As the Sun travels towards south on the celestial sphere, the Dakshinayana Period is observed as per ancient Indian philosophy. This period starts from Karka Sankranti (Cancer) on July 16 and goes till January, which is celebrated as Makar Sankranti (Capricorn). In western world, this transition from Dakshinayana to Uttarayana is known as the Winter Solstice. In simpler words, Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. This event is celebrated across the globe and all ancient cultures mark it as one of the most important days of the year. In this edition of NRI Achievers, Vikramjit Singh Rooprai takes a look at the underlying philosopies across cultures:
It has been proven that the Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland have their primary axes carefully aligned on a line of sight, pointing to winter solstice Sunset and Sunrise respectively. These monuments were druidical sites of worship and celebration. In Northern Europe, a 12-day winter solstice is celebrated in form of a festival called ‘Yule’. Many modern day Christmas traditions and practices are inherited from this festival. Traditionally, the Winter Solstice in the European regions is celebrated on the 25th of December. In Asia, it is celebrated a few weeks later, on the 13th / 14th of January. This period is also the begin of the harvest season, of utmost importance for all agrarian cultures.
The Julian calendar starts from the 14th of January and the Russian Orthodox church still celebrates it as the Old New Year. This Julian new year, aka Orthodox new year, is also celebrated in many countries including Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Moldova, Ukraine, Wales, Switzerland, Scotland, Herzegovina, Morocco, Libya and Montenegro. In many regions, it is also known as Little Christmas. Traditions in some of these countries are similar to how we celebrate it in South Asia, especially the Bonfire.
Now let’s talk about South Asia. Being primarily into agriculture, this festival of Harvest is one of the most important festivals in the region. Hindu Tradition celebrates this date as Makar Sankranti. The Punjab region calls it Maghi. Instead of celebrating it on the exact date of Winter Solstice, the festival is observed on the last day of month in which Winter Solstice occurs. Technically, this celebration is the passing of winter solstice and harvest. Maghi or Makar Sankranti is also seen as the start of a new financial year. The new year’s eve is celebrated as Lohri in North India. If we look at the geographic position of North India, 13th January is the day every year, after which sunrise starts to happen earlier every morning until June, when this cycle reverses.
Earlier, we used to have a barter system. My mother used to tell me that her grandfather used to repair tools and equipment for agriculture. For most of the repairs, he was not paid. But during harvest, every farmer in village would come to gift a share of their crop. There were special store rooms and silos, where this harvest was kept. The extra stuff was sold to get money for rest of the year and silos were always full for food till next harvest season. In such happy time, it was obvious that many traditions were born. For example, before Lohri, children would go from door to door asking for treats. Kite flying, participating in fairs, song and dance were the most common of all. Since the Lohri night would be the longest night of year, everyone would gather around a bonfire and spend time singing, dancing, celebrating and hoping for better time ahead.
As we know, men used to work in farms. A boy born in any house that year becomes more important for families, as he would grow up to support agriculture. Lohri slowly became a festival, where families would celebrate the birth of a boy. The tradition still continues.
A very interesting character associated with this festival of Lohri is Rai Abdulla Bhatti. He is popularly known as Dulla Bhatti in Pakistan and Northern India. He was a Muslim Rajput, born to Farid and Ladhi in Pindi Bhattian same day as Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) was born to Akbar. Someone prophesized that Salim would survive only if he is nursed by a Rajput woman. Hence, Emperor Akbar invited Ladhi to be the wet nurse of his beloved ‘Shekhu’ (as he called him). Despite the fact that Ladhi’s husband and father-in-law rebelled against Akbar’s land revenue law and died fighting against the throne, this decision was taken keeping in mind that Ladhi comes from the bravest Rajput Muslim families of region. Another reason of this diplomatic decision was to keep a check on her and her son Dulla, so he does not become a rebel like his father and grandfather. But Dulla Bhatti kept his family legacy and became the local hero, the Robin Hood of Punjab.
He rebelled against Mughal court, looted from the rich noblemen and distributed everything amongst the poor. He was known to support poor girls and arrange for their marriages with heavy dowry. Ultimately, he was arrested and executed publically by the Mughals. His legacy though, remained in the form of folklore, and every Lohri, tales of his bravery are sung, blessing sons to be as brave as him. This festival of harvest is known by different names in different parts of the country. From Pongal to Bihu and from Bhogi to Lal Loi, the celebration of winter solstice has its own charm and different localised folklore to share with us all. In coming days, I will try to narrate more stories associated with such other festivals of our times and climes.
Vikramjit Singh Rooprai