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Lohri, Makar Sankranti, and Pongal: India’s winter harvest festivals

For many Hindus, mid-January is the time for India’s winter harvest celebrations. A seasonal observance that is also religiously significant, the festival is commemorated throughout India under different names. In the northwestern state of Punjab it is called Lohri. In other parts of northern and central India it is known as Makar Sankranti. And in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, it’s referred to as Pongal.

1) Lohri

Observed by both Hindus and Sikhs in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Lohri traditionally marks the last of winter’s coldest days, and is therefore a festive welcome of longer ones.

For much of India, the winter crops are corn and wheat, which are sown in October. Thus, when the fields start cropping up with little grains in January, Hindus celebrate as a way of giving thanks for the upcoming “golden” harvest.

During the festivities, fires are built to not only keep warm, but also to honor Surya (the sun god) and Agni (the god of fire), in hopes that they will look after the well-being of loved ones.

Representing energy and spiritual strength, fire is a source of rejuvenation and renewal, and is believed to burn away sadness and negativity. Often referred to as the “Bonfire Festival” or the “Festival of Farmers,” this is a time to be thankful and socialize around the fire with festive songs and dances to welcome the arrival of gradually longer days.

Some believe the word Lohri derives from “loh” which is a large iron girdle where Indian breads like chapatis and rotis are made. Lohri hence honors the grain from which these breads are made. Others believe Lohri is commemorated for Dulla Bhatti, who was known as a Robin Hood figure during the time of the Mughal empire, as he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Legend has it he also saved young women from being kidnapped, and is therefore regarded as a hero.

The day after Lohri is called maghi or maagha, which is the start of the new month and is also known as Makar Sankranti.

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