Amidst the chill of a cold Bangalore evening, celebrating Lohri — the bonfire festival, with a bunch of excited people, was so welcome last night!
In Eastern India, particularly for the Bengalis, it is a tradition to celebrate this day as ‘Makar Sankranti’ or ‘Paush Sankranti’ and I recall in my early years, we used to celebrate this day at my grandparents’ place in a very traditional way. It meant waking up early, and after smearing turmeric paste all over, taking a quick shower and then, wearing new clothes and making offerings and prayers to the Gods. The day was then spent savouring ‘pithas’ and ‘patishaptas’ (pancakes) of a wide variety. The Bengali palate appreciates a vast repertoire of culinary delights on this day and we were no exception. All memories now, since we have all come a long way now from those days of guilt-free indulgences. Now, we measure how much sugar goes in a cup of tea, after which even one morsel of sweet appears before us with nothing short of a dire threat. The sole exception is on ‘Sankranti’ we absolutely must eat these sugary delights.
In many parts of India, Sankranti coincides with the festivals of Lohri, Pongal, Bihu and Uttarayan – all of them being essentially harvest festivals, and Indians celebrate all of them with gusto, spreading the same message of oneness and the spirit of brotherhood, while thanking the Almighty for a bountiful life on earth. In the bitter chill of the Indian winter, these festivals come as a welcome break.
Presently, as residents of a small apartment block we are thrown into these impromptu celebrations, every year. This years’ Lohri has been one such occasion. The kids of the block named it ‘the bonfire festival’. We all gathered in the evening, lit up a massive bonfire outside our gates, and sang songs and danced around the fire just as they do in Punjab! Fireflies flew around us, the chill in the air offset by the raging flames, as the kids stood smiling in the milee.
But what do people do on Lohri, besides bonfire and songs and dances?
A lot apparently. Celebrated mainly in Punjab – the breadbasket of India, where wheat is the main winter crop, people usually come out of their homes and celebrate this festival in the month of January, just before the harvest period begins, by relaxing and enjoying traditional folk songs and dances. Lohri is more than just a festival, especially for the people of Punjab.
Punjabis are a fun-loving, sturdy, robust, energetic, enthusiastic and jovial race, and Lohri is symbolic of their love for celebrations and light-hearted flirtations and exhibition of exuberance. On this day, children go from house to house singing and collecting the Lohri ‘loot‘ (money) and savouring eatables such as as til (sesame) seeds, peanuts, jaggery as well as sweets like gajak, rewri and the likes.
And now for the bonfire!
As dusk falls, huge bonfires are lit in the front yards of houses with people encircling the fire and throwing puffed rice, popcorn into it. People meet friends and relatives, exchange greetings and gifts, and distribute prasad which comprises five main items: til, gajak, jaggery, peanuts, and popcorn. Women hold a separate bonfire in their courtyard orbiting it with the graceful gidda dance while men take part in the Bhangra.
But more than that, Lohri brings in an opportunity for people in the community to take a break from their busy schedule and get together to share each other’s company. And that’s what we did too.