A celebration of farming

First harvest

A celebration of farming

In today’s world of high-speed internet, gadgets and space technology, it is easy to forget the most basic profession of all: agriculture. While eating in front of the TV or computer, or watching chefs create increasingly complex flavours or even trying to cut down on calories, we tend to ignore the people who grow our food and keep us alive. If the farmer who toils day after day decides to lay down his plough (or turn off his tractor) for good, our lives end.

Our ancestors knew and understood this truth fully: farming is the most basic of professions in that it is tied in most directly to human survival, and mankind needs to remember it. ‘Makara Sankranthi’ is all about celebrating life at its most basic. During this festival, we celebrate the land, the harvest, and the animals that helps the farmer — the cow and the bullock. We also celebrate our families, neighbours and our communities.

This festival has us eating sesame seeds and jaggery, in various preparations, to remind us to speak nicely to all our acquaintances, even our enemies, thus encouraging community spirit.

As the case with all Indian festivals, this festival too is practiced in different places in slightly different ways.

In Maharashtra, this festival is marked by sugarcane harvest. Sweets made with freshly made jaggery are distributed and enjoyed, especially til gul, a sesame-jaggery sweet. Kite-flying is also an important aspect.

The people of Andhra Pradesh celebrate this festival over three days. The first day is ‘Bhogi’, when people burn stuff that they no longer use. ‘Makara Sankranthi’ is celebrated on the next day, with ‘Pongali’ (called ‘Pongal’ in Tamil Nadu) being enjoyed by all. The next day, called ‘Kanuma’, is the day the cow is worshipped. Apparently, this was the day Lord Krishna lifted Govardhana hill to save cows, cattle and other animals.

Known as the ‘yellu-bella’ festival in Karnataka, this occasion is marked by the exchange of a most delicious mixture of til seeds, small chunks of jaggery and sugar candy, copra and peanuts, and freshly harvested sugarcane pieces. I, for one, love being the recipient of packets of these.

In Gujarat, this is a two-day festival, where kite-flying is an important tradition. Punjab and Haryana celebrate this as ‘Lohri’. It is celebrated even in Nepal (‘Maghe Sankranthi’), Thailand (‘Songkran’), Laos (‘Pi Ma Lao’) and Cambodia (‘Moha Sangkran’).

However, it is most popular in Tamil Nadu. Since I was born and brought up there, I have vivid recollections of celebrating ‘Pongal’ as it is called there. Days before the festival, the houses would be white-washed and cleaned. On ‘Bhogi’, we would get rid of unnecessary stuff. On ‘Pongal’, farmers would boil milk in new pots around which green turmeric plants would be tied. When the milk boiled over, everyone would shout ‘Pongalo Pongal’, praying that happiness would bubble up the same way in the new year.

They would then add freshly harvested rice and newly-made jaggery to make sweet pongal. At home, we too had the milk-boiling ceremony. That evening, ‘pongal’ would be exchanged with neighbours, and we’d have an unofficial contest to see which batch tasted the best. Til, jaggery, sugar candy and sugarcane would also be exchanged in cute tiny earthenware pots.

The next day is ‘Maatu Pongal’ or the celebration of the cows. On this day, cows would be washed, garlanded and worshipped. Their horns would be painted with bright colours and sometimes even have balloons tied to them. The fourth day is ‘Kaanum Pongal’, when a lot of visiting went on.  Brothers would give gifts to sisters and families would enjoy time together. It is also celebrated as the birthday of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. ‘Sankranthi’ is therefore, a celebration for all people, regardless of state, community, or class.

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