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Sankranti: a festival of tradition and change

Hindu celebration seeks to stem erosion of cultural heritage

<p>A bull cart race during Sankranti  festival celebrations</p>

A bull cart race during Sankranti  festival celebrations

  • Shawn Sebastian, Andhra Pradesh
  • India
  • January 17, 2014
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Millions of Hindus across India celebrated their harvest festival this week, maintaining age old customs with a range of religious rituals and traditional sporting activities.

The festival—Makar Sankranti—marks the start of spring in India and falls in the second week of January in the Hindu calendar. The day marks the start of the northward journey of the sun, when it moves away from Capricorn, or Makar in Hindi. This year the festival fell on Tuesday.

Called Pongal in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Makar Sankranti in Andhra Pradesh and Sankranti in the north, the festival is most enthusiastically followed in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

While cock fighting and bull cart racing are popular sports associated with the festival in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, kite flying is preferred in the northern states, supposedly to please Surya, the sun god.

In Andhra Pradesh, commonly known as the rice bowl of the country because of the large scale rice cultivation that takes place there, the festival has special significance. Here, Makar Sankranti is a three-day festival that starts with a bonfire (bhogi), in which old scraps and cow dung (gobbammas) are burned in the early morning.

"We believe the bhogi is a transformation from darkness to light," says Kothappalli Anuradha, a schoolteacher from Pitlapalam village in Guntur district.

In another tradition, Gangireddu — a decorated bull — is led around a village to give its blessing to people. Bulls, mentioned in Hindu mythological texts and which are still used to plow fields are revered.

Among families, women play a central role in the celebrations. A large colored pattern — called a rangoli— is drawn on the ground in front of their houses by the women. These ancient symbols, which are usually unique to different areas, are intended to welcome Hindu gods like Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Food is central to the celebrations. Sweets made from rice, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and ghee (clarified butter) are a specialty.

They are prepared by women to greet family members who flock from cities to their home villages for the festival.

K. Chakradhara, a Sanskrit professor from Khammam district says Sankranti celebrations try to uphold family traditions that are slowly ceasing to exist.

“Three balls of cow dung placed in a rangoli represents the three generations taking part in the festival.” he says.

For generations, rich land-owning rice farmers have splashed out with lavish celebrations, but for the landless laborer in the fields, the festival has been a low key affair and seen as a brief respite from grueling work.

Mandala Sinnu, a laborer from Budham, a small village in Guntur, shrugged when asked about the festival.

“People with lots of land will make a good profit, so they celebrate," he said, adding that for him and his family, Sankranti is just another day.

However, Chakradhara says people from all classes and castes are celebrating it nowadays since living standards have improved in villages over the past few decades.

Each caste holds their own festivities, he says.

“For the higher castes … celebrations are a means to take credit for preserving tradition,” says Tejasvi Dantuluri, a post graduate student at Hyderabad University who hails from Guntur district.

"In a way it helps pass on traditions and customs to the younger generation who are largely ignorant about them.”

For others it’s simply an excuse to celebrate with family.

Harika Penumatsa, an engineering student in Bangalore who travels to her village in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh every year for the festivities.

“I don’t really understand Sankranti in the traditional and religious sense,” says Harika Penumatsa, an engineering student in Bangalore who travels to her village in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh every year for the festivities.

“For me, it’s all about celebrating in my hometown with relatives.’’ 

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