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Sankranti means the transitory movement of the Sun from one constellation of Zodiac (Rashi) to another. Sankranti is also marked as the beginning of the month as per the Vedic calendar and is dedicated to the Sun God. There are 12 Sankrantis in a year, namely, Makara Sankranti, Kumbha Sankranti, Meena Sankranti, Mesha Sankranti, Vrishabha Sankaranti, Mithuna Sankranti, Karka Sankranti, Simha Sankranti, Kanya Sankranti, Tula Sankranti, Vrischika Sankranti and Dhanu Sankranti. Most adhered and significant is Makara Sankranti that is celebrated during the month of January throughout India.
Makara Sankaranti is a multifaceted festival, which is celebrated as per the tradition and culture of each state. This day has celestial and spiritual significance. It is during this day that the Sun starts its journey towards the northern direction. In other words, it is on this day the Sun moves from the Tropic of Capricorn (Dakshinayanam) to the Tropic of Cancer (Uttarayanam). As per the scriptures, the Uttarayanam period from January 14 to July 15 is the daytime for the deities and celestial beings. When the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn (Makara), the days become longer than the nights. It marks a new beginning. The efforts put in during this time bear the desired fruits. All auspicious events are conducted during this time. This is the period of peace, prosperity and happiness. This is the time for purification, gaining knowledge and wisdom as the Sun signifies light and brightness.
According to mythology, the great Bhishmachariyar, the grandsire of the Pandavas and Kauravas of Mahabharata decided to give up his life on this day. He left to the heavenly abode in the Uttarayana PunyaKalam — Makara Sankaranti day. It is believed that people who pass away during the Uttarayana period attain salvation.
This is also one of the most important days for performing oblations (Tarpanam) to your ancestors and for helping them attain salvation.
In the ancient days when nature Gods were worshipped, Surya (Sun) and Indra (the Lord of the Devas) were the chief among them, whom people worshipped for rain and abundance. Harvest takes place before the month of Thai and the grains produced are given as offerings to these Gods as a thanks-giving. People have celebrations after hard work and enjoy the bounty gifted to them by nature Gods.
Makara Sankranti is known as Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu, the southern part of India. This festival falls on the first of the Tamil month called Thai, (Thai month is between January 14 and February 15 of every year) which denotes the end of winter, and Pongal falls in Hemantharuthu (winter season). This festival also denotes the arrival of Vasantha Ruthu (spring season). Thai Pongal is celebrated as a four-day festival in Tamil Nadu.
The last day of the Tamil month Margazhi (December–January) is called Bhogi Pongal and this is equated with Indra Vizha celebrated by the Tamils especially in the city of Poombukar, praising Lord Indra. It was to honor the God of thunder and rain. On this day, people give away all the old things, clean the space and prepare themselves for the new beginning. In other words, this is a purification process of oneself shunning away their ego, negative qualities and thoughts, and preparing them to receive the light from the Sun, which signifies purity, knowledge and wisdom.
Thai Pongal is the most important of the four days and is celebrated as a thanksgiving day to Lord Surya, the Sun God. Lord Surya is the son of Kasyapa and Athithi, and he occupies the prime place in both astronomy and astrology. The Sun God is responsible for many changes in the climatic condition. He is widely worshipped and his greatness is celebrated in Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas. Similar to Lord Vishnu, the Sun God also has Shankh (conch) and Chakra (discus); hence, he is also called as Surya Narayana. The famous power spots of Lord Surya or the Sun are located in Konark (Orissa), Arasavilli (Andhra Pradesh), Bhatiapara (Assam) and the Suriyanar Koil (Tamil Nadu).
People prepare a dish named Pongal on this day, which is a combination of rice, jaggery and ghee. This Pongal is cooked in a mud pot and as the milk added to it froths out of the pot, people blow the conch and shout with joy saying “Pongalo Pongal”. The mud pot is decorated by tying turmeric saplings around it. Special Poojas are performed and the Pongal is offered to the Sun first and then it is distributed. Sugarcanes are mainly offered in the Pooja. This signifies the welcoming of new energy and accepting light.
The third day of Thai Pongal is celebrated as Mattu Pongal, in order to honor the cattle, which help the farmers to produce crops. The horns of the bulls and the cows are painted; they are given bath and decorated with silk cloth and flowers, and are worshipped. Then they are taken in procession.
This day is also called “Kanu Pongal” which is celebrated by women for the welfare of their brothers. Before dawn, women get up, spread leaves from the turmeric sapling on the floor and keep different kinds of rice, vegetables and plantain on the leaves saying the following verses
“KanupudiVachen, KakapidiVachen, Kakaikuellamkalyanam”.
A brother, in return, as a mark of his love for his sisters, gives them gifts.
The fourth and the final day is known as Kaanum Pongal, when the family members get together. It is Kaanum (to see), which means all relatives meet and spend time together, and exchange sweets and gifts and as a family, go to the river banks and spend quality time.
In villages, folk dances like Karakattam, Kummy, Mayilattam and Oyilattam are all performed on the festival days. Opportunities are given to the performers to exhibit their talents. The local people and the tourists enjoy the celebrations. Special Poojas are performed in the temples. Kaanum Pongal is called as Thiruvalluvar day, in the memory of the great Tamil poet Valluvar.