Two festivals, two vivid celebrations, but united in hope. Both Makar Sankranti and Ratha Saptami have their origin in the movement of the sun, and they embody the promise of new beginnings.
When black is good
According to Pandit Vasantrao Gadgil eminent Sanskrit scholar and head of the India International Multivarsity: “Sankranta literally means the changing of the sun’s abode from one sign of the zodiac to another. Naturally,it falls every month.But Makar Sankranti,which marks the journey of the sun from Dhanu (Sagittarius) to Makar (Capricorn) is the most special of all.The Hindu calendar divides the year into two parts or ayanas.Makar Sankranti marks the end of Dakshinayana (southward movement of the sun) and advent of Uttarayana (northward journey of the sun).
In Maharashtra,it is celebrated on either of the two days January 10 or 14.While the former day is celebrated mainly in Ratnagiri and Pune districts,as per the Tilak almanac brought out by Lokmanya Tilak,the festival is largely celebrated on January 14.However,sometimes when the sun entersMakar rashi only in the evening hours,it is celebrated on January 15,when the sun will rise in Capricorn.
Even as it coincides with the onset of the harvest season, Makar Sankrantiis enthusiastically brought in with flying kites,taking a dip in a holy river,a bath with sesame oil,propitiating ancestors with a sesame oil lamp,exchange of til gul (sesame and jaggery twin symbols of prosperity),etc.
It is a widely held faith that whatever you give away on this day will be returned to you manifold by the Sun God,in this life as well as the next.
This is one day of the year when married women will favour black as the colour signifies theend of sadness and negativity and the onset of fresh optimism, explains Pandit Gadgil.
In cities, ladies celebrate the values of wedded life with haldi kunku,but rural parts of Maharashtra take this ceremony further with the elaborate exchange of sugad (earthen pots containing sticks of sugarcane,turmeric,cloth,rice and cotton.)
Makar Sankranti is celebrated by different age groups for an assortment of reasons. And the star of the occasion—without a doubt is sesame. While the day begins with bathing in sesame-sprinkled water, sweets like til gul and gulaachi poli are enjoyed through the day. Not only is sesame the finest offering of the season, but its health benefits in the cool months are manifold.
The Suneche Tilavan or the first welcome to the daughter-in-law is much looked forward to by several families with new brides in their midst.
New babies are fussed over too—with the fun filled bornahan. The customary ‘bath’ with all the goodies that children usually covet—including the ber fruit, pieces of sugarcane,puffed rice,candy and chocolates is symbolic of the baby’s first spring.
He who rides the perfect chariot with seven horses
On this day, devotees rise early, following a fast on the previous day (Sashti.) For Ratha aka Bhaskar Saptami that falls in the Hindu month of Magha is an important day, marking the seventh day following the Sun’s northerly movement (Uttarayan) starting from the zodiac sign of Capricorn (Makara).
A prayer before sunrise is followed by seeking the blessings of elders. Rakta Chandan (or red sandalwood) is used to draw images of the Sun God Surya on his chariot, drawn by his seven splendid horses with Aruna the charioteer,towards the northern hemisphere, in a north-easterly direction. The symbolism of the seven horses are a tribute to the seven colours of the rainbow, an endless source of beauty and delight to everyone. The chariot has 12 wheels, which represents the 12 signs of the Zodiac (360 degrees) and constituting a full year.
Pandit Gadgil recounts the legend thus: “Long years ago, the kingdom of Kambhoj was ruled by the King Yashovarma, a good king, who had no heir to succeed him. He propitiated the gods, and was duly blessed with a son. But to everyone’s dismay the child was perpetually sick. A wise man advised the king that the son’s troubles were a result of his past life’s sins, wherein he harassed the poor and the weak. However, if the boy were to perform the Ratha Saptami pooja to rid himself of his past sins, all would be well. The son performed the pooja, and enjoyed good health thereon.”
Ratha Saptami also marks the gradual increase in temperature across India and heralds the arrival of spring.
Kheer is cooked on cow dung cakes, and offered to the sun god. Offerings include green bananas, uncooked rice, flowers , jaggery, turmeric and betel nuts. “The sun is the bedrock of all life on earth, and this day is a thanksgiving to Surya’s bounties,” says Pandit Gadgil.