Makar Sankranti marks the end of Malmaas, an inauspicious month in the Hindu (Panchang) calendar, and the transition of the Sun to the zodiacal sign of Makar (Capricorn) to herald a change in season. It is celebrated in the north as Lohri, in Assam as Bhogali Bihu, in Bengal as Poush parbon and in the south as Pongal and as Makar sankranti everywhere in India.
We celebrate January 14th as Makar Sankranti — the day on which the sun begins to rise in the Makara Rashi (Zodiac Capricorn), Sankranti meaning transmigration of sun from one Rashi to next. On this day, sun transits from Sagittarius and goes to Capricorn. On some occasions the Makar Sankranti falls on January 13 or 15. It is the rare Indian festival celebrated on a fixed calendric day of the solar calendar. All other Indian festivals are celebrated as per the lunar calendar, which make their days of celebration on the solar calendar vary every year.
Surya (the sun) is one of the most important deities in Hindu scripture, and is thought of as the source of light and warmth. Hindus believe he has the power to control the seasons and enable, or withhold, the ripening of crops. Makar Sankranti is considered auspicious and marks the beginning of a phase in Hindu calendar when all kinds of auspicious rituals can be performed. It commemorates the beginning of the harvest season and cessation of the north-east monsoon in South India. Makar Sankranti activities include offering food to Surya to honour him for the season ahead.
Makar Sankranti goes entirely by the solar calendar. There is a common misconception that Makara Sankranti is the Uttarayana (winter solstice) — the day on which the sun begins its northward journey.
From time immemorial, the days on which the sun touches its northernmost and southernmost points are noted. These are called solstices — winter or summer. In Sanskrit, the journey southwards is called Dakshinayana, and the one northward is called Uttarayana, ‘dakshin’ and ‘uttar’ being south and north respectively. The winter solstice falls on December 21st, and hence Uttarayana begins on that day, while the summer solstice falls on June 21st, when Dakshinayana begins.
While the exact day on which the winter or summer solstice occurs remains steady (within one day error), there is a slight change in the way the Earth’s rotation axis is aligned to the sun. So, why do we celebrate Uttarayan on Makar Sankranti, when, as you must have realised, it should be celebrated on Dhanu Sankranti? This is where history comes in.
While the exact day on which the winter or summer solstice occurs remains steady (within one day error), there is a slight change in the way the Earth’s rotation axis is aligned to the sun. Due to axial precession of the earth, the date of Makar Sankranti is shifting away from the actual season. In astronomy, axial precession is a gravity-induced, slow, and continuous change in the orientation of an astronomical body’s rotational axis. In particular, it refers to the gradual shift in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation.
Every year equinoxes slide by 50 seconds i.e. approximately 1 day in every 70 years due to precession of equinoxes, causing Makara Sankranti to slide further. Therefore, around 1500-2000 years ago i.e. during the era of great mathematicians and astronomers in India, the winter solstice did take place on January 14 and the sun was in the direction of Capricorn on this date. Hence, we celebrated Makar Sankranti and Uttarayan on this date and continue to do so till today.
Now Makar Sankranti comes on January 14th, however it continues to hold the importance in Hindu rituals. It marks the beginning of auspicious times. As per Indian astrology, capricorn is the sign of saturn (shani); the sun on this day enters the sign of saturn. The sun is the father of Saturn and as per Hindu mythology, father (sun) and son (shani) don’t get along well. But on this day, the father goes to meet his son. Both Saturn and Sun are mighty planets whose auspicious blessings can make humans achieve great success. Hence on Makar Sankranti, people pray to both the sun and the saturn.
King Bhagirath is believed to have brought the holy river Ganga to earth on the day of Makar Sankranti, thus providing moksha to 60,000 sons of King Sagar. On this day, thousands of devotees take a holy dip in river Ganga and other holy streams. Many Hindu devotees take a holy dip at Ganga Sagar, where river Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal.
Makar Sankranti is about nature, energy of the sun, harvest of new crop, and progress of mankind. Happy Makar Sankranti!
P.S. Makar Sankranti, which has been celebrated on January 14 for the last 100 years, will from 2019 be marked on January 15 or January 16, except in 2021.