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14 January, 2015

Why do we celebrate Pongal or Makar Sankranti - Harvest Festival?

In Indian Culture Why do we celebrate Pongal or Makar Sankranti -  Harvest Festival?


        Celebrations at the time of the winter solstice have been universal in almost every culture on the planet. It is seen as the rising of the new sun.  In ancient Rome, this was celebrated as Saturnalia, which means it was about Saturn, the god of agriculture and food.  

Makar Sankranti - Harvest Festival

     The Makar Sankranti festival is also known and referred to as the "harvest festival" because this is the time when harvesting is complete and there are big celebrations.  This is the day we acknowledge all those who assisted in making the harvest.  The farm animals play a huge role in harvesting, so the following day is for them and is called "Mattu Pongal".

       The first day is for the earth, the second day is for us and the third is for the animals and livestocks.  See, they are placed a little higher than us because we exist because of them, they do not exist because of us.  If we were not here, they would all be free and happy.  But if they were not here, we could not live.

       In Southern India, even today, the celebration of Makar Sankranti is one of the most important festivals in a year for the agricultural communities.  In Rome, Saturnalia was a holiday -- people gave gifts, no war could be declared on this day, and masters and slaves swapped their positions.  In India, even today, men and women swap their positions at that time - men will be singing, women will be drawing complex geometric patterns in the form of Rangoli.

       In lands like Central Asia and China, such celebrations were also prevalent.  These traditions were destroyed in Europe and other parts of the world with the advent of Christianity.  The ancient Egyptians always saw that during this month, the line between the physical and the spiritual is thin or the two are brought close together.

Pongal or Makar Sankranti - Harvest Festival

       Between the 14th and 17th of January are the festivals of Makar Sankranti or Pongal, as it is called in Tamilnadu, South India.  There are different aspects to this festival, which falls in the month of Thai in the Tamil Calendar.

First Day - Bhogi

     The first day is celebrated as Bhogi festival in honour of Lord Indra, the supreme ruler of clouds that give rains.  Homage is paid to Lord Indra for the abundance of harvest, thereby bringing plenty and prosperity to the land.      

     Another ritual observed on this day is Bhogi Mantalu, when useless household articles are thrown into a fire made of wood and cow-dung cakes.  Girls dance around the bonfire, singing songs in praise of gods, the spring and the harvest.  The significance of the bonfire, in which is burnt the agricultural wastes and firewood is to keep warm during the last lap of winter.

    During Bhogi houses are cleaned, decorated, and in a way re-consecrated for the new year, using materials like mango leaves and the first cut of paddy to enhance the vibrance in the house.  All the unnecessary things in one's home are disposed of.

       In this season, you should get rid of all the unnecessary things in your life and begin life afresh.  You should make this clean-up an annual event.  Even if some cleaning up is done on a daily basis, a few things pile up here and there without you being conscious about it.

      This piling up is not only of material things in our homes.  Also in our minds, in our emotions, in our bodies, and in our consciousness, things pile up.  This is the time to clean that up and start afresh in the coming spring, as spring is the best time to start life in every way.

Second Day - Pongal or Makar Sankranti - Harvest Festival

      On the second day of Pongal, the puja or act of ceremonial worship is performed when rice is boiled in milk outdoors in earthenware pot and is then symbolically offered to the sub-god along with other oblations.  All people wear traditional dress and markings and their is an interesting ritual were husband and wife dispose off elegant ritual utensils specially used for the puja.

       In the village, the Pongal ceremony is carried out more simply but wit the same devotion.  In accordance with the appointed ritual a turmeric plant is tied around the pot in which the rice will be boiled.  The offerings include the two sticks of sugar-cane in background and coconut and bananas in the dish.  A common feature of the puja, in addition to the offerings, is the kolam, the auspicious design which is traditionally traced in white lime powder before the house in the early morning after bathing.

Third Day - Mattu Pongal

       The third day is known as Mattu Pongal, the day of Pongal for cows.  Multi-colored beads, tinkling bells, sheaves of corn and flower garlands are tied around the neck of the cattle and then are worshipped. They are fed with Pongal and taken to the village centers.  

The resounding of their bells attract the villagers as the young men race each other's cattle.  The entire atmosphere becomes festive and full of fun and revelry. Arati is performed on them, so as to ward-off the evil eyes.

       Apart from Bhogi, the Pongal celebrations also include Mattu Pongal, which honors all the animals that traditionally play an important role in agriculture. 

   On this day, the bulls and cows that are the center of pastoral communities are decorated, pampered, and worshipped, as an expression of gratitude.  In Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, they make these animals cross a small fire made of hay. This is because during winter, when the animals stay inside more, their hooves tend to get worm-infested.  So as a part of the celebration, they are made to walk over the fire.  This cleans up their hooves and removes any worm infestation.  Children and adults also run over the fire, just for the fun of it.

     Today machines have come in but you cannot grow food out of just machines.  If you do not put animal waste into the land there will be no question of any agricultural produce.  So animals which work in the farms have always been very important part and on this day the bulls and cows which made the life of pastoral communities are worshipped and decorated.  They are pampering in so many different ways.  The idea is to recognize how important a role they have in the making of our lives.  It is an expression of gratitude.

Fourth Day - Kaanum Pongal

        The Fourth day is known as Kanu or Kaanum Pongal day, which is a community affair - this means going and seeing people.

On this day, a turmeric leaf is washed and is then placed on the ground.  On this leaf are placed, the left over of sweet Pongal and Venn Pongal, ordinary rice as well as rice coloured red and yellow, betel leaves, betel nuts, two pieces of sugarcane, turmeric leaves and plantains. 

 In Tamilnadu woman perform this ritual before bathing in the morning.  All the women, young and old, of the house assemble in the courtyard.  The rice is placed in the centre of the leaf while the woman ask that the house and family of their brothers should prosper.  Arati is performed for the brothers with turmeric water, limestone and rice, and this water is sprinkled on the kolam or Rangoli infront of the house.

        The Makar Sankranti or Pongal festivities have various ingredients of cleansing, of appreciating and expressing gratitude to all the creatures that are involved in our lives.  It is also about getting involved with the community, which means it also has a social connotation.  It is a time of festivity.

      These festivals are a reminder that we need to craft our present and our future in a conscious manner.  Right now, we have harvested the previous year's crop.  How to create the next one is being consciously planned by taking the animals also into consultative process.  

Source: Article by Sadguru - "Isha Yoga Blog"

01 January, 2015

In Indian Culture Why do we celebrate Raksha Bandhan?

Raksha Bandhan: Bond of Love

      Celebrated on the full moon day in the Hindu calendar month of Sharavan.  Raksha Bandhan is one of the most widely celebrated festivals of India.  It is a day that symbolises the sacred relationship between a brother and sister.  Literally, translated, raksha means protection; while bandhan means bond.  Raksha Bandhan, therefore, signifies the bond of love out which comes a sense of security and protection.

       On Raksha Bandhan, the sister ties a rakhi, comprising sacred threads, on her brother's wrist and performs an aarati.  In return, the brother gives her a gift.  The ritual is meant to signify their love and that both are looking out for each other.  Today, the festival goes much beyond real brothers and sisters to any two individuals who enjoy a deep relationship.  So you are likely to see a woman tie a rakhi to her cousins, neighbours and close friends. 

      Raksha Bandhan also has a great history.  Various stories have been passed on indicating the origin of Raksha Bandhan.  One of them draws its origin from the Mahabharata epic.  

Once, Lord Krishna hurt his hand while fighting Shishupala, a man who had committed several heinous acts. When this happened, Draupadi, the wife of the Pandava brothers, rushed to cover the wound by tearing a piece of her sari and tying it around Lord Krishna's hand.  In return for her kind gesture, the Lord asked what she would like. Draupadi replied by saying she only desired His Divine presence at every moment of her life.  From that moment on, Lord Krishna told Draupadi that He would be with her whenever she called out for Him.  Much later, when the Kauravas tried to disrobe her in their court, helpless, she called out to Lord Krishna to save her.  And in return, the Lord gave her a sari that was infinitely long.  As a result, the Kauravas were unable to disrobe her and Draupadi was saved from being dishonoured.

      While the festival typically celebrates the relationship between brother and sister, it has much deeper spiritual significance.  When we take one step on the spiritual path, the Lord takes ninety-nine steps, as it were.  This is the symbolism of Lord Krishna giving Draupadi an infinitely long sari in return for a protecting his wound with a smile piece of cloth.  At the absolute level, it is only when we give-up our pathetic, finite egos that we are able to experience the joy of the Infinite.

       Those who have embarked on the magical journey towards the Spirit experience not just and happiness and success but also an unmistakable sense of peace that the world cannot disturb.  Thus Raksha Bandhan, like all other Indian festivals, is a call to the Divine Self within.  So let us pledge, on this day, to commit ourselves to dedicating our actions to our goal of self-betterment, harbouring finer emotions and developing the clarity to see the permanence in and through the transience of the world.