It comes as a surprise when we see these festivals of our agrarian roots being dismissed as regional festivities. Times change and we respond to keep up with the global tendencies, but we should ponder a while upon the relevance of our own fast-fading traditions
The earth shakes up its winter blanket readying itself to bathe in the sun … I am a romantic and so are most of the people who avidly read about and look forward to festivals. So, while women in Uttar Pradesh gear up for fasting in Sakat Chauth, children and young people in Punjab may already have stocked piles of firewood for the fiercest bonfire they could have managed. Soon, people in Assam would begin their Magha Bihu celebrations, in Tamil Nadu it’d be the Pongal time while other states also celebrate Sakranti in myriad forms.
However, it comes as a surprise when we see these festivals of our agrarian roots being dismissed as the regional festivities. For most of the school-going children, these do not seem to be major events as they do not merit holidays from schools. Also, with the end of winter vacations, children busy themselves with preparation for the galloping exams, so do the parents. Times change and we respond, so when we happily make plans to buy our children their Christmas gifts or book arrangements for our New Year’s Eve in keeping up with the global tendencies, we should ponder a while upon the relevance of our own fast-fading traditions.
Technological advances have made us less dependent on others, so the physical communities have shrunk. Everyone can light up individual fires or pay for that occasional one in Lohri or even sit within the toasty environs of one’s home. Today as we burn bonfires in our apartment blocks, or clubs or even in our courtyards , setting apart some time and of course, wood and trying to figure out some rationale behind the waste of both while fisting toasted peanuts, popcorns and chikkis into our mouth, we must try to waken up to the primordial need for such events.
As per the Hindu calendar, the dark month of Pausha is ending and we stand on the threshold of the pious month of Magha which has tremendous traditional significance so we have rituals like Maghi Snan, fasting and of course, the special offerings. Yet, we do not let the cold month pass away in its shroud of chill — we light bonfires of Lohri (Punjab), Agni Purnima (Odisha)and Uruka (Assam) and sing and dance and thank the good earth for its bounty which helps us tide over the extreme weather, stoking life force. In the ritualistic bonfires, we offer sugarcane, sesame and other things which managed to keep us warm and so marking its end, we step out of the cold to begin preparing for the life under the Sun.
Cries of sundari mundari, til gul gheya ani god god bola, ellu bella thindu olle mathadi may be different phrases in different languages, said across different parts of India but they have a common pithy import — be good, act kindly and speak gently. I personally feel that this is the motto to live by in times such as ours. The tale wherein a rough bandit helps the two sisters Sundari, Mundari in their penury is still the anthem for Lohri. A reluctant grandmother told me to google it up as she, like many of her age, believed that it won’t be interesting enough to today’s generation coming from her. She told, however, that children in the villages of the yore used to go around seeking firewood and offerings and devising naughty couplets to laud or lament each contribution.
Food as the sustenance is an inherent part of any celebration. When I was a child, my grandmother used to ensure that everyone in the household was bathed before sunrise (we could resume our sleep thereafter) and had khichdi — a sturdy dish of dal, rice and ghee on the day of Makar Sakranti or as we called it Khichdi Sakrant. This included all the visitors especially my buas (aunts), my father’s buas, all helpers and the poor. Khichdi used to be my bane those days, no amount of ghee poured over the same could make it palatable for me.
Now as an adult, I have grown fond of the taste, simplicity and nutritive quality of the dish but above all, I have come to admire the act of sharing it with all loved ones and sundry. Most of the household make khichdi with split urad dal and rice whereas people in Punjab also make it with chana dal. They lovingly call it the maaghi offering which they send across, along with other gifts, to their daughter wedded off to far-flung places. People in Gujarat prepare and offer Undhiyo, in Assam prepare and offer Pitha, in Tamil Nadu prepare and offer Pongal and other states prepare other rice and lentils dishes and offer them to all — family, friends, animals and the needy. Also ubiquitous are the sesame and gur’s dangerously delicious preparations. The common denominator here is the fulfillment to body and soul. Also, by heroing the seasonal harvests, India stands united in its agrarian past.
India as a cultural melting pot has a wealth of rituals to people’s choosing. So while we may associate a certain mode of celebration with a particular community, we must remember that above all these festivals celebrate the propagation of life force, the will to live and survive all adversity and bad weather in one’s life and the realization that although solitude may be an art but it is the company or the support of others around us that makes life more meaningful.
In this aspect, the rural communities have more or less been faithful to the true spirit where they stand by each other in every aspect of life and provide community support to face more or less common issues to life. A problem arises when our expanding cities invade our rural spaces infecting them with the aloofness and materialistic self-centric ethos. Like every aspect to life, then the meaning of festivals changes and the public consciousness of the festivities becomes the festivals. We take to the symbolic celebration of the festivals like the kite flying on Makar Sakranti. The delicacies which used to be seasonal and weather-appropriate can today be relished anytime and anywhere, losing their charm and significance much like the festivals.
The need is to unearth and learn about the forgotten traditions but even more important is to rekindle that spirit of oneness, of giving, of sharing, of listening and of singing and laughing out together.