Makar Sankranti is primarily a harvest festival. It falls on the last day of the month of Paush (December-January), the coldest month of the year. This is a time of plenty when the farmers are in a joyful mood after a good harvest.
Almost all the states of India celebrate this festival with varied festivities including singing and dancing. In the villages, courtyards are swept, sprinkled with a mixture of water and cow dung, and beautiful designs made in the centre. The courtyards are further decorated with small lumps of cow dung with bright yellow pumpkin flowers stuck in them. Young unmarried girls clap and sing around these in the hope of getting good husbands. In the evening, these lumps of cow dung are patted onto rock or wall and allowed to dry. On the early morning of Bhogi, a day before Sankranti, a bonfire is made at street corners into which all these go. One can see people gathered round the fire to keep themselves warm.
In Maharashtra, the festival of Makar Sankranti is marked by the flying of kites in the sky. The entire sky becomes a showcase of colourful kites of various sizes and shapes. On this day, people exchange homemade delicacies like til and gur laddoos and wish each other the sweetness of speech, throughout the year just the way the gur tastes. A newly wed woman gives away oil, cotton and sesame seeds to mark the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti. This is believed to bestow upon her and her family long life and prosperity.
The women wear new clothes, new glass bangles, and relatives are invited to attend the Haldi Kumkum celebration to welcome the new bride into their family.
In Gujarat, Makar Sankranti is kite-flying day. Traditionally celebrated on the 13th or 14th January, it is a day when every family can be seen outdoors ‘cutting’ each other’s kites. Kites of myriad hues, shapes and sizes decorate the skies from dawn to dusk during this festival. The vast panorama of the sky dotted with thousand of kites becomes a wonderful sight to see.
The International Kite Festival is held at the capital city Ahmedabad on January 14 to coincide with the festival of Uttarayan or Makar Sankranti. The people of Gujarat celebrate Uttarayan with a lot of enthusiasm and all business comes to a grinding halt for 3 to 4 days. It is also a celebration to mark the end of winter.
The excitement does not end with nightfall, which is the time for illuminated box kites, often in a series strung on one line, to be launched into the sky. Known as “tukals”, these add a touch of splendour to the dark sky.
In Uttar Pradesh, Makar Sankranti is celebrated by taking a ritual bath in the river, which is also considered mandatory on this day. According to a popular belief in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, a person who does not take a bath on this auspicious day will be born as a donkey in his next birth. Apart from this ritual bathing, donating khichri (a cooked mixture of rice and lentils) is also one of the important aspects of the Makar Sankranti celebration in Uttar Pradesh.
To mark the occasion of Makar Sankranti, a big mela or fair is also organised at the Triveni Sangam in Allahabad. As the mela is held in the beginning of the month of Magha, this fair is named as Magha Mela. Apart from Triveni, ritual bathing is also organised at places like Haridwar and Garh Mukteshwar in Uttar Pradesh.
Many kite-flying competitions are also held in various localities to mark the occasion.
In Andhra Pradesh, Makar Sankranti holds a special importance too. Makar Sankranti here is a 3-day festival. On this day, pulagam, a dish made of rice, green gram and pepper is a unique fare in every Telegu kitchen. In the Telengana districts of Andhra Pradesh, in addition to the harvest festival, Makar Sankranti is also marked by kite flying.
In Karnataka, Makar Sankranti is marked by men, women and children wearing colourful clothing; visiting near and dear ones; and exchanging pieces of sugarcane, a mixture of fried til, molasses, pieces of dry coconut, peanuts and fried gram. The significance of this exchange is that sweetness should prevail in all the dealings. On this auspicious day, even cows and bulls are given a wash and the horns are painted with bright colours and decorated with garland as a part of the festivities.