While Hindus don’t observe the day of the winter solstice, the day after the winter solstice is an important one. It is the day when the sun begins to move from the zodiac constellation of Sagittarius into that of Capricorn. This is Makar Sankranti, Sankranti meaning movement and Makar meaning Capricorn.
Makar Sankranti marks the beginning of Uttarayana, sun’s journey into the Northern Hemisphere, which will continue over the next six months through to the summer solstice.
The days will get longer now and warmer and brighter. I imagine the Earth tilting forward on its axis, its face turned to the sun soaking in the warmth after a dark and cold winter.
It is time for seasons to change once more. If winter is on its way out, spring must be around the corner. Sankranti is a celebration of this movement and change in seasons.
It heralds the start of good times that begin rightly with a bountiful harvest. Sankranti is celebrated primarily as a harvest festival across India and South Asia.
The crop that is newly harvested is cooked for the first time today. Sweets made from sesame seeds and jaggery(til and gul)are especially important and distributed among friends and neighbours as a goodwill gesture.
Joyous festivities mark the celebration in every home. The poor are fed and clothed, the cow, which is regarded as the symbol of the Holy Mother, is worshipped. Then there is the feeding of birds and animals.
This is a time to re-connect with the Earth and to be thankful.
Astrologically the next six months are the most auspicious in the Hindu calendar. Mythologically Uttarayana signifies the day time of the gods and Dakshinayana signifies the night time.
Swami Sivananda says,The sun, symbolising wisdom, divine knowledge and spiritual light, which receded from you when you revelled in the darkness of ignorance, delusion and sensuality, now joyously turns on its northward course and moves towards you to shed its light and warmth in greater abundance, and to infuse into you more life and energy.
I certainly experience a change in energy at this time of year. It is a time to start afresh with a new sense of purpose and a sense of ‘can do’ ness.
Sankranti occurs on January 14 every year. It is one of the rare Hindu festivals that is based on the solar calendar and hence remains almost constant with respect to the Gregorian calendar.
However, precession of the Earth’s axis (called ayanamsa) causes Makara Sankranti to move over the ages. A thousand years ago, it was on 31 December and is now on 14 January. According to the same calculations, from 2050 Makar Sankranti will fall on 15 January and the last time it was celebrated on 22 December would have been in 300 CE.
While the premise of Sankranti remains the same among all Hindus, different Indian states have their own distinct way of celebrating Sankranti. The name, the traditions all vary greatly.