Life & Style

Makar Sankranti, Bihu, Pongal, Paush: Harvest festivals and celebration in Covid times

From relishing the simple dish of khichdi, to decorating the house with rangoli, spending time with family and contributing for charitable causes — the harvest festivals of India teach us quite a few lessons. Also ushering in the celebratory feeling of warmth and happiness are the varying customs and traditions that mark Makar Sankranti, Magh Bihu, Pongal, and Paush across India. And Delhi being the heart of the country, witnesses celebratory moments of all of these festivals.

Makar Sankranti and the joy of giving

Kite flying is an integral part of Makar Sankranti celebrations in many parts of the country. (Photo: Biplov Bhuyan/ HT)
Kite flying is an integral part of Makar Sankranti celebrations in many parts of the country. (Photo: Biplov Bhuyan/ HT)

Manjari Chaturvedi, a city-based Kathak exponent says the festival of Makar Sankranti is all about doing your bit for the society. “In today’s world of the bizarre competition of doing everything in larger than life proportions for each festival, sometimes we forget the simplicity of a festival of giving. Makar Sankranti has always traditionally for us been about giving, be it woollens, khichdi, raw rice and daal, or sweets such as til ladoo. It’s about donating to the underprivileged. We also prepare and consume kaali dal ki khichdi on this day, which we usually don’t have otherwise during the year. This is a traditionally simple festival that celebrates the joy of giving.”

And Anuradha Singhal, who runs a women’s community in Pitampura, shares Sankranti is all about being with the family. “Besides cooking and donating dal khichdi to the needy, we also gift each other in the family, on this day. It’s a tradition in our house where the elders are gifted clothes, and I make it a point to gift my in laws something. We also make packets of khichdi, rewari, and blankets, to gift these to all the domestic workers alongside guards and sweepers who work for us,” she says. And Shubhendra Kumar, an IT professional from Greater Kailash, adds: “We celebrate Makar Sankranti in Bihar by eating dahi, chura and tilkut. My wife and I do the same even while we are here in Delhi. And we have khichdi for dinner.”

Pongal O Pongal: A prayer for health

Bharatanatyam exponent Rama Vaidyanathan, who hails from Tamil Nadu, says, “This year, on Pongal, I will take the opportunity to be aware of how much Nature has given us and how much more we can do to cherish and conserve it. We will be keeping the celebrations small and safe, keeping in mind the Covid situation.” And Bharatanatyam exponent Geeta Chandran adds that the festival of Pongal this year, will be all about praying to defeat the pandemic. “We all must change with the times and adapt to current circumstances. This year Pongal at our home will be dedicated to Dhanvanthari, the God of health, and we will be praying to him for our joint victory over the current pandemic. Dhanvanthari holds a pot of herbs that cures all illnesses. This year our Pongal pot will be a herbal concoction,” says Chandran.

“Pongal is a festival that is celebrated for three days, and marks the onset of good times for us,” says Padma Veeravalli, a homemaker based in Faridabad. She explains, “First day is Bhogi, second day is Pongal and third day is called Mattu Pongal. It’s a harvest festival where we pray to Sun god, since Sun is essential for a good harvest of grains, pulses, sugarcane turmeric etc. We get up early in the morning, take bath and get onto making Chakkra Pongal (sweet rice). We keep on fire a pot, which is tied and decorated with turmeric and ginger stem hangings. To this pot, we add milk and let it come to a boil. As the milk starts rising, all the family members gather around the pot and start saying ‘Pongal O Pongal’ alongside ringing bells and tapping plates with spoons. It’s a way to celebrate and wish for abundance.”

Mohiniyattam danseuse Bharati Shivaji shares how Pongal brings back her childhood memories, and adds: “I recall my childhood days in south Indian homes, whenever the talk of Pongal takes place. We used to have a lot of sweets. And as a child, it’s sweets that usually attract you. There were also different kinds of rice, such as sweet rice prepared with gur and rice and khichdi. The festival was all about meeting the whole family and relatives visiting us.”

Pithas and dance videos to mark Magh Bihu

Magh Bihu is celebrated with much fervour among the Northeast, with a variety of home-made pithas.
Magh Bihu is celebrated with much fervour among the Northeast, with a variety of home-made pithas.

Sneha Lata Saikia, an expert on Northeast cuisine, says while she cant meet too many people this year, the festival will still have something special. “Bihu is about getting together, worshipping cows and farmlands, and feasting with the guests. Every year on Bihu, I make pithas at my home, and I’d do that this time as well. Pithas can be of different types, including one made of til. It’s a big festival for us, and I have planned to make Pithas and send them to my friends because I cannot invite them over for a party due to Covid,” she says.

“We have a small Assamese community in our society. Before the pandemic, we used to celebrate together at get togethers in our society club, and cooked Assamese delicacies such as Khar, hah mansho (duck meat) and sweets like til pitha, ghila pitha (rice pan cakes) and narikol ladoo (coconut ladoo),” says Pranamita Borgohain, a Noida-based art curator and writer, adding, “This year I can’t visit my home town due to the recent restrictions, and we are also not celebrating in our society. So, I will make it a virtual celebration by video calling and wishing my family and friends. To make it little lively in these difficult times, me and my 8-year-old daughter — who is learning classical dance Sattriya — will make Bihu dance video and share it on her online channel.”

Of Payesh and Paush

The festival of Sankranti is celebrated as Paush among Bengalis, and holds a lot of significance. “It’s such an important harvest festival for us. Not many know about the tradition on Paush, where we light a bonfire to burn vegetables,” says Delhi-based home chef Sanhita D Sensharma, adding, “Once they are charred, we take them off the fire, mash and eat them with Puli (rice gujiya) and Pithe (that are similar to pancakes). All these are not sweet. A few Makar Sankranti special delicacies that we make at home are Puli Pithe Payesh, Dudh Puli, Patishapta, Tiler Naru and Nolen Gurer Payesh.”

Authors tweet @siddhijainn and @anjuri

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