Minimum temperatures in Bengaluru have been quite low lately – in the mid-teens on some mornings, making the mornings a little chilly. My colleague Ms Vidya Shankar, visiting Chicago, reports minimum temperatures of 1 degree Fahrenheit (what’s that in Celsius?) and even lower on some days.
The air in both Chicago and Bengaluru are quite dry; more so in Chicago because of the low temperatures. At low temperatures, without rainfall, the air is unable to hold much moisture. Dry air causes reactions in us. Here in Bengaluru, the reactions are mostly dry throat and skin. This dryness causes irritation. This is why, it is good to irrigate (yes, irrigate) the throat with warm water and to eat foods which have plenty of moisture in them. This also helps moisturize your skin. Often, this is not enough and we end up applying some kind of lotion or oil. If not, we feel itchy.
In colder conditions, such as in Chicago, nose-bleeds often occur. Another problem in the higher latitudes at this time of the year is how shocking winter can be! Literally! Moving around all those synthetic surfaces (linoleum tiles, carpets, car seats, etc.) wearing attire with synthetic materials in them (shoes, coats, hats, socks), builds up static electricity and when you touch something metallic, the electricity is transferred to the metal. This is a static electric shock.
It was very funny the first year I was in the USA. You know? Rubbing a socked foot on the carpet and touching the door-knob … CRACK! Ha ha ha! Take a plastic comb to the hair, a few strokes and … CRRRACK! Look at the way the hair is standing up in a thousand different directions! It’s a hair-raising experience!
By the next year, it was not funny!
Fortunately, we don’t get to experience these other things in Bengaluru. Well, not that much.
Our winter is a result of the Sun’s position at this time of the year. Our winter solstice was on 21-22 December. That’s the height of our winter. The Sun enters the constellation of Capricorn (makara in Samskrtam). Earth’s rotation is a little wobbly and this has, in complicated ways too involved to go into here, has caused the difference between the date of the solstice and celebration of it in India and other countries of South and Southeast Asia.
Ergo, makara sankrānti on 14 or 15 January each year. This has many aspects. And, of course, you knew I would say ‘geography’!
This is a time of harvest. All traditional cultures have a harvest festival. This is to give thanks for the harvest received and to express hope or prayer for as good or even better harvest in the next agricultural cycle.
Our cultural roots are agrarian. So, even though we may have never practised agriculture even for a day in our lives, we celebrate. Any excuse to party, no?
But our celebration takes on some extra dimensions if we live in a city … festival offers on every imaginable consumer good, ‘happy sankrānti’ greetings (full of grammatical and spelling mistakes in whichever language) flood your WhatsApp, FaceBook, email and any other electronic network you use.
In more rural areas, you still find the more ‘traditional’ practices: houses are cleaned and white-washed, old things are discarded and new things replace them, removing cobwebs is a huge part of this process (why cobwebs??), and … some form of pongal. Especially in Tamil culture.
The Tamil word Pongal means to rise up and overflow – in Kannada we say, ukkuvudhu (ಉಕ್ಕುವುದು பொங்குதல்). The overflowing of the mixture in the pot (rice, jaggery, etc.) symbolizes plenty – remember the harvest? When it overflows, people stand around the pot and shout PongalOOOOHPongal. Yes, festivals are noisy!
In Karnataka, people give each other mixtures of sweets and channa, with the important component being sesame (SEY-sa-mee; not see-SAME) seeds (tila, eLLu, ಎಳ್ಳು எள்ளு तिलः ). Find out why this sesame is so emphasized. The exchange is actually called eLLu beeruvudhu (ಎಳ್ಳು ಬೀರುವುದು).
In different parts of South and Southeast Asia, makara sankrānti is celebrated in different ways. If you do some research on this you can easily find the differences. The geography question to ask is: why is the celebration from place to place so different?
The celebration is also to recognize that the Sun’s position is shifting closer to us. Bringing warmth, more daylight. Eventually, the scorching killer heat comes. Then, we hope, the heat will also bring us timely and enough rains by the southwest monsoons. We understand that we have to have that killer heat so that we can have the monsoon rains.
So, how did you celebrate pongal? Notice that it can be a combination of traditions depending on where you live (city/village; state, etc.) and what your cultural roots are (Tamilian, Kannadiga, Malayali, Punjabi, etc.) — place matters !
The mixing of cultures that occurs during festivals such as makara sankrānti, is vital for us as a nation to experience its diversity first hand.
Share your celebration in the comments section below.
Featured image: By Thiagupillai – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 12 January 2017
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