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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sankranthi, a Harvest Festival

On the heels of the new year, just as schools are gearing up for classes and/or midyear exams, along comes the festival of Sankranthi, part harvest, part religious, part zodiac and sun- related.  Wikipedia says it's the only Hindu festival observed according to the solar, i.e. fixed date, calendar.  Occurring every year on January 16th, 17th, and 18th, Sankranthi has a separate name for each day's observance. Although different communities may divide it up differently, they are, approximately: Pongal, when a sweet rice pudding also called pongal, is served to family and neighbors; Makara Sankranthi, and Bhogi. The observances and names vary a bit from state to state. You can find them further described at:

Traditional festivities at this time of year bear resemblances to art fairs, sand painting, rodeos, country fairs, midsummer celebrations, and, of course, the ubiquitous emphasis on food specialties associated with the season. At Sankranthi time,a  housewife or helper will elaborate the muggulu, or usually simple, white powder designs arranged on freshly washed ground before a house or gate: For a week or so, you can drive along a virtual 'gallery' of bright colors, floral and geometric designs created fresh every morning, right on the street.

Evening news on TV shows animal rights activists protesting cock fighting (and betting) and bull baiting 'sports' practiced especially in rural areas, at this time.  Though cock fighting, where roosters are set to fight each other, is illegal, it is carried out anyway, even blatantly pictured and reported in news media.  Jalli Kattu, or bull baiting, especially prevalent in South India, consists of contestants vying to ride or tame a bull in order to win a bag of money tied to the animals' horns. Inevitably a bull runs amok, causing panic and sometimes injury amongst the crowd of onlookers.  In Tamilnad, the state south of Andhra, it was temporarily banned this year, but the resultant public outcry ("It's an ancient tradition!" "The bull is not really hurt, it's the contestant that risks everything..." ) and massive demonstrations gained a reprieve for people (not the bulls, sorry) this year.

Here and there someone burns a log at night in the street on Bhogi. Neighbors enjoy a reprieve from mosquitoes for night or two, thanks to the smoke. Meanwhile, streets and shops are thronged with shoppers taking advantage of Sankranthi sales.  An auspicious wedding season will begin and last for a few weeks after Sankranthi.

A caste based welfare society takes over a nearby schoolyard and installs painted styrofoam pastoral scenes next to a stage where speakers and an occasional singer hold forth for one evening and night. Though their amplified voices dominate the neighborhood airwaves, a periodic burst of drums overpowers even those. Neighbors and guests come and go.  Outside the gate, a billboard sized sign features a prominent member of the group, and invites one and all to a 'community' meal.

Two groups of costumed (well, one group's costume consists solely of a white lungi covering the lower torso and legs) drummers alternate with each other, processing guests to and from the gate. Robust young men of the white-clothed group stroll, beating vigorously on long, rich toned drums slung at the waist.  The bright blue and yellow clad group of slighter build, circle and bow with a backwards/forwards/sideways step, all the while beating large hand drums which they raise and lower as they play. Conversations crescendo and/or pause until the enthusiastic noise abates.

Feeling like gate-crashers, but welcomed by drummers and a couple bulls brightly caparisoned and bowing near the entrance, we wander into the floodlit venue to see what's up.  There are hundreds of chairs set out, with only a few dozen people seated to hear the speakers and singers.  The nieces and nephews pose with the decorated animals, and donate a few coins to costumed alms-collectors bearing copper alms pots on their heads.

It's late, and we turn toward our apartment, just three doors down the street.  An event host catches up with us at the gate, and implores us to stay and take part in the meal.  No, thank you, we've already had our dinner and an anniversary cake, and it's time (at least for us older folks) to retire; we demur. My husband pauses to chat with the greeter for awhile. They compare names of acquaintances likely to be members of the sponsoring group. We take leave, thanking the greeter again for the invitation.

Soon after reaching our apartments, a fireworks display begins, bursts of color against the night sky.While viewing them from our balcony, I see that a scuffle briefly holds forth just outside the gate of the event, but it is soon calmed down. Cars park along the street for a block or two on either side of the gate; guests continue to arrive and depart until midnight, when the strong lights and the highly amplified sounds fade into the darkness at last.

Sankranthi being generally celebrated as a harvest festival, a more subdued observance is also conducted in Christian churches.  I'll be travelling homeward next week, when the program is scheduled, but remember our neighborhood church's harvest festivals from the past. The sanctuary would be decorated with stalks of grain or sugar cane alongside the pews and offerings of produce at the front.  The church yard would be lined with booths featuring snacks and food items prepared by women's and youth groups, a health and wellness mini-clinic, besides the usual Bible, hymnbook, calendar and literature stall. Special speakers would come in for an additional worship service in the afternoon.

And we all have much for which to be thankful.

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