Solar and Lunar events
Makar Sankranti is one the rare festivals in hinduism which is based on a solar event rather than a lunar event. In 2010, it so happens that this solar event coincides with the lunar event of amavasaya and a grand solar eclipse! This grand astronomical event is being celebrated in the form of a maha kumbha mela at Haridwar which begins and will last for forty days. An estimated five million people are expected to take a dip in the holy Ganga on the first day of this religious fair that occursonce every 12 years at four different locations (Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nashik).
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Salutations to the Sun
The Makar Sankranti day has considerable spiritual and historical significance attached to it since it marks a major change in the direction of the sun. Early morning salutations to the sun while taking a ritual bath in a holy river and chanting the scriptures ormantras are synonymous with hindu practices. The most famous and powerful mantra for saluting the sun is of course the Gayatri Mantrawhich can be chanted during the three sandhyas (or transition times) of the morning (dawn), afternoon (noon) and evening (dusk).
ॐ भूर्भुव: स्व: तत्सवितुर्वरेन्यं । भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि, धीयो यो न: प्रचोदयात् ।।
According the great epic Mahabharata, the great protagonist Bhishma pitamah was given the boon that he would be able to choose the time and place of his death. Even though he had been severely injured in battle, he chose the day of Makar Sankranti for his death as it was believed that those who die on this day receive special passage to spiritual enlightenment.
Celebrations across India
Makar Sankranti is celebrated in almost every state across India with traditional fervor. It is marked by the GangaSagar festival in Bengal where pilgrims take a holy dip near the location where the holy Ganga enters the Bay of Bengal. In Gujarat, the festival is marked by millions of kites dotting the skies in the form of a massive kit flying festival. In the northern states of Punjab and Himachal, this day is celebrated as Maghi and marks the onset of the sowing season. The night preceding Maghi is celebrated asLohri – an evening of bonfires, singing and the ritual exchange of sweets made of sesame seeds (til) and jaggery.
In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the occasion of the northward movement of the sun is marked by the four day festival of. All households will cook a mixture of rice and milk with various other additions – the mixture is allowed to boil over in the new cooking utensils to chants of pongala and followed by great merriment and celebration with friends and relatives. In Maharashtra, Makar Sankranti is observed with the exchanged of multi-colored ladoos made of til. It is also an important day for married women and is marked by the popular exchange of haldi kumkum (turmeric and red-colored powder) and other traditional gifts.