Most Indian festivals are based on the lunar calendar or based on the movement of the moon around the earth. Each moon day is called a thithi and most of our festivals are linked to the lunar cycle that starts with the new moon day or Amavasya and ends with the full moon or poornima.
Thus, we have ganesh Chaturthi falling on the fourth day of the waxing moon or Chaturthi, Janmashtami falling on the Ashtami tithi or eighth day of the waning moon or rama navami falling on the ninth day of the waxing moon. And of course, we do have many festivities falling on purnimas or amavasyas like Karthik Poornima, mahalaya Amavasya, etc.
But makara sankaranti being a festival of the sun god, is celebrated based on the solar calendar that tracks the sun’s position in the sky as seen from the earth.
Astrologically speaking, makara sankaranthi marks the day when the sun enters the zodiac called makara or capricon.
So, what is a solar calendar?
A solar calendar is cast based on the seasons in a year and the sun’s relative position to the other stars in space. When the earth moves around the sun, its position with respect to the sun keeps changing, causing seasons.
Even though the earth is moving around the sun, for us here on earth, the sun appears to be moving across the sky. So, the solar calendar tracks the apparent position of the sun relative to the stars in the sky.
Also, as the festival is a celebration of a celestial event, it is believed that it could be among the oldest festivals of India. It is said that the festival finds mention in the ancient epic, Mahabharata as Magha mela.
What makes Makara Sankaranthi a celebration?
For us in the Indian subcontinent, the sun’s appearance in the capricon zodiac heralds the beginning of the warmer months of the year. Imagine the ancient people living in sparse shelters with minimum heat insulation. How difficult winter months must have been for them? Lying outdoors, staring at the sky, they would have observed that the sun’s position in the sky kept changing throughout the year.
And they would have noted that the planet starts to get warmer and the days get longer when the sun starts to appear to the north of the equator. And when this happened, they knew relief from the freezing winters was close by. In the absence of thick jackets, weather-proof houses and heaters, I somehow think the celestial event must have been a very good reason to celebrate! And to harvest crops too!
What is Uttarayan?
The northward march of the sun with respect to the earth’s equator marks the beginning of the six-month period called Uttarayan in the Indian tradition, Uttara meaning north and ayana meaning movement or march. This repeated cyclical movement of the sun to the north and to the south is caused by the tilt of the earth’s axis.
Mythologically speaking, the six months of uttarayan equals one day in the life of our gods. The remaining six months called dakshinayan, when the sun is seen to move in the southern direction represents the night of our gods. In the Hindu tradition, Uttarayan is considered an auspicious period.
Makara Sankranti is not the same as Uttarayan
It is often thought that Makara sankaranti marks the start of Uttarayan. But that is not true. Uttarayan or the northward movement of the sun begins immediately after what is called the winter solstice. The winter solstice marks that day in the earth’s revolution around the sun when its north pole is in its farthest position from the sun. It is also the day with the shortest daylight and longest night of the year.
After this day, the days start to grow longer and the nights shorter. And this day falls either on December 21st or 22nd of every year, as per the Gregorian calendar. So, in reality, uttarayan starts the day after winter solstice and not on makara Sankranti that falls in mid-January. And this is the system that is followed by most Indian calendars called panchang.