Traditionally, the Sun occupies a very important place in pagan traditions. From being the source of life-giving warmth to enlivening crops in fields, governing the rain cycle to powering solar mills, the orange ball of fire has been hailed as a mystic life-giving force. Too much and it can dry and devastate and if too little, life would cease to exist.
The Indian Hindu calendar, while being a lunar cycle, keenly follows the Sun’s movement across the various planetary houses to ascertain auspicious periods in time. January in the Gregorian almanac corresponds to the Hindu Sankranti. In simple terms, it refers to the northward passage of the fireball into the Capricorn zone. Kranti, or transfer, is the movement of the Sun up north towards the Tropic of Capricorn. Scientifically backed, however, in good old days the simple agrarian folk observed the change in season and/or direction of the sun as a sign to restart farming activity after the cold winter.
Hence, the significance of mid-January. Depending on leap year or not and calculations of the Hindu adhik maas, the festival of Makar (Capricorn) Sankranti (transfer), usually aligns itself to January 13,14 or 15. It is essentially a bugle call to celebrate sowing/harvesting activity.
In the varied parts of India, the days are called by different names.
In Punjab and the north, it is celebrated as Lohri and calls for a bonfire night. In Assam, it is marked as Magh Bihu, Maghi Saaji in Himachal Pradesh, Maghi Sangrand or Uttarayan in Gujarat and Jammu, Sakraat in Haryana, Sukarat in central India, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Ghughuti in Uttarakhand, Dahi Chura in Bihar, Makara Sankranti in Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal (also called Poush Sankranti) or as Sankranthi in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
It is also marked in Nepal as Maghe Sankranti, Songkran in Thailand, Thingyan in Myanmar and Mohan Songkran in Cambodia.
Makar Sankranti is observed with social festivities such as colourful decorations, rural children going house to house, singing and asking for treats in some areas, melas (fairs), dances, kite flying, bonfires and feasts. The Magha Mela, according to Indologist Diana L. Eck, is mentioned in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Seasonal goodies such as jaggery, sesame seeds and sweetmeats made from these are exchanged.
Many observers go to sacred rivers or lakes and bathe in a ceremony of thanks to the sun. Every 12 years, the Hindus observe Makar Sankranti with Kumba Mela – one of the world’s largest mass pilgrimage, with an estimated 40 to 100 million people attending the event. At this event, they offer prayers to the Sun and bathe at the Prayaga confluence of the River Ganga and River Yamuna.