FRIDAY, JANUARY 15: Snow may still be covering many regions of the world, but in India, thoughts of spring are in full swing: Today begins Makar Sankranti, a festival signaling the migration of the sun from Sagittarius to Capricorn. Makar Sankranti is considered highly auspicious, beginning a Hindu period of enlightenment, peace and happiness—although cultures across this huge country bring a variety of customs.
Throughout India and the Hindu world, some things are almost universal: Devotees feast on warming sweets, fly kites and take a dip in sacred waters. (Hungry for an authentic Makar Sankranti recipe? Try one from the Times of India.)
And the variations? In some regions, cattle are decorated; in other regions, decorative designs called rangolis are brightly displayed in front of homes; ancestors are honored. (Wikipedia has details.) During the sub-festival of Kale Kauva, sweetmeats of flour, sugar and butter are formed into shapes and strung onto a necklace.
The darkest days of the calendar year—calculated by Hindus as lasting from mid-December through mid-January—mark an inauspicious phase, and that phase ends with Makara Sankranti. Many traditional stories are associated with this festival, and even the most ancient epics mention its significance. Among the stories, Hindus share that Maharaja Bhagiratha liberated his ancestors from a curse, merging the Ganges with the sea, and to this day, millions enter the waters at Ganga Sagar (the point where the Ganges River meets the Bay of Bengal) during Makara Sankranti.
Perhaps the most widely recognized symbol of Makar Sankranti is the kite, as kites are flown in several regions throughout India as a symbolic outreach to Surya, the Sun god. Kite designs can be traditional, but most visualize popular culture and figures; movie stars, political leaders and activists are most common.
Still, warnings go out concerning Makar Sankranti kite flying, too: animal welfare activists have launched campaigns throughout India to raise awareness of the hundreds of birds killed each year with manja, glass-coated kite strings. Volunteers will offer public lessons on flying kites with regular strings, while other volunteers will offer help in caring for any injured birds.
There are intriguing interfaith connections as kites soar for Makar Sankranti. This particular activity extends beyond the majority Hindu community. Many of the craftsmen who create the kites are Muslims from Uttar Pradesh, and some of the most expert young flyers are Muslim.
MELA MAGHI: SIKHS HONOR ’40 LIBERATED ONES’
For Sikhs, Makar Sankranti signals another commemoration: Maghi, the anniversary of the sacrifice of the 40 “Immortal” Sikhs who defended Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1705. Though they had previously deserted 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, the Chali Mukte (40 Liberated Ones) returned to battle and defended their leader with their lives. The massive imperial Mughal army was forced to retreat, and following their martyrdom, Guru Gobind Singh declared the ‘40 Liberated Ones’ as having reached mukti (liberation).
In gurdwaras worldwide, Sikhs gather for recitals of the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book), while participating in religious divans for Mela Maghi. In Mukstar (Punjab), a three-day celebration draws pilgrims with fairs and the opportunity for worship at various shrines.