January 14, 2017

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The Sun transits to the zodiac sign of Makara (Capricorn), and soon the days are going to get longer. Marking this celestial milestone, most of India is celebrating today as Sankrani in Karnataka, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Lohri in Punjab and Bihu in Assam. The Good City joins the unique celebrations.

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'Yellu bella thindu olle mathu aadu' is the greeting in Kannadiga households today, urging people to eat "eat sweets & speak sweetly". The tradition is for relatives & friends to exchange jaggery, sugar, sesame, peanuts and sugarcane.

Ray of light

A wonderfully strange occurrence happens on this day in the Gavi Gangadeshwara temple in Gavipuram in South Bangalore. The passage of this ancient cave temple is dark and cavernous, even in bright daylight. There are layers of space, each of which is progressively dark. The innermost sanctum of this temple is almost pitch black, and the idol difficult to see.

Every year – unfailingly – on one particular day, the setting rays of the sun fall through the outer arch, pierce through minuscule windows, several layers of darkness and fall on the idol. As you emerge into the sunlight yard, the science, the magic and the mystery of it all is palpable and impressive.

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It is an occasion to celebrate many things, and in typical Indian fashion, many ways. If you are in the western state of Gujarat, you can catch the feverish kite-flying – a colourful feast for the eyes. In Punjab, a northern state, the festival is called Lohri – and is the time for spirited singing and dancing. Kerala sees a swarm of devotees, dressed in black, as they make their annual pilgrimage to the Ayyappa shrine at the top of the Sabarimalai hill. Devotees believe there is a strange light that emanates from the hill-top on this auspicious day.

In central and most southern states, it is Pongal or Sankranti - it is a harvest festival, with cattle decorated and taken around. In the villages, the action is a lot more interesting with bullock races. In the cities, when the cows and bulls are taken around, they are worshipped, and fed. The colour and pageantry is always an interesting sight.

In Karnataka, in addition to the pageantry and new clothes, it’s a foodies delight: there’s the rice and lentil ‘pongal’ cooked in two versions: sweet, and salt-spiced. If you are not a rice person – there’s ‘yellu bella’, the sesame seed and jaggery sweet, or a dry mix with coconut, peanuts, and gram, all high in nutritive value, to relish.

And if this is not tempting, there is the sugar –candy, which looks as pretty and sweet as it tastes: the sugar syrup is crafted into all sorts of shapes: peacock, clover, heart, geometric designs – with wooden moulds. There is no greater joy than sucking on the sugar candy or a piece of raw sugarcane. All these goodies – the sugarcane, sugar candy, sesame cookies are placed on a platter of woven bamboo, with trinkets such as jewellery boxes, bangles or anklets. This platter is exchanged with relatives and neighbours. It is a time to connect and catch up with family and friends.  

So, no matter in which state of India you are, you can tuck into the local festive fare, and fables. And realize our well-being revolves around nature, whether we acknowledge it or not. So it is no coincidence that sunlight is celebrated, and not just across India. Makar Sankranti is the day of the winter solstice: the day the sun transitions into the northern hemisphere and grows larger. This is what was celebrated as the Winter Solstice festival; the festival that Christmas is derived from. 

The sunlight, then, is a gentle reminder that it is the same things that matter to all of us; we all celebrate the same things - sunshine, the warmth of family and friends, and the goodness of a hearty feast.