Most of us witnessed the recent festival of Maghee Sankranti, also referred to as Makar Sankranti, which is a cultural festival celebrated all over Nepal by numerous communities: the Brahmins, Chettris, Tharus, Magars, Kiratis, Newars, and many more—with minor regional variations.
The very name provides us an insight about the festival. Maghee is another way to address the month of Magh, the tenth month of the lunar calendar, and sankranti in Sanskrit is the beginning of the month, when the Sun transmigrates from one constellation to another. The day of Maghee or Makar Sankranti marks the transition of the Sun from Dhanu rashi (Sagittarius) into Makara rashi (Capricorn) on its celestial path, and begins the six-month northward journey of the sun, hence its name. The festival falls in the midst of the winter season, however, it is a harbinger of longer and relatively warmer days. The festival heralds the six auspicious months of the Vikram Samvat calendar. Hence, Hindus commence the celebration by taking a bath at the confluence of preferably three, or two, rivers.
The bathing is believed to wash away sins. Based on where people are living, popular bathing sites are—Sankhamul, on the banks of the Bagmati River, near Patan; at the Gandaki/Narayani river basin at Triveni near the Indian border; Devghat, near Chitwan; Ridi, on the Kaligandaki; Chatara and Barahakshetra on the banks of the Koshi River basin; at Dolalghat, on the Sun Koshi River; and at Setibeni, along the Kaligandaki River, at Parbat. Fairs are organized on many river banks, where people can buy offerings as well as enjoy festive food and have fun.
This festival has special significance to all the communities in Nepal, as it marks the end of the harvest season, in the mountains and hills, as well as the Terai flatlands. All the harvests are stored before the onset of the month, and thus, the month is commenced with a celebration and merrymaking after the hard work of plantation and harvesting. It also holds significance as a reverence to Mother Nature for the bounty of the previous year and blessings for good harvest for the following year, since the peoples of the Indian subcontinent were nature worshipers in prehistoric days.
After the morning ritual, families and friends get together to have their meal, comprising of sesame (til) ladoo, molasses, ghee, sweet potato, a variety of yam, selroti, kichadi (a mixture of rice and lentils), and lentil pancakes. This varies on the basis of different communities. In most communities, married daughters and their families are invited to their maternal homes, thus making this a festival of family bonding, respecting elders with traditional good food, and cultural activities. The special food eaten during this day has particular significance, as they are high-energy giving foods, warming the body in the midst of the winter.
The Tharu community, who inhabit the southern belt of Nepal, celebrate this festival as one of their popular and important ones and also refer to it as the beginning of their new year. It is traditionally a week-long festival, where family members get together and attend rituals, community gatherings, and melas. Everyone is dressed in their traditional colorful attire, fancy headgear, and jewelry for merrymaking and drinking. They appoint a village headman and make annual plans. The Tharu umbrella body that works for the conservation and preservation of Tharu cultural heritage organizes special events in different parts of the country where they have migrated.
In Kathmandu, a major celebration was seen in Chuchepati, Boudha, about 12 km from central Kathmandu. Whereas, in the central Kathmandu, at Tundikhel grounds, a large cultural event was organized by Nepal Magar Sangh to showcase the Magar culture as well as a meet-and-greet celebration on the occasion of Maghe Sangranti. People in colorful traditional attire, matched with heavy jewelry, celebrate the festival with dance, songs, and traditional food and drink, with a procession participated in by a large number of the community members. The Newar community also has a special way of celebrating this festival. Traditionally, people went to their elders’ homes to gain blessings of good health. The elders bless the younger by applying mustard or sesame oil on their head, giving blessing of good health and long life. The oil is said to protect the body from the cold, and an assortment of heart-warming foods are offered with the blessings. Like the other communities, they call their married daughters for merrymaking and good food.
On this very day, at Taruka village in Nuwakot district, north east of Kathmandu, thousands of spectators gather at this place to observe a bullfighting festival. In recent years, this festival has been gaining popularity; more and more people from outside the district, as well as foreign tourists, are attending the event. This year, 23 pairs of bulls competed in the event. Prize money is awarded to the winning bull and its owner. This activity is believed to have been introduced here by Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh, a monarch of the ancient Bajhang kingdom, and practiced since the late 19th century. In preparation for the festival, the bulls are fed with a rich diet of rice, black lentils, and chickpeas, after which they are brought to an open field and set free, whereupon they immediately charge at each other. The festive mood is maintained by the playing of traditional instruments. The fight involves the locking of horns and ends when one of the bulls gets tired and runs off the field. The bull-fighting ground is fenced with ropes so people do not enter the ground, however, the whole scene becomes a spectacle if the fleeing bull runs in their direction.
Another festival that is celebrated on the day of Maghe Sankranti is the Makar Mela or fair at the holy confluence of the Roshi, Punyawati, and invisible Lilawati Rivers in the ancient city of Panauti, almost 32 km south-east of Kathmandu. This holy site is dotted with numerous monuments, temples, statues, patis, and pauwas (public resting places), and ghats (a flight of steps leading to the river). However, this fair is celebrated once only every 12 years and is graced by the president of Nepal. The fair is a very important pilgrimage destination for Hindus and is celebrated for a whole month.
The celebration of the festival is not only limited to Nepal, but is also held In India, Bangladesh, the Sindh province of Bangladesh, and also in Sri Lanka. The continuation of such festivities is absolutely vital, as they remind us about our relation with nature and how much we receive from it. It works as a stimulant to preserve our rich cultural heritage and pass it down to the next generation. It teaches us to stay in harmony with nature as well as all sentient beings, spreading the message of love and togetherness in symphony with our