(Se)same Pinch: Nepal's Sankranti Is About Feasting And Hope
Image Credit: Nepal celebrates Sankranti with various festivities and food

THE FESTIVAL OF Maghe Sankranti or Maghi is one of great significance for Nepali people. While there is a fair bit of folklore surrounding the festival and its celebration, there are two narratives that recur most frequently.  

One of these tales is of a Bhadgaun (present-day Bhaktapur) trader, who dealt in sesame seeds. The trader realized that his stock hadn't run low despite a period of very brisk business. With a sense of wonder, he went through the heap of sesame in his storehouse and discovered at the very bottom, an idol of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu is therefore known as "Til Madhav" here, and it is believed that worshipping the deity brings prosperity and abundance. 

The second bit of lore associated with the festival is that Bhishma Pitamaha's demise occurred on this day, and so, whosoever passes away on Sankranti will experience salvation, transcending the cycle of rebirth. 

There are several similarities in how Nepali people from different communities celebrate Sankranti, including performing ritual purification baths in the morning in holy water bodies, getting together with family and friends, and feasting on specific dishes. However, there are some aspects unique to each community as well.

For instance, the Tharu community considers Maghi their new year, and celebrations span several days, if not weeks. Alcohol is brewed at home for the festive spread, and pork, boar meat, and poultry are arranged for the entire community. Participating in traditional songs, dances, and customs is a chance for people to come together and enliven their shared heritage.

Til ko laddoo | Freepik

On the other hand, the Newari people (of the Kathmandu Valley) refer to Sankranti as "Ghyo/Ghi'u Chaku Tarul" day or "Ghyo/Ghi'u Chaku Sanyu", after the food that is consumed on the festival. This includes yam/cassava (tarul; often prepared with a special spinach variety known as "patne palungo"), ghee (ghyo/ghi'u), chaku (a sweet made with concentrated sugarcane juice, jaggery, ghee, and nuts), til ko laddu (sesame candy/brown sesame seed fudge), sweet potatoes, etc. 

Chaku may be served with yam and ghee, or as a filling in yomari (steamed rice flour dumplings). In its syrupy state as refined molasses, chaku is also mixed with sesame seeds (of any colour) to prepare "tilauri" or "kalo til ko laddoo". 

 A festive staple that is found in Newari households on Sankranti day is samay baji. Samay baji is a thali laden with several standard items, including chataamari (rice crepe), beaten rice (baji or chiura), woh (fluffy pan-fried patties or pancakes, made of lentils; if the patty is deep fried, then it is known as "maas ko baara"), spiced and grilled buffalo meat (chhwela or choila), fried boiled egg (andar), fried black soybeans (bhatamaas), spicy potato salad (aalu-wala), finely cut ginger (palu), boiled beans mixed with spices (bodi ko achar), green leaves (saag), and ayla (an indigenous liquor). A hot-and-sour vegetable pickle (radish, carrot, onion, potatoes, peas, and a Nepali berry known as lapsi/aamli/Nepalese hog plum) finishes off the platter.


Sri Lanka — Thai Pongal

In Sri Lanka, the harvest festival is dedicated to the sun god, Suriyapakaran. The lore around the festival states that Shiva had asked Nandi, the bull, to convey to the people on earth that they must eat rice once a month and take an oil bath daily. A confused Nandi mixed up the instructions, causing people to eat daily and take an oil bath monthly. An annoyed Shiva punished Nandi by sending him to live on earth, to help people as they toiled in the paddy fields. 

To celebrate Thai Pongal, kolams are drawn before every house. Milk, rice, jaggery, and sugarcane syrup are boiled together, and the pudding is offered to Suriyapakaran, then shared by the family. Later, the cattle that plough the fields are washed and On the second day, the oxen (Mattu) that assist the farmers in the rice fields are washed and bedecked with straw garlands.

Sindh (Pakistan) — Lal Loi, Tirmoori

In Pakistan's Sindh province, sesame seeds (til) are made into laddoo and chikki (laaee) and distributed among family members on the occasion of Tirmoori. A few pieces of radish (moori) may also be given to one's relatives. Tirmoori is sometimes referred to as Utraan, and is celebrated by flying kites.

Lal Loi, on the other hand, is observed in a similar fashion as Lohri in Punjab. Ber, carrots, sesame seeds, and revdi (a crunchy candy made of sugar and sesame) are cast into the bonfire as sacred offerings. Prashad is shared in the form of borinda (akin to the tilgul laddoo).

Bangladesh — Shakrain

Shakrain marks the last day of the Bangla month of Poush. The festival has two main features in Bangladesh: pitha (pancakes/fritters) made with new rice, and the flying of kites. Dhaka comes alive with colour and festivity during Shakrain.