Welcoming Warmer Days!

Food Issue 158 Jan, 2015
Text by Astha Joshi

Celebrating the first day of spring with a little bit (too much) of sweet.

Every year it’s the same old story: my mum pounding on my door yelling at me to wake up for the Maghe Sankranti puja (or Ghya Chaku Sanlheu to Newars) while all I want to do is snuggle up in my warm bed and wait for spring to come when it is supposed to come, rather than join my family members in the traditional practice that welcomes warmer days.

Celebrated on the first of Magh, the tenth month in the Nepali calendar, it is considered to be the day that marks the beginning of spring in Nepal. My favorite part of Maghe Sankranti, besides the obvious joy of realizing warmer days aren’t far away, will always be the food. Food and festivals are synonymous in Nepal and Maghe Sankranti is no different. Days before Maghe Sankranti, the markets see a rush of business with gheu (butter), chaku (molten molasses) and yam flying off the shelves. I especially love the til ko ladoo, a sweet made from chaku, sesame seeds, and tilauri. Watching my mum roast sesame seeds in a pot, after which she rolls them up with melted chaku in small round shapes (that I find adorable) never fails to delight me. Those black sesame-coated soft balls always brings the same warm feeling no matter how many times I’ve eaten them. Although you can get til ko ladoo in shops, you cannot compare them to the ones made at home.

On Maghe Sankranti, the smells wafting from kitchens across the neighborhood tend to be similar -- hot khichadi (a mixture of rice and black lentils), spinach, and the spicy smell of meat. Most of the dishes that are prepared on this day are considered to provide heat to the body, which is something to look forward to at a time when the mercury tends to dip way low. I also associate Maghe Sankranti with the smell of mustard oil. Mustard oil is said to retain heat in the body, and being the eldest child, my mother dabs mustard oil on top of my head and ears, although I think she secretly wishes I wouldn’t mind being dabbed all over my head, which is a part of age-old tradition.

The month of Magh is also special because it opens up dates for auspicious events such as marriages and ceremonies that mark the coming of age of girls and boys. Devotees believe that taking early morning dips in holy rivers cleanses away all impurities and marks a healthy year ahead, which is not something I would like to be part of considering the freezing temperatures. Fairs are held in nearly all major holy riverbanks in Nepal and large crowds attend them every year. Observed as a day when a person can rid his or her body of impurities and bad spirits, people all over Nepal offer food, fish, and various condiments related to Maghe Sankranti in the burning pyres, early in the morning.  

Maghe Sankranti gives families an excuse to invite their married daughters and their children to their parental homes, and like Dashain and Tihar, it is all about festivity and family bonding. Tharus too celebrate it as Maghi, which they also consider to be their new year.