14th of January is significant in mainly two ways – one of them being a reminder that Valentine’s Day is just a month away and you need to start with all the lovey-dovey planning that goes into it. The other, more significant for us Indians is the celebration of Makar Sankranti – the festival of kites.
For years we have been celebrating this festival on the 14th of January. Did you know that ages ago it used to fall on the 31st of December and several thousand years later will be observed somewhere in March? Well, this happens because of the zodiac influences of the Earth’s tilt and the use of a lunar calendar for Makar Sankranti which primarily is a solar festival. But, it is not something we need to be very worried about, because it’s a really slow change. It will be 2080 by the time it moves ahead by one day, i.e., 15th January and no matter what the date, it’s always going to be a festival full of joy, goodness and fun.
Sankranti literally means “transition of the sun from one zodiac to another” and since this happens to be the transition into the makar or Capricorn rashi, the name is thus derived. Sankrant is celebrated in different parts of our country with different names, traditions and customs. In Punjab, Sankrant is celebrated as Maghi, the revelry of which begins a day before, as Lohri. A bonfire is lit, people dance around it through the night and sugarcane and til (sesame seeds) offerings are made. The South celebrates it as Pongal, a four-day long festival where newly harvested rice is cooked and offered to the Gods; Gujaratis celebrate it as Uttarayan where the sky is almost hidden by the overwhelming number of kites on the horizon. Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat even hosts the International Kite Festival every year. In Maharashtra, people distribute til and sweetmeats made of til to each other. Wishing someone a Happy Makar Sankranti is incomplete without saying “til gud ghya ani god god bola” which literally means “accept this til gud and speak sweet words.” Til signifies absorption and gud signifies sweetness, so the combination of til and gud is used to ensure that we incorporate all the sweetness around us into our lives. It is a festival that welcomes the spring. People make prayers to the Sun God, they forget the bitter moments in their life and look forward to the sweet times ahead. It is a festival that truly defines the “unity in diversity” of our country.
As mentioned above, Makar Sankranti rituals are different in every part of India, but if there is one Sankranti tradition that is unanimous to the entire nation, it has got to be the flying of kites. Kite flying or patang bazzi like it was called in the olden times, is probably one of the most famous and enjoyable customs associated with the festival. Markets are filled with kites of every shape, material, size and design imaginable, weeks before Sankranti and why not! Kite flying is taken pretty seriously in certain parts. Infact think of patang bazzi as a war – the most essential weapon in this war is the manjha or the string with which you fly your kites and more importantly cut others’. This manjha is prepared by making a mixture of glue and finely powdered glass and rubbing it on a string to ensure that it is sharp enough to cut another kite if it seems like a threat to yours. Your “war general” will be the person holding the phirki or the spool on which the string is rolled, hence allowing you alter how much dheel or flying room you want to give your kite. Do not forget the protective shield of gloves or bandages on your hands and fingers to avoid any cuts and scratches from the manjha. Sunglasses are also pretty essential, when you are flying kites during the day. Everytime you cut someone’s kite you are supposed to shout out “kai po che” which in Gujarati translates to “I have cut (your kite)”. The echoes of this war cry can be heard throughout the day. Once everything is in place the last and most important thing is skill and experience, lots of it.
Kite flying is serious business with a lot of fun involved. Music is played on loudspeakers, food spreads are laid out, the preparations for which start days in advance. All this food is carried to the terrace of the building, so people can gorge on delicacies like pakodas, laddoos, gur papdi, poha-chivda, chaklis and ofcourse the til laden goodies like til ke chawal, til laddoos, til and groundnut chikkis, gajaks, etc. Sometimes caterers are appointed. There is lots of food involved. So if you want to make an appointment with your dentist, make sure you do so after Makar Sankranti. Once the sun is set, the visibility of the kites in the sky is greatly reduced, but don’t worry the fun does not have to stop. Post sunset, the gorgeous kites are replaced by radiant illuminated kandils or lanterns. Kites with noble beautiful and meaning full messages are flown.
The goodwill does not end at writing messages on the kites. Makar Sankranti is a festival for the masses, it is enjoyed by the rich and poor alike, little kids who can’t afford to buy their own kites, run around the streets collecting the kites that have been cut and fly those. The more industrious lots even resell these kites. Making the kites and the manjha is also a great boost to the cottage industries, both in the form of revenue and employment. The only down side to this festival is probably the number of birds that are injured by the manjha. We ought to be more careful about that. Besides this, Makar Sankranti is a festival that gives several messages and teaches us many lessons, each more noble than the other.
The essence of this festival lies in the goodness. Being a good person, doing righteous deeds, welcoming brightness to our lives, thus, bidding goodbye to the negatives, knowing that after every dark night will be a bright morning. So, fly as high as a kite and may no one ever get a chance to say “kai po che” to your dreams!