"Makar Sankranti !"

Makar Sankranti-an ingenious product of Hindu belief system!
By A.H. Jaffor Ullah
A woman prays to Surya god before dipping into holy water
of Ganga Sagar (photo by: Jayanta Shaw)

Most blind belief systems (read religions) have invented rituals, special days, legends, folklore, etc., to build a rampart or bulwark to defend, define, and preserve their belief systems. The Muslim religion was started in sixth century with a very few legends or folklore. In that sense, the early Islam was truly a modern religion. However, as time passed, much folklore had infiltrated that simple religion. Now Islam can boast of having Shabe Miraj, Shabe Barat, Urs of one kind, or another, legends of Harut Marut, Yajjuj Majjuj, etc., to embellish the religion of peace. In Bangladesh, they have started a congregation on the bank of Turag River calling it Biswa Ijtema. In 50 years time, the river itself will become a holy one as Ijtema grows in popularity among the Musullis (devotees).

Hindu women takes a holy dip into Ganga Sagar (Photo by: Jayanta Shaw)

The Uno Numero religion in India is not Islam but Sonatan Hinduism. This ancient religion is infested with so many bizarre tales, legends, and folklore that an entire 700MB of CD-R could be filled very easily with text, illustrations, and sketches to accommodate all the inanities that are rife in Hindu belief system. Some of these legends, folklores, etc., are so commonplace that they have become enmeshed in everyday life of many practicing Hindus all over India. The Hindu festivals are renowned for being jazzy-looking. There is a saying in Bengal ? ?baro mashe tero porbon? meaning, 13 festivals in 12 months, which epitomizes the love for festivities by Hindus. We all know about Dasera or Bijoya that is associated with Jagroto Mata (a living deity) Durga or Parvati. When Hindus take the Protima (statue) of Durga for Bishorjon (casting into a river) they say the Mother will be going to her father?s abode. However, little do they realize that the Protima will be heading towards Bay of Bengal and not towards Mount Kailash to the North where her father lives as per Hindu legend? Well, I bring this up to show one of the gross inanities of Hindu religion.

Left: A Hindu Sannayasi sings devotional song at Sagar Island. Right: A holy man plays string instrument near Kolkata
(both photo taken by Jaynta Shaw)

The Hindus all over India is now getting ready to celebrate one of the greatest religious festivals that is known as Makar Sankranti or Poush Sankranti in Bengal. In Southern India, the same festival is known as Pongal. This religious festival has something to do with the position of the sun in sky. The Hindu astrologer believes that on January 14 every year the sun starts migrating to the north. Thus, it marks a new beginning as far as sun?s migration from tropics of Capricorn (Makar in Indian languages) towards equator. Our earth enters the constellation of Makar (crocodile) on first of Magh. According to astronomy as developed in the west, sun migrates to the imaginary line of topics of Capricorn on December 21 (the shortest day in Northern hemisphere and the longest day in Southern Hemisphere). But why do the Indian astronomers wait 24 more days to celebrate the northerly migration of the sun is a mystery to me. In any case, January 14 is an auspicious day as per the Hindus all over India. Religiously (no pun intended), they celebrate the dawning of a new constellation Makar, which is a yearly event.

In Bengal, a big dipping festival unfurls on January 14 near Sagar Island where one branch of Ganges empty its water into Bay of Bengal. According to Reuters report, an estimated 300,000 devotees will gather at Sagar Island to dip in holy water at the confluence of Ganges and Bay of Bengal, which is about 90 miles from Kolkata. Many Munis and Rishis will come to Sagar Island for taking part in the festivity. Once every decade, the same festival takes place near Allahabad where Jumna River meets the Ganges, which the Hindus call devotionally the Maha Khumbha Mela. That festival is the largest congregation of Hindus in India. Two years ago in January 2001, the last Maha Khumbha Mela was celebrated.

Left: A devotee applies vermillion copiously (photo: Bikas Das); Right: Tantrik prays holding a human skull (right)

The Makar Sankranti is celebrated with lots of mirth making everywhere in India. They prepare special sweetmeat with sesame seed (til) and jaggery (unrefined sugar made from palm sap or Tale?r Rosh). In Bangla, we call it Til?er Laddu. Also, on this auspicious day, many Hindu women apply halood-kumkum or turmeric powder on each other?s forehead and children do fly kites because northerly wind is strong at this time of the year. Many devotees plunge into river water at Prayag, near Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna or Jumna River.

Because of the end of winter harvest, Makar Sankranti is also celebrated throughout India as a harvest festival. As someone wrote, ?It is a way of giving thanks to the elements of nature that help man.? In the coastal regions, this harvest festival is dedicated to Indra. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, it is celebrated as a three-day harvest festival. In Assam, they call the festival Bhogali Bihu, and in Punjab, the same festival is called Lohri. In North India, taking a bath in the river is considered mandatory on this day. According to a legend in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, one who does not take a bath on Makar Sankranti is born a donkey in his or her next birth. Some people think that the legend got started in cold climates to compel some of the more reluctant people to observe the basic rules of hygiene.

Indian Sadhus chant devotional songs at Sagar Island (Photo: Jayanta Shaw)
The festivity of bathing in holy waters is accompanied with a big country fair or Mela. Thus, a rather large fair is held at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers at Triveni in Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) on this occasion. Being the month of Magh, this fair is also called Magh Mela. Apart from Triveni, ritual bathing also happens at many places like Haridwar and Garh Mukteshwar in Uttar Pradesh, and Patna in Bihar. In Bengal, the place famous for Makar Sankranti is Sagar Island. As a child we also heard from our Hindu friends that many a place in rural East Bengal (Bangladesh now) they celebrate Poush Sankranti by hosting Mela and eating Tileee'r Laddu. Kite flying was also used to be a part of the festival.
A Sadhu performs Yoga at the bank of Hoogly River near Kolkata (Photo: Suchita Das)
Many western news organizations have sent their photographers to Sagar Island and nearby towns who scoured the place to take some wonderful photos. I visited the Yahoo news site and found a plethora of colorful photos of devotees who are about to take a plunge into the cold river waters. Jayanta Shaw and Suchita Das took many of the photos for Reuters and Bikas Das did the same for AP. I gratefully acknowledge their skills and without their photos, this article that I hurriedly put together on January 13, 2003, would not have been possible. I am very interested in the rituals in which our forefathers have participated for over thousand of years. Hinduism is a part of life in rural India and one can see the religion in its full vibrancy through such festivity as Makar Sankranti.
A.H. Jaffor Ullah writes from New Orleans.

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