Written by Shashwathi Sandeep and published on 08 June 2021.
With a thankful song on our lips and a skip in our steps, we open our homes and hearts to welcome spring. It is harvest time and we mark this season with several activities
India's harvest festivals are annual celebrations - a fervent offering of thanks to Mother Nature for her bounty. In India, these are celebrated under different names and in numerous vibrant ways. Makar Sankranti, one of the oldest harvest festivals, marks the end of an inauspicious phase (mid-December to mid-January) and the beginning of a holy phase, according to the Hindu calendar. This is the time when the sun moves from Dakshinayana to Uttarayana (south to north), from the Sagittarius zodiac to the Capricorn zodiac.
There are special festivities held around the time of harvest for a particular Indian region. Celebratory rituals include traditional feasting, the boiling of milk and rice, kite flying, bonfires, holy dips in rivers and local fairs. Naturally, this festive season brings families together and is celebrated with pomp and cheer.
Different states celebrate harvest festivals in their own way and most observe it in the month of January. Here is a list of different celebrations across India that you can tell your child about:
In Uttar Pradesh, the day begins with a holy dip, considered mandatory on this day. Triveni, Haridwar and Garh Mukteshwar are the places where this ritual bathing takes place.
"This day is considered to be very auspicious and people donate whatever they can to the needy. We make til ka laddoo (sesame seed balls) and hare moong ki dal. In the olden days, people also used to donate gold," says Anish Dikshit, a resident of Uttar Pradesh.
Triveni Sangam, the confluence of three rivers in Allahabad, hosts the Magha Mela. "People from across the world come during this time and put up tents. For a month, every day, people take a dip in the waters," adds Anish.
Punjabis love to break into bhangra and this festival provides them with the perfect excuse for doing just that! The harvest festival is celebrated as Lohri in the state. Celebrations become even more festive towards evening.
"We make huge bonfires in the fields. We gather around the fire, circle around it five times and throw puffed rice, popcorn and other items that have been harvested, into the fire. At the same time we offer a prayer to the fire god and sing popular folk songs," explains Sindhu Bharti, a resident of Chennai, who is originally from Jalandhar in Punjab.
The celebrations continue with people meeting and greeting each other, and soon the resounding music of bhangra fills the air. "We sit around the fire as a community and have the traditional makki-di-roti (multi-millet hand-rolled Indian bread) and sarson-da-saag (cooked mustard herbs)," says Sindhu.
In the state of Gujarat, the harvest festival goes on for three long days. And all that is done is flying kites!
"All offices and schools are literally shut for these three days. We cook some savouries like khichdi and rice chikki and take the snacks up to the terraces of houses. And then, we don't leave the place after that! You can see lots of kites-flyers racing each other and the sky comes alive with colourful kites. In the evening, we also attach candles to the kites. The sky is lit up with thousands of candles," says Sweta Lokesh enthusiastically. Sweta lived in Ahmedabad before moving to Chennai.
The harvest festival is celebrated here as Sankranti. The most prominent part of the festival here is the yellu bella (til seeds and jaggery) mixture that is prepared specially for this season.
"A mixture of til seeds, jaggery, fried groundnuts and dry coconut called ellu birodhu is made and put into small packets. Along with it, sakkare acchu (sugar candy in various shapes), and sugarcane is kept on a plate. Women and young girls visit each other's houses and exchange this sweet mixture. The children and the adults enjoy this. There is a saying in Kannada 'ellu bella thindu olle maathadi', which translates to 'eat the mixture of sesame seeds and jaggery and speak only good,'" says Parvathi Limbekar, a resident of Bengaluru.
The same traditions and customs are followed in Maharashtra as well.
While the festival of Pongal is celebrated in almost every home in the state, it takes on a special flavour in farms, where rice is the dominant crop. On the day prior to Makara Sankranti, known as Bogi where old mats, sacks and even some old clothes are burnt.
Why is that done? The logic here is that in winter, the northeast monsoons and the cold air, bring dampness and fungus in their wake. But in spring, there is now a new freshness in the air. Houses are freshly painted while traditional mud floors are freshly cleaned, washed and lined with cow-dung as it considered to be a disinfectant and have antiseptic properties.
Traditionally, the farmer's wife prepares a new mud pot to make the sweet pongal (freshly harvested and hand-pounded rice, boiled in milk, sweetened and flavoured with jaggery, nuts and spices) in an open hearth under the sky, near the field and the temple. The pot is cured earlier to prevent seepage. The neck of the pot is decorated with ginger, turmeric, herbs of medicinal value, and marigold flowers, all growing on the farm. Sugarcane (which is also harvested) is added to the decoration.
A rice-powder kolam (geometric design drawn to ward away evil and welcome the auspicious) is drawn under the hearth and in front of it. Then, fresh milk is poured into the pot along with a little water. The milk is allowed to overflow liberally, signifying the thanksgiving to the Earth. Children and adults thump pots and pans, spoons and rattles in a joyous clanging.
Then, rice with a little green gram and jaggery is placed in the same pot and boiled with the remaining milk. The smoke from the lit hearth mingles with the decorated herbs tied to the pot (which are good for stomach ailments) and infuses with the cooked pongal - thus making it a safe and healthy food to consume.
Pongal is offered to the Sun-god and eaten as prasad (divine gift from the gods) on plantain leaves. It is made at an auspicious time in the morning.
Pongal is a typical thanksgiving festival to Mother Earth for her many bounties. While man benefits from the top part of the crop (the rice), farm animals consume the husk and the rice straw (the middle part of the crop) while the roots are left to replenish the ground.
During kanu, another day of the Pongal festival, birds are drawn to the coloured balls of rice kept as an offering. These birds eat the pests that come for the bales of paddy heaped together!
Cows are also bathed and decorated with flowers and jingling bells. They are taken around to various houses and fed sweet pongal and other sweetmeats as an acknowledgement of their contribution to man and soil.
Here are some other harvest festivals in India celebrated during different months of the year:
The harvest festival of Kerala is known as Onam and it is celebrated in the month of August, in the month of Chingam as per the Kerala calendar. According to the story behind this festival, Mahabali, the legendary King of Kerala, visits the state every year during Onam, to ensure the well-being of his people. The festival is a ten-day celebration - filled with shopping and feasting, as a sign of welcome for King Mahabali.
Pookkalam is a colourful arrangement of flowers created during the ten days. Traditional dances are also performed. Onasadya (a lavish feast) is an integral part of the festival.
"It is said that you have to make the Onasadya, even if you have to sell your property to make ends meet," says Preetha Gopan, a resident of Alleppey.
Thiruvonam is the main day when the lavish feast is prepared. "At least 12 varieties of dishes are prepared and with this, the ten-day festival ends," says Preetha.
The people of Coorg celebrate Puthari, their harvest festival, around three months after Onam. It falls on a full moon day, in the month of November or December.
First, the new crop is cut in front of the presiding deity of Coorg at the Lord Igguthappa temple. Then, this ritual is followed in temples and houses across every village. At least one member from each family goes to the temple to take part in the ritual offering, and brings home a stalk of the new grain.
On that day, the front door is decorated with a string of a particular variety of marigold flowers. Mango and peepal leaves are also strung together as decoration. In the central hall under the lamp (thook bolacha) a mat is spread; on it, mango, peepal leaves and a vine called puthari nar are placed. Besides this, two stems of bamboo, called kuthi, are kept. One is filled with old paddy and in the other, a scythe along with thambittu, a Coorgi delicacy.
"We take puthari kalangi [a tuber] and a little thambittu and pray to the ancestors in the main hall, while giving them these offerings. The patriarch/family head of the house then takes the kuthi with the scythe and gives it to each person in rotation to hold it", says A Machaiah, a resident of Coorg.
A girl takes the lamp and together, the entire family goes to the paddy field to keep the thambittu at the foot of the paddy clump. A gunshot is fired and the patriarch cuts the first paddy sheaves (large clumps of it).
"Everyone carries home a handful of sheaves from this, while the kuthi bearer, who is the patriarch, carries the rest of it on his head. He leads the procession back home to the accompaniment of firecrackers and a band singing poli poli deva (give us bountiful crop)," adds Machaiah.
On reaching home, a girl pours water on the feet of the kuthi bearer and offers him milk. The kuthi is kept in the hall while the paddy sheaves are tied everywhere in the house.
A few grains of rice are taken from the sheaves and then added to the already-cooked payasa (sweetened milk and rice laced with fragrant spices and nuts). After feeding the labourers, everyone enjoys the dinner and celebrate further with the bursting of crackers.
Be it Sankranti, Pongal or Lohri, pookolam or kites, makki-di-roti or onasadya, the harvest festival is an occasion that calls for vibrant and joyous celebration. There are diverse customs and rituals associated with these festivals across India. And it is this rich and colourful tapestry of tradition that shines at the very heart of our culture.