Harvest Festivals in the East

By Chaitra Somasundar, Staff Writer

Makar Sankranti, also known as the kite-flying festival is celebrated on January 15th of every year and is one of the most popular winter harvest festivals celebrated across India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Many Indians believe that the Sun ends its southward journey at the Tropic of Capricorn (known as Dakshinayana in Sanskrit), and starts moving northward towards the Tropic of Cancer, on this day (known as Uttarayana in Sanskrit). It is a festival associated with a variety of historical accounts in the states of India. It is known as Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Onam in Kerala, Lohri in Punjab, Bihu in Assam and Uttarayan in Gujarat and Rajathan.

Rangoli (photo courtesy of webneel.com)
Rangoli (photo courtesy of webneel.com)

I remember the extravagant celebrations at home on this day. We woke up to chalk or flour drawings known as “Rangoli” in front of our doorstep on this day. Mother would let me decorate it with colors, flowers and lamps. In addition to this, we decorated the house with fragrant mango leaves, which in our culture is an indicator of auspiciousness and greetings to guests. After this, we wore grand, new outfits, prayed to the Sun for a year filled with success and prosperity welcoming all the positive changes the future would bring. We prepared savories such as “murukku”, “payasam” and “ellu-bella” for the feast (technically, breakfast!).  Kite-flying followed breakfast! We made our own kites and scattered the skies with colorful bright kites. We engaged in competitions to fly our kites higher and in case we failed in the endeavor, we ended up cutting each others’ kite strings!

A top view of the Kumbh Mela (photo courtesy of gozocabs.com)
A top view of the Kumbh Mela (photo courtesy of gozocabs.com)

Many “melas” or fairs are held on Makara Sankranti, the most famous being the Kumbha Mela, held every 12 years at one of four holy locations, namely, Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nashik. After being present at the Kumbh Mela in 2013 at Allahabad, I was shaken by the sheer extravagance of the festival. The entire town is lit up with oil-lamps and soul-soothing chants and hymns are sung throughout the day. It is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world with thousands of devotees offering their prayers on the banks of the river Ganga.

Although there are minute variations in the way the harvest festival is celebrated across various states of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, the essence of this day is to give thanks to Nature for sustaining our lives and to welcome, anticipate and accept the optimistic changes the future will bring into our lives.

In light of this event, my mother’s recipe of “gasagase payasam”/poppy seeds kheer, one of the signature desserts of this festival is given below:

Poppy seeds kheer (photo courtesy of facebook.com)
Poppy seeds kheer (photo courtesy of facebook.com)


  • Poppy Seeds – 4 spoons
  • Rice – 2 spoons
  • Almonds – 8-10
  • Fresh grated coconut – 3 spoons
  • Palm sugar/Jaggery (crushed)- half cup
  • Ghee/Butter – 2 spoons
  • Cashews
  • Golden Raisins
  • Cardamom powder – half spoon
  • Saffron/Kesari for garnish
  • Water


  1. Roast the poppy seeds, rice and almonds together until the poppy seeds start turning into a dark brown color.
  2. Grind the roasted mixture and grated coconut together into a fine paste.
  3. Put the mixture into a sauce pan, add little water regularly and keep stirring constantly (or the mixture could stick to the bottom of the pan and burn).
  4. Keep adding water according to the thickness you need and let it boil.
  5. Reduce the temperate of the burner to a minimum, add jaggery, cardamom powder and raisins and mix well.
  6. Heat ghee in a different pan and fry the cashews and then add it to the kheer.
  7. Garnish with saffron and serve hot.

Happy Sankranti!

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