How are the Indian festivals of Makar Sankranti and Pongal celebrated?

Known by various names, the celebration marking the end of winter is a major festival across India and beyond

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The first major Indian holiday of the year is a Hindu festival dedicated to the sun god, Surya. Popularly called Makar Sankranti, it is celebrated over several days and marks the end of winter and the start of spring.

Known by various names across the country, the festival is celebrated as Pongal in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and among the Tamil diaspora around the world, including in Sri Lanka. In Assam in the north east of India, it's celebrated as Magh Bihu, while in other states, it's simply known as Sankranti. Sikhs also celebrate the festival as Maghi.

India's neighbouring countries also mark the festival – it is known as Poush Sankranti in Bangladesh and Maghe Sankranti in Nepal.

On which dates do Makar Sankranti and Pongal fall?

The dates for Makar Sankranti and Pongal are set by the solar cycle and usually begin when the Sun enters Capricorn. According to online Hindu calendar, this year it falls on Monday on the Gregorian calendar.

How is Makar Sankranti celebrated?

Depending on which part of India you live in, Makar Sankranti celebrations can last between two and four days, each state or region marking the festivities in different ways. In some Indian states, such as Tamil Nadu for example, Pongal is a major holiday and celebrated for up to four days.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, also in the south of India, women decorate the entrance of their homes with geometric patterns using rice flour. In Gujarat in the west, thousands of colourful kites can be seen dotting the skies as revellers head to their rooftops to indulge in friendly kite flying competitions.

Many Hindu devotees also travel to holy rivers such as the Ganga and Yamuna to take a dip and atone for their sins.

In many parts of India, sweets are made from sesame and jaggery, and consumed as part of celebrations.

How is Pongal celebrated?

Pongal gets its name from the dish popularly made to mark the festival. The name means to “boil over” or “overflow”, and the dish is made of rice, milk and jaggery traditionally cooked in a clay pot.

The dish is first offered to the deity Surya, then to cattle who help with agriculture, and then shared among family members or among the community where large-scale celebrations are held.

On this day, cows are bathed, garlanded with flowers and their horns decorated.

Pongal is also when the ancient, albeit controversial, Jallikattu or bull fighting is held. During the event, a bull is released into a crowd of people and male participants attempt to grab the hump on its back to try and bring the bull to a stop.

Animal rights activists have called for the sport to be banned, claiming bulls were often grievously hurt and even killed as a result. In May last year, India's Supreme Court allowed the sport to continue following a brief ban.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 7:58 AM