Maghi, Lohri, Makara Sankranti: Hindus and Sikhs celebrate

MONDAY, JANUARY 13 and TUESDAY, JANUARY 14: Hindus, Sikhs and residents across India and Nepal usher in the arrival of spring with the auspicious Makara Sankranti, an ancient harvest festival that universally celebrates light over darkness. Celebrated in a variety of forms and in cultures, Makara Sankranti can take on almost as many characteristics as there are people who hold it dear.

Scientists describe Makara Sankranti as the day that the sun begins its movement away from the tropic of Capricorn and toward the Northern Hemisphere, which for Hindus signifies the turning away from darkness and toward the light. By turning toward the light of knowledge and spiritual wisdom, Hindus believe people can mature in purity and goodness, therby releasing the dark misconceptions that many call reality. (Wikipedia has details.) During this days-long festival, residents of Punjab eat rice in boiled milk; across India, the sky is filled with a rainbow of colors, as young and old gather beneath the sun to fly kites.

Did you know? In contrast to many Hindu festivals, which are lunar, Makara Sankranti is a solar event; thus, the date remains constant over a long term.

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. Multiple legends are associated with this festival, and even the most ancient epics mention its significance. Among the traditional 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. (Find details, greetings, recipes and more at I Love India.)


Largely in Punjab (and known by alternative names, such as Boghi, in other regions of India), the night preceding Makara Sankranti is filled with bonfires and folk dances. In many regions, people burn unnecessary belongings to make room for change in their lives, releasing attachment to material belongings and focusing on turning toward the light. (Wikipedia has details.) Sugarcane, sweets, rice, popcorn and peanuts are thrown into the flames of Lohri bonfires by families and friends. Those who have recently experienced marriage or childbirth are especially vigilant in their actions.


The colorful traditions of Makara Sankranti are almost as numerous as the kites in the sky during this festival of gaiety, as each region of India boasts its own customs. In Andhra Pradesh, infants and children are gifted with jujube fruits for protection from evil, sweets are prepared for all, brothers reaffirm filial love for their married sisters and new clothes are donned; in Bihar and Jharkhand, a rich khichdi dish takes center at the table and is prepared only once per year. In Tamil Nadu, thanks is offered to cattle for their assistance in agriculture, and during this festival they are fed sweet rice and sugar while decorated with flowers and bells; the infamous kite festivities across the state represent devotees’ reaching toward the sun and all that is good.


For Sikhs, the larger festivals of Lohri and Makar Sankranti signal an anniversary: It was on December 30, 1705, that the bodies of 40 Sikh martyrs were cremated. Though they had previously deserted 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, the Chali Mukte returned to battle and defended their leader with their lives; the massive imperial Mughal army was forced to retreat. (Read more at All About Sikhs.) Following their martyrdom on December 29, Guru Gobind Singh blessed the ‘40 Liberated Ones’ and declared them as having reached mukti (liberation).

In gurdwaras worldwide, Sikhs gather for recitals of the Guru Granth Sahib, or Sikh holy book, while participating in religious divans for Mela Maghi. In Mukstar (Punjab), a three-day celebration draws pilgrims with fairs, promises of a dip in sacred waters and opportunity for worship at various shrines. Events conclude with a procession from the main shrine to gurdwara Tibbi Sahib.


Much like a fictional superhero, Sikh cartoonist Vishavjit Singh set out for the streets with a valiant goal in mind: to battle negative forces in the city. For this turban-donning version of Captain America, however, the negative forces were stereotypes. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Vishavjit revealed the prejudices he has encountered in the city he calls home—and how drawing Sikh comics helps him to release frustrations. Vishavjit says he hopes to continue drawing attention in a fun, creative way, to battle religious and ethnic stereotypes.


High-profile events for Makara Sankranti began days in advance, including the gathering of more than 1,000 film stars and celebrities for the Punjabi Cultural Heritage Board’s Lohri in Andheri last Saturday. Meanwhile, kite sellers report politicians as hottest in this year’s kite trends, trumping cartoons and even Bollywood stars. Devoid of slogans, the kites picture just the faces of politicians, with the most popular being Narenda Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. (Read more in the Times of India.)

For years, each Maghi (harvest festival) in Nepal brought worry to young girls in the impoverished community of Tharu: during this festival, the girls were sold by their families to the wealthy in servitude, through an annual contract. This custom continued until 2000, TIME recently reported, when the Nepal Youth Foundation drew up plans to ban this practice through initiatives for families and education for the kamlari girls. Though approximately 12,500 girls have been rescued since efforts began, around 500 remain in the homes of powerful figures. This Maghi, rescued girls will be raising awareness of the now-outlawed practice, knocking on doors to free the last of the kamlari.