India: auspicious celebrations of Mela Maghi and Lohri

Two young Sikh boys stand outside the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsSUNDAY, JANUARY 13: The auspicious month of Magh kicks off across India tomorrow, and Sikhs are the first to celebrate this major event—with the festival of Mela Maghi. Part of the larger jubilee of Magh, Sikhs today remember the honorable fight of the Forty Liberated Ones, or 40 Sikh followers who were martyred in a fight for the Guru Gobind Singh in 1705. Each year on Mela Maghi, Sikhs gather at the holy city of Muktar Sahib—the same place where the Forty Liberated Ones fought—to pray and recite their holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. (Wikipedia has details.)

As Magh marks a significant festival across India, Sikhs commemorate with one of the most vital religious gatherings in their religious calendar. Today, Sikhs will hear a centuries-old story repeated: In 1705, a group of former Sikh followers had abandoned leader Guru Gobind Singh and even signed a contract of desertion. Upon meeting a bold woman, Mai Bhago, they were first scorned for their cowardliness and then encouraged to recover their inner courage. Inspired, the 40 returned to the fight and died fighting off the massive Mughal army. (Read more at All About Sikhs.) Having fought to save Guru Gobind Singh, the Forty Liberated Ones were recognized the following day by the Guru. The bodies were cremated that day, on the first of Magh.

Magh events abound in the vibrant Punjabi region, but nowhere in Punjab are celebrations larger than in Mukstar. Here, enormous fairs delight young and old, and an overwhelming march of pilgrims lines the streets from a major shrine to the gurdwara Tibbi Sahib, which was sacred to Guru Gobind Singh. (Political conventions are also held during Maghi.) Customarily, Sikhs around the world are entertained on Maghi with end-to-end recitals of the Guru Granth Sahib.


As Sikh Maghi events wind down tonight—waiting to be picked up tomorrow—and the dusk gathers across Punjab, bonfires begin dotting the landscape: It’s the widespread Lohri, always marked on the eve of Makar Sankranti. People across India, including Hindus, eagerly anticipate the auspicious month of Magh, which dawns tomorrow and welcomes the umbrella festival of Makar Sankranti.

Tonight, Indians will light bonfires and lamps of sesame oil, in an attempt to literally Agh and Magh, “eradicate sin.” At the fireside, Punjabis eat rice in boiled milk and feast on warming treats like gajjak (a sesame bar—get the recipe here), roasted peanuts and popcorn. (Are Westerners really the ones in the dark on the Sikh Maghi festival? The Washington Post thinks so. Read an article all about it here.)


Lohri signals the distribution of alms across Punjab, along with bonfires that traditionally have helped families to welcome the birth of sons—but that tradition is quickly changing. This year, the Times of India reported the gathering of approximately 50 families at Sukhna Lake to celebrate their newborn daughters’ first Lohri. With corporate sponsors and musical performances, the event had a bonfire, peanuts and other customary snacks. Sponsors attest that as times change, families “take great pride” in their newborn girls, too.

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