As winter slowly makes way for spring, people across the country erupt in celebrations, with everyone decorating their houses and making merry to honour the harvest season and Mother Nature, for being gracious with her bounty. By mid-January four major harvest festivals are celebrated across India. They are Pongal, Makar Sankranti, Lohri and Magh Bihu. While most of us know the traditions associated with these festivals, there are unique and interesting stories behind each festival.
We share with you the history of each festival, so you can educate your child about the significance and reason behind these traditions.
The origin of Pongal can be dated back to the Sangam age and has been mentioned in the Sanskrit puranas. The women of the Sangam era used to observe ‘pavai nonbu’ during Thai Neeradal, which was a big festival during the Pallavas’ reign between 4 AD and 8 AD. The celebrations occurred during the Tamil month of Margazhi (between December and January) and the women used to pray for rains and prosperity to the deity Katyayani. Throughout the month, the women would take a bath early in the morning and avoid consuming milk or milk products. They would end their penance on the first day of Thai. This was done to bless the land and the paddy fields with rains and abundance. These traditions led to the annual Pongal celebrations over the years. In the Veeraraghava temple at Tiruvallur, an inscription was found, which said that the Chola King Kulottunga gifted lands to the temple during the Pongal celebrations. The festival celebrates nature’s abundance and the harvest.
The popular stories associated with Pongal are that of Basava, Lord Shiva’s bull, and of Lord Indra. According to legends, it’s believed that Lord Shiva asked his bull Basava to go to the earth and ask all mortals to apply oil in their hair and bathe every day and eat only once a month. But Basava mistakenly told them to eat everyday and take bath only once a month. This angered Shiva and he cursed Basava to stay on the earth and toil the fields to help the humans produce more food.
The legend of Lord Indra goes something like this. After Lord Indra became the king of gods, he became arrogant. So, to teach him a lesson, Lord Krishna asked all the cowherds to stop praying to Lord Indra. Angered by this, Lord Indra caused it to rain for three days continuously to punish the humans. Seeing this, Lord Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan, so that the mortals could take shelter under it. Lord Indra soon realised his mistake and stopped the rains.
Celebrated across the northern states, Makar Sankranti is a harvest festival and marks the transition of the sun from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere. The etymology of this festival is fairly simple. Since the sun passes over to the Tropic of Capricorn between the months of December and January, the festival is called Makar (meaning Capricorn) Sankranti (meaning entering).
While it is hard to pin-point the exact day when people started celebrating this festival, it is believed that the Aryans worshipped the gods, the Sun God among them, to protect them from the harsh winters.
There are many legends and stories associated with this festival, but one of the more important ones goes like this. According to the Puranas, during this time, the Sun God visits his son Shani and stays with him for a month. Although the Sun God is not on very good terms with his son Shani, during this time of the year, the father and son bond and happiness flows. This is considered to be a very auspicious time for starting new projects.
Another legend is that Maharaja Bhagirath prayed that the river Ganges is brought down to the earth to save the sons of Maharaja Sagar. It is believed that it was on this day, Bhagirath along with the river Ganga freed his ancestors from the curse and then the Ganga merged with the sea to form Ganga Sagar. Ganga Sagar is the point where Ganges merges with the Bay of Bengal and people all over the country flock to this place in January to take a dip in the holy waters.
It’s not clearly known when Lohri started being celebrated in Punjab, but it can be traced back to the time when King Ashoka ruled. Most of the Lohri songs sing the praises of Dulla Bhatti, Punjab’s own version of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to give to the poor during Ashoka’s reign. His most heroic act was when he rescued two sisters from being sold into slavery, arranged for their marriages and gave their dowries. He was hanged by Ashoka to be made an example of, but he became a local hero for the people. Children, even today, go from house to house to collect ‘lohri’ (jaggery, money, etc.) and sing songs in praise of Dulla Bhatti.
The etymology of Lohri is not clear. While some believe the name was based on Sant Kabir’s wife Loi, others say that Lohri is derived from the word ‘loh’, the iron tawa used for baking chapattis during community feasts.
According to legends, the people of Punjab came up with a sacred verse to make the sun shine more brightly and protect them from the harsh winters. They would recite this verse round a fire during the end of the Paus month. The tradition continues till date.
The origin of Magh Bihu festival is supposed to have started around 3,500 BC. Earlier it used to be a month-long festival compared to the week-long one that is celebrated today. The term ‘Bihu’ is said to come from the language of Dimasa Kacharis, an agrarian tribe that has been around for centuries. The term ‘Bi’ means ‘ask’ and ‘shu’ means ‘peace and prosperity in the world’. This adds up to Bihu. According to some sacred Hindu texts, the word Bisuvan (Bishu) refers to a day when a fire sacrifice is made in the hope of getting a good crop. The lighting of the Meiji (the traditional bonfire) is linked to fertility, nature and the worship of fire.
What your child can learn from these festivals
- Respect nature
- Respect family traditions
- Don’t waste food
- Love and respect animals
India is an agrarian economy and the majority of our population still depends on it for their daily needs. These festivals celebrate Mother Nature and honour the farmers who put in days and nights of hard labour to provide us with our food. It is important you share with your child our country’s rich cultural history to help him better understand the traditions behind each festival and inculcate in him a respect for nature and the farmers.
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