame seeds. Elders and guests are greeted with the saying, ‘tilgud ghya, god-god bola’ and married women are invited for a get-together called Haldi-Kumkum after which they are given gifts.
A similar celebration takes place in Karnataka, with families exchanging platters of sesame seed mixed with fried groundnuts, jaggery, coconut pieces and sugarcane. This last symbolizes sugarcane harvest and the ritual is known as Ellu Birodu.
Dana is an important part of the celebrations in Tamil Nadu, where this harvest festival is known as Pongal. This is a three-day festival in which people worship the sun. On the first day, known as Bhogi, they dispose their old possessions, representative of giving up vices. The next day is Pongal, on which paddy is reaped and Pongal, a preparation of rice and lentils, is offered to the Gods. The last day, Mattu Pongal is devoted to the worship of cows.
In Andra Pradesh, Bhogi is celebrated with a bonfire of useless household articles and the Sankrant day is marked with prayers and offerings to family ancestors. During the festival, the majestic Gangireddu, a bull draped in various hues of cloth, may be seen visiting every doorstep with its master who glorifies the significance of the festival with his folk tunes.
The festival is called Khichri in Uttar Pradesh. In eastern UP, khichri, made with rice is served as part of festivals while in the western parts of the state, Bajra is used to make khichri. Taking a dip in the Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati at the Sangam (confluence) in Allahabad, is considered auspicious on this day. Many also offer prayers to Surya during this dip.
In Punjab, the eve of Makar Sankranti is celebrated as Lohri and bonfires are lit in the evenings. The following day, which is Sankrant is celebrated as Magh. On this occasion, Hindus light lamps of sesame seed oil to bring prosperity and drive away all sins. An early morning dip in the river is considered the best way to begin the auspicious month of Magh.
In Bundelkhand and Madhya Pradesh, Makar Sankranti is known as Sukarat or Sakarat and is time for preparation of sweets. This day is also the beginning of the New Year for many tribal communities in Orissa. In Bengal, a big fair is held at Ganga Sagar where river Ganga enters the sea. Known as the harvest festival of Poush Parbon, it is a time when freshly harvested paddy and date palm jaggery are used to make a variety of sweets.
In Assam, the festival is celebrated as Bhogali Bihu. One of the three Bihu festivals of the year, it marks the completion of the harvest season. With full granaries, this is a time for feasting and merriment.
In Kerala, the Makar Sankranti marks the end of a forty-one-day penance or Amushthana undertaken by devotees of Lord Ayyappa. On this day, devotees undertake a journey on foot to the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala, deep in the Western Ghats.
The festival of Uttarayan is mainly a harvest festival rooted in agrarian communities with both Surya and Indra (the Rain God) being thanked across the country. These elemental deities are considered vital to the success of a crop season. At many places, agricultural implements are also worshipped and for the farmers, this is an important occasion.
Religious Celebrations: L-Z edited by J. Gordon Melton
A Different Freedom: Kite Flying in Western India; Culture and Tradition by Nikita Desai