Diabetics may be excused for not being overly enthusiastic participants in the next big festival on the Indian calendar, especially in Karnataka. Throughout India, 14 (or 15 as it is, this year) January is celebrated officially as makara sankranti. (For many decades, until one of my myriad gurus corrected me and explained it to me, I used to call it “shankranti” … it is actually “sankranti”.)

For you will see around you, especially in the old parts of our cities, a lot of sugary things … sugar cane, sakkarey achchu (block sugar, in various forms such as animals, flowers, etc. in various colors such as neon pink, radioactive green, and jaundice yellow!), larger sugar crystals, multicoloured sugar coated saunf seeds, and so on. And a few other things … ellu (tila, til) seeds, kadale pappu, copra, etc. In Karnataka, people give each other mixtures of these things. It is a sugar fest of considerable proportions – a diabetic’s nightmare!

I mention diabetes because it is a huge health issue in urban areas of India, Bengaluru being no exception. Changes in our lifestyles – more sedentary, more irregular hours of waking/sleeping, irregular and unhealthy meals (especially junk food), the stress of negotiating the geography of ill-planned cities with zero traffic discipline – are huge contributors to this urban ailment. In a time when lifestyles involved more physical exertion, this was not so much of an issue.

But why is it all so sugary? Well, Karnataka is the 3rd largest producer of sugar cane in India (about 8.5%). Among the southern states, Tamil Nadu (4th highest; 7.5%) and (pre-bifurcation) Andhra Pradesh (6th highest; 4%) are the other two major sugar cane areas. (Source: http://bit.ly/13ZrpYK) Kerala does not figure in this picture.

This is sugar cane harvesting season.

Every traditional culture in the world has festivals tied to agriculture. Food is an important part of human survival and success. This importance gets encoded into collective ritual practice, as part of religious practice. The most celebratory part of these practices is the harvest festival. This is because the hard work of the agricultural season now gives us the reward in what we reap. Harvest festivals are many – for various crops, in various areas, in various seasons.

The harvest festival has two components to it: thanksgiving (offering gratitude for the harvest received), and prayer (for a better harvest next time). Sugar cane is an old and important cash crop. Its harvest time is a cause for a festival with both the components I just mentioned.

It is more than that, though. It is also about the idea of well-being and plenty. In Greek lore, we hear of the cornucopia or “horn of plenty” – a goat’s horn filled with whatever its owner desired. The horn is shown overflowing with fruits, grain, vegetables, flowers, etc. In the Mahabharatam, we read of the famous akshaya-paatra of Draupadi that offered up unlimited food (until she herself finished eating!).  The idea of plentiful food is common to other cultures also.

In the case of pongal, plentiful food is symbolically enacted in making the dish of that same name in a pot, over a wood fire. The contents of the pot boil and overflow. That overflowing is very important because it symbolizes plenty. Traditionally, people shout “pongal-oooh PONGAL!” at that moment.

Apart from these, the winter solstice was just a few weeks ago, when the sun was directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn (23½˚ South on 21 December). So, the sun’s apparent northward journey (called uttaraayana) towards the Tropic of Cancer (23½˚ North) began then. The sun is “traveling” towards us now. Our days are getting longer; we start to receive more light and more warmth. This is a precursor to the intense scorching heat of the summer months and the resulting low pressure over the land mass that then brings us the copious southwest monsoons, and so on … supporting our food production.

The darkness and cold of winter are giving way to this warmth. Traditionally, people cleaned out their houses throwing out old things that they no longer had use for, getting new things (especially clothes), clearing cobwebs, and so on. The houses were freshly white-washed and decorated. Think of all this as “spring cleaning.”

On the day of pongal, there is color everywhere. Tropical colors, because that is the latitudinal zone in which we live. Huge rangavallis (literally ‘circles of color’) are drawn in front of the households. Livestock – oxen, bullocks, cows – are decorated and paraded around to the accompaniment of much music. This is symbolic of giving thanks to the draught animals of traditional small-scale intensive agriculture that was the norm. (Sadly, during the rest of the year, these animals are often ill-treated!)

In Karnataka, people used to make mixtures at home – I have already listed the ingredients earlier – and give packets of these to each other. Now, you can buy these pre-packed. In plastic pouches. But the sharing continues.

The sharing is very important. In the geographic space we occupy, we are not insular. We are all interconnected. The words “geography” and “interconnection” are inseparable. They are interconnected! J There are many such acts of sharing and coming-together that happen in any place. These acts help build a sense of community among people who share with each other – the sharing may be of objects (e.g.: food items) or in activities (e.g.: participation in each other’s life events). The geographic area we inhabit is a shared space despite the ‘boundaries’ we draw around ourselves. These boundaries are, by nature, porous. So, right from the geographic space to our lives and resources, we are better off when we share.

Pongal, sankranti is one such occasion.

But watch that sugar intake, okay? 🙂


  1. Find out what some of the reasons are for Kerala not being a major sugar cane producing state.
  2. Identify which ailments may be considered “urban ailments” that urbanization causes or makes worse. Make a mind-map diagram of urbanization factors and ailments. E.g.: High number of vehicles, poor regulation of emissions, poor maintenance of land areas, poor enforcement of land use rules correspond with respiratory diseases. Make sure you recognize that several factors work together in these.
  3. I have used “traditionally” in describing the celebration of pongal. How is the celebration of pongal different now in a city such as Bengaluru? What are some of the reasons for these differences?
  4. Pongal and sankranti are not the only harvest festivals we have in India. What are the others? Where are they celebrated?
  5. Using a blank outline map of India with state boundaries, shade the main agricultural crops harvested at this time of the year in each state. On the same map, write the names given to each state’s festival and one or two highlights of the festival. Write the details in bubbles (like in printed cartoons) that connect to each state. You will see how much we share with our counterparts in other parts of India.

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