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8 surprising facts you didn’t know about Uttarayan Festival

Did you know these facts about the much-loved kite festival of India, Makar Sankranti a.k.a. Uttarayan?

Makar Sankranti, the kite-flying and harvest festival that’s popularly called Uttarayan in Gujarat, is perhaps one time of the year when people bury their hatchets to bond with each other. Besides the thrill of shouting ‘Kai po che’ and the joy of feasting on winter delicacies, there are many more reasons why Makar Sankranti is such an important festival. Some of these facts may come as a surprise to you!

1. Uttarayan is significant both astronomical and traditional significance

Astronomically the Uttarayana is the Indian equivalent of Winter Solstice, which comes on December 22 every year. The day marks the end of Dakshinayana (period when the Southern hemisphere faces the Sun) and celebrates the beginning of Uttarayana (period when Northern Hemisphere faces the Sun). Traditionally, India being agrarian society, this 6 month period holds significance for the purpose of sowing, and hence new beginnings are historically attached to this period. May be that is the reason that last 30 days before the Uttarayan occurs, people avoid new beginnings, and hence it has been culturally accepted as an inauspicious period for fresh starts of any kind. The festival marks the end of ‘Kamurta’, a one-month-long un-auspicious period, according to the Gujarati calendar. In mythological tradition it is said that, on the day of Makar Sankranti, the Gods wake up from their rest of six months. Hence, anyone dying on this day or during this month is assured a place in heaven. In Mahabharata, Bhishma, who had the boon to choose his time of death, waited till the dawn of Makar Sankranti to leave his body for his heavenly abode.

2. Makar Sankranti is also a day of forgiveness

We all know that Makar Sankranti officially declares the advent of spring and it is one Hindu festival that falls on the same day every year, according to the Gregorian calendar. But did you know that a thousand years ago, Makar Sankranti was celebrated on December 31? Due to the earth’s revolution, after every eighty years, the date is said to be postponed by one day. Therefore, it’s being predicted that Makar Sankranti will fall on January 15 from 2050 on wards, and occasionally on January 16 during leap years.

3. The festival is celebrated all across India

Makar Sankranti is celebrated across cultures in India, with different customs in the North, South, East and West. While it is most popular in Western India, it has regional names in many other states. It is called Bhogali Bihu in Assam, where people erect huts for feasts and then burn them the next day; Pongal in Tamil Nadu, where it is celebrated by boiling rice with milk and jaggery; and Maghi in Punjab where dancing to the bhangra is the norm. It is called Sakraat in Bihar where it is also called ‘Khichdi’ because people make a special rice khichdi during the festival; and it’s also called Kicheri in Uttar Pradesh, where ritual bathing is the norm. Likewise, Makar Sankranti is celebrated in other neighbouring countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh too.

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4. Kiteflying was practised as a way to keep in good health

There is a logical reason behind the tradition of kite flying. In olden days, kites were flown early in the morning. As this would expose people to the rays of the sun, which were considered beneficial for the skin and body, the sport was deemed good for fighting the infections and illnesses that often occurred in the winter.

5. The festival is a time for pilgrimages

The Kumbh Mela in Uttar Pradesh generally begins on Makar Sankranti, while the most difficult pilgrimage to the Sabarimala temple of Kerala, that begins with following a strict 41-day vratham (austerity period), often culminates on this date. Similarly, many Hindus celebrate the day by taking a dip in the holy rivers of their states to absolve themselves of their sins, with the most famous such event happening at the Gangasagar Mela of Bengal.

makarsankranti pilgrimage
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6. It is the Indian equivalent of Thanksgiving Day

Makar Sankranti is a lot like the Thanksgiving Day that’s celebrated in the U.S. and Canada. Makar Sankranti and Thanksgiving Day are both harvest celebrations. They both carve out a time in the calendar when you can get together with friends and family to share a meal and have a good time.

7. Gujarat hosts an International Kite Festival on Makar Sankranti

Kite flying made its mark on the global platform when the Gujarat State Government initiated an International Kite Festival in 1989. Since then, every year, kite enthusiasts from all over the world come to showcase their unique creations shaped like dragons, airplanes and bicycles. Some regular variants seen in the kite festival are the Wau-baling kites from Malaysia, the Rokkaku fighter kites from Japan, the Layang-layang from Indonesia and giant kites from the U.S. However, kite master Rasulbhai Rahimbhai of Ahmedabad seems to steal the show every year with his trail of 500 kites on a single string!

"Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis"
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Having given our due respects to this traditionally rich festival of Makar Sankranti, let us now also remember that glass-coated manjhas (kite strings) are harmful to birds and humans. So do stay away from buying the dangerous manjhabut go ahead and savour lip-smacking delicacies on January 14 with family and friends.

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