Probably because of the absence of long, white winters, we often do not realise that like other cultures of the world, we too have winter solstice celebrations in the form of, of course, festivals! Winters are part of the seasonal cycle, and while reiterating the theme of endless birth, life, death, and rebirth, the time of the solstice is often associated with a particular deity besides the climactic significance. In Hindu mythology, it is Surya, the sun and to commemorate him is the festival day of Makar Sankranti.

While the Hemant ritu ends on the solstice, and marks the beginning of winter, it is the shortest day of the year. In Vedic astrology, this solstice is known as Uttarayan. The myth goes that Surya travels through the sky on a seven-horse, twelve-spoked chariot, driven by Arun, with their arrival heralded by Usha, the goddess of Dawn. As the Sun begins his journey – the Uttarayan reflects the apparent movement of the Sun towards the Northern Hemisphere heralding the decline of winter and the festival of Makar Sankranti heralds the onset of a glorious Sun and end of the harsh winters. In most parts of the country, it is also harvest time with which the celebrations take on regional hues like Lohri, Maghi, Sukarat, Bihu and Pongal.

Goddess of All Things

The Uttarayan reflects the apparent movement of the Sun towards the Northern Hemisphere heralding the decline of winter and the festival of Makar Sankranti heralds the onset of a glorious Sun and end of the harsh winters.

Sankranti specifically means the transmigration of the Sun from one raashi (constellation of the zodiac) to the next, which means there are twelve Sankrantis in a year with each Sankranti  marked as the beginning/end of the month. Makar Sankranti marks the transition of the sun into the Makar rashi (Capricorn) and the six-month Uttarayan period. That’s why Makar Sankranti is also called as Uttarayan. Also, what makes Makar Sankranti unusual is that it is one of the few ancient Indian festivals that has been observed according to solar cycles, unlike most other festivals which are based on lunar positions in the traditional Indian calendar.  Being the rare festival that celebrates the solar cycle, it almost always falls on the same date every year – January 14 – except leap years.

What makes Makar Sankranti unusual is that it is one of the few ancient Indian festivals that has been observed according to solar cycles, unlike most other festivals which are based on lunar positions in the traditional Indian calendar.

It is on Winter Solstice, the day when the light begins to lengthen and re-gain power that the archetypal Mother Goddess receives from the shining Surya, the sun, bringing forth the luminescence from within and offers it as a gift of life to the world. This light that retrieves the world from the dark of night, the pitch of winter, is a microcosmic recreation of the origination of the universe. The Winter Solstice, then, is an anniversary celebration of creation. More specifically, it is about the emergence of the light of the sun that makes life in this world possible.

In order to reconstruct the complete concept of winter solstice, the sun the earth and dawn are in close correlation, not just illuminating the whole world but ushering with it a ray of light and life. There is an interesting allegory of the sun being ‘lost’ in winter and eventually made to return to sunshine.  It alludes to a blend of mythological motifs and astronomical provenance which include the important concept of the regeneration of the sun and dawn: Surya and Usha, the effulgent Sun married to the lovely Usha who reveals herself in the daily coming of light to the world. The story goes of how the Ashvins leading forth Usha (the celestial twin sons of Surya are associated with dawn, and always follow Usha in their blazing chariot). They set free the Sun from the mountain stronghold and with it, also freeing the days reiterating the dominant idea of the wheel of Time and that of the seasons: 720 spokes (720 days and nights), with the bigger 12 spokes (12 months) and six seasons on the rim of the wheel.

The Winter Solstice, then, is an anniversary celebration of creation. More specifically, it is about the emergence of the light of the sun that makes life in this world possible.

This myth of the “disappearing sun” during winter is explained in terms of early cosmogony. As the days get shorter, the sun’s rising point moves southwards each day, till winter solstice, when it comes to a three-day halt where the sun was eventually rescued, freed from the dark, cold winter to be related as the rebirth, the restart of time.

Each dawn is the process of creation itself with the tapas, the heat, of the Sun, of restraint, incubating the seed of a higher consciousness with peace, bliss and light.

There is also a strong metaphysical narrative: Usha holds the individual soul in the gyre of Time and season, as karmas are reaped, wisdom ripens, yielding a new future. Each dawn is the process of creation itself with the tapas, the heat, of the Sun, of restraint, incubating the seed of a higher consciousness with peace, bliss and light.  And as the winter cautiously gives way to spring, the resulting ‘dawn’ is spiritual, mothering virtues like compassion, friendship and a deep sensitivity to the ultimate inviolability and sanctity of life.

Travel blogger Sandeepa Chetan
Makar Sankranti evening in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India
Photo Credit: SandeepaChetan’s Travel Blog

Kavita Kane writes a monthly column named Goddess of All Things for SheThePeople. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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