Lohri Festival

Lohri

Amidst the freezing cold weather, with the temperature wobbling between 0-5 degree Celsius and the dense fog outside, everything seems stagnant in the northern part of India. However, below the apparently frozen surface, you would be amazed to find a palpable wave of activity going on. People, especially in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and parts of Himachal Pradesh, are busing making preparations for Lohri – the long-awaited bonfire festival – when they can come out of their homes and celebrate the harvesting of the rabi (winter) crops and give in to relaxing and enjoying the traditional folk songs and dances.

Significance

Lohri marks the culmination of winter, and is celebrated on the 13th day of January in the month of Paush or Magh, a day before Makar Sankranti. For Punjabis, this is more than just a festival; it is also an example of a way of life. Lohri celebrates fertility and the spark of life. People gather round the bonfires, throw sweets, puffed rice and popcorn into the flames, sing popular songs and exchange greetings. An extremely auspicious day, Lohri marks the sun’s entry into the ‘Makar Rashi’ (northern hemisphere). The period, beginning from 14 January lasting till 14 July, is known as Uttarayan. It is also the last day of the month of Maargazhi, the ninth month of the lunar calendar. The Bhagawad Gita deems it an extremely sacred and auspicious time, when Lord Krishna manifests himself most tangibly. The Hindus ‘nullify’ their sins by bathing in the Ganges. And so, across India, people celebrate the month and the prodigious harvest it brings-Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam, Bhogi in Andhra Pradesh and the Sankranti in Karnataka, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Lohri marks the Sun’s entry into the ‘Makar Rashi (northern hemisphere). The period, beginning from 14 January lasting till 14 July, is known as Uttarayan in traditional parlance.

Nowadays, Lohri brings in an opportunity for people in the community to take a break from their busy schedule and get together to share each other’s company. In other parts of India, Lohri almost coincides with the festivals of Pongal and Makar Sanskranti, all of which communicate the same message of oneness, while thinking the Almighty for a bountiful life on earth.

Origin of Lohri

The origin of Lohri is related to the central character of most Lohri songs that is Dulla Bhatti, a Muslim highway robber who lived in Punjab during the reign of emperor Akbar. Besides robbing the rich, he rescued Hindu girls being forcibly taken to be sold in slave markets of the Middle East. He arranged their marriages to Hindu boys with Hindu rituals and provided them with dowries. Understandably, though a bandit, he became a hero of all Punjabis. So every other Lohri song has words to express gratitude to Dulla Bhatti.

Ceremonies that go with the festival of Lohri usually comprise making a small image of the Lohri goddess with gobar (cattle dung), decorating it, kindling a fire beneath it and chanting its praises. The final ceremony is to light a large bonfire at sunset, toss sesame seeds, gur, sugar-candy and rewaris in it, sit round it, sing, dance till the fire dies out.

Some believe that Lohri has derived its name from Loi, the wife Sant Kabir, for in rural Punjab Lohri is pronounced as Lohi. Others believe that Lohri comes from the word ‘loh’, a thick iron sheet tawa used for baking chapattis for community feasts. Another legend says that Holika and Lohri were sisters. While the former perished I the Holi fire, the latter survived.

Eating of til (sesame of seeds) and rorhi (jaggery) is considered to be essential on this day. Perhaps the words til and rorhi merged to become tilorhi, which eventually got shortened to Lohri and hence the festival got this name in this unique fashion.

Food and Customs

Lohri is also the one day when the womenfolk and children get attention. The first Lohri of a newborn baby, whether a girl or a boy, is also equally important. In the morning on Lohri day, children go from door to door singing and demanding the Lohri ‘loot’ in the form of money and eatables like til (sesame) seeds, peanuts, jaggery, or sweets like gajak, rewri, etc. The focus of Lohri is on the bonfire. In the evening, with the setting of the sun, huge bonfires are lit in the harvested fields and in the front yards of houses and people gather around the rising flames, circle around (parikrama) the bonfire and throw puffed rice, popcorn and other munchies into the fire, shouting “Aadar aye dilather jaye” (May honour come and poverty vanish!), and sing popular folk songs. This is a sort of prayer to Agni, the fire god, to bless the land with abundance and prosperity.

The Bhagawad Gita deems it an extremely sacred and auspicious time, when Lord Krishna manifests himself most tangibly. The Hindus ‘nullify’ their sins by bathing in the Ganges. Across India, people celebrate the month and the prodigious harvst it brings – Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam, Bhogi in Anndhra Pradesh and and Sankranti in Karnataka, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

After the parikrama, people meet friends and relatives, exchange greetings and gifts, and distribute prasad (offerings made to god). The prasad comprises five main items: til, gajak, jaggery, peanuts, and popcorn. Winter savouries are served around the bonfire with the traditional dinner of makki-ki-roti and sarson-ka-saag. Bhangra dance by men begins after the offering to the bonfire. Dancing continues till late night with new groups joining in amid the beat of drums. Traditionally, women do not join Bhangra. They hold a separate bonfire in their courtyard orbiting it with the graceful gidda dance.

Lohri celebrates fertility and the joy of life, and in the event of the birth of a male child or a marriage in the family, it assumes a larger significance wherein the host family arranges for a feast and merry-making with the traditional bhangra dance along with rhythm instruments, like the dhol and the gidda.

Ceremonies that go with the festival of Lohri usually comprise making a small image of the Lohri goddess with gobar (cattle dung), decorating it, kindling a fire beneath it and chanting its praises. The final ceremony is to light a large bonfire at sunset, toss sesame seeds, gur, sugar-candy and rewaris in it, sit round it, sing, dance till the fire dies out. People take dying embers of the fire to their homes, fire is kept going round the clock by use of cow-dung cakes.

Lohri Melas

On Lohri day, colourful fairs or melas are held in many of the villages of Punjab, Himachal and Haryana. These are basically seasonal fairs that celebrate the harvest for the fertility of fields. Lohri fairs are enchantingly picturesque with bustling market springing up, in which food and products of local handicrafts such as toys, glass bangles and an assortment of all kinds of articles for domestic use are on display.

People come to participate in Lohri Melas from far-off places, trudging dusty distances. Men, women and children of all ages, classes and creeds flock in hundreds and enjoy the numerous fascinating futures of the fair; races, wrestling bouts, singing, acrobatics, etc.,. They play on folk instruments, such as vanjli and algoza. There is fun and frolic all round the place where the Lohri fair is organized.

The old as well as the young enjoy these fairs to the fullest as these fairs reflect the joy of the community. In big cities and towns Lohri melas are organized before or after the festival to give people an opportunity to get together. Stalls of handicraft and other products besides those selling food or organized in these fairs. Bonfire, joyful competitions along with swings and games are other attractions of the traditional Lohri melas.

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