I am always mesmerized by the agrian philosophies which dominate most Hindu festivals. The festival of Shankranti, Lohri, Pongla or Maag Bighu, or whatever name you call it by, depending on which part of the country you are, is celebrated today as a part of the tradition of celebrating the harvest of the winter crop. There are of course slight differences in the celebration from region to region, but the most predominant factor in all these celebrations is the burning of fire. The worship of Aagni, as it were. Interestingly Aagni as a God is perhaps mentioned the maximum number of times in the Vedic hymns, more than any other deity perhaps. But this isn't surprising given the importance of fire for man and especially in the life of a farmer. If fire can destroy an entire crop, it’s burning at this time also denotes the killing of many insects that are in abundance and harmful for crops.
But over the years, not only is the fire God worshiped during this festival but people take it as a significance of burning of evil. In Assam, the night before Maag Bihu is known as 'Uruka', young men and women stay inside what is known as a 'Meji', built of straw and twigs. Food is cooked inside this and a fun tradition dictates stealing vegetables from the neighbor’s garden and cooking them, something that no one really minds. The next day the same Meji is burnt, Pitha s( flattened sweets, made like rice pancakes) are thrown into the fire. In Bengal, one hears of the Burir ghar( the house of the old lady) here the old lady is an evil woman who is the embodiment of all evil and she burns with the bonfire. Similarly in the North the festivities of Lohri include a bonfire, which is again perhaps significant of similar thinking.
Makar Shankranti is also supposed to be the last coldest day of the year, after which the temperatures start rising, signifying the end of winter. Today as I make pithas as a part of tradition and eat them by the bonfire in my little garden, I am reminded of fire and its role in the life of man, it sustains life, giving heat, scaring animals, cooking food and to the Hindus consuming the human body too.