One of the cheerier dates of the long, cold winter months is the Hindu festival of Sankranti -- or Makar Sankranti.
Celebrated on January 14, it falls somewhere between the two very popular religious holidays -- Diwali, celebrated around November, and Yugadi, sometime in April and is a tad neglected. Yet it is an auspicious day for Hindus all over the world. Anyone who dies on Sankranti is believed to have ended the cycle of reincarnation.
Although different parts of India call it by different names it is still associated with the winter solstice, abundance, friendship and solidarity. Eating and distributing sweets to family, friends, neighbors, even foes, signifies sweetening and strengthening of existing relationships, forging new ties, and mending broken ones.
In Maharashtra, people exchange Til Gul, a colourful sweet coated with sesame seeds, on Sankranti. Along with the sweets, flowers, bangles, dry fruit, sugarcane and Ladoos seem to fall into the mix of items swapped as ceremonial gifts.
In certain parts of the country, where Sankranti marks the harvest season, farmers often decorate their cattle as well as their homes. To some degree, Sankranti could be considered the Hindu equivalent of the traditional American Thanksgiving, which is also a harvest celebration. It is on Sankranti day that the holy Kumbh Mela is held at Prayag every 12 years.
Makar Sankranti emphasizes Uttarayan, when the sun starts to travel north, going past the Tropic of Capricorn or Makar. It marks the decline of winter. The days become longer and brighter, and carry with them the promise of spring.
In Gujarat, especially in the city of Ahmedabad, the festival of Uttarayan is synonymous with kite-flying, a sport that can become raucously competitive. The flourishing kite-manufacturing industry has a field day. Kite-flying itself demands much skill, patience, planning and ingenuity, and has evolved both as a science and a art. With strings coated with glass powder especially designed to cut rivals' kites or patangs and bring them down, kite-flying can become an intensely serious sport. The competition is intense, with the entire city cheering on the contestants.
Pongal, celebrated in Tamil Nadu, is directly connected to the harvest. Out with the old and in with the new is the theme for the festival, and it involves cleaning out homes, discarding unwanted items and buying new ones -- a pre-spring-cleaning ritual. Pongal comes from the word 'ponga' which literally means 'boil over.' This suggests something overflowing, fecund with riches, as in the cornucopia of Greek mythology. It is also the name of the special rice dish cooked on that day.
Growing up in the small town of Belgaum in Karnataka state, the other children and I would go from door to door on Sankranti, exchanging Til Gul with the neighbors. This as an opportunity to gorge on sweets. The favorite holiday treat in our Saraswat Brahmin home were the round sesame and jaggery balls calls Tila Undé or Sesame Seed Laddoos.
(from Maharashtra and Karnataka)
2 cups white sesame seeds
½ cup unsalted peanuts
1 cup jaggery or brown sugar (jaggery works best)
2 tsp ghee
Dry roast sesame seeds and peanuts separately in a skillet over low heat until golden brown and fragrant, then set aside to cool. Place the jaggery and ghee in a large heavy pan. Heat the mixture till it melts, starts bubbling, and forms a thick syrup (a small drop thrown in a cup of cold water should form a ball and stay semi-solid). Add peanuts and sesame. seeds to the mix and remove from heat. Stir thoroughly until all solid items are well-coated, Mixture will be sticky. While still fairly hot, shape into half to one-inch balls, with ghee-greased hands. Allow it to cool completely before storing in airtight container. Laddoos will keep at room temperature for up to four weeks.
(from Tamil Nadu)
1 cup rice
1/4 cup mung dal (washed and dried)
1 cup milk and 1 cup water, mixed
3/4 cup jaggery or brown sugar
4 tbsp each cashews, slivered almonds and raisins lightly roasted in ghee
2 tbsp ghee
Pinch of cardamom powder
Roast the mung dal in 1 tbsp ghee until golden in color. Bring the milk-water to a boil. Add rice and dal and cook till tender (20-25 mins). If necessary add some water during cooking. Melt the jaggery with remaining ghee in a saucepan over low heat. Add the cooked rice/dal mixture and stir till all grains are well coated. Stir in nuts, raisins and cardamom powder. Serve hot.
Sketch by Uttam Ghosh