India’s harvest festivals


In India`s long list of festivals, the harvest festivals have a special place. Dr. Rina Mukherji chronicles the colourful harvest festivals, and the way they are celebrated all over the country.

Being an agricultural economy, India has traditionally celebrated its harvests. The new year celebrations in various regions too, have been meant to commemorate the major harvests of the year.
The summer harvest festivals

Every harvest festival is basically a thanksgiving to the deity, as also the various entities that help the farmer grow his crop. It is also the culmination of his year-long hard work, and hence every such festival is a time to enjoy the best delicacies, sing, dance and enjoy. Thus, we have Baisakhi in Punjab, Ugadi in Andhra Pradesh, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Poila Baisakh in Bengal, and Cheti Chand in Sind, Rongali Bihu in Assam, Pana Sankranti in Odisha to mark the summer harvest, when the major crops are ripe and ready for the market or the beginning of the summer sowing season for farmers. Each of these celebrations have dance, music and delicacies to mark the festive occasion, which is, by and large, secular.

However, while prayers to the deity are common to all, there are specific rituals to every region, that are culturally significant. Take the case of Ugadi in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana, which marks the first day of the Hindu month of Chaitra, or Chaitra Navratri. The day is of both astrological significance for the farmer (as it marks the beginning of spring-summer), and historical significance, since it marks the first day as per the Shalivahana era that was started by Gautamiputra Satkarni, who ruled over the three southern states, and Sind from his capital in Paithan, Maharashtra. On this day, obeisance is paid to Brahma, who is supposed to have created the universe on this day, following which neem and jaggery are partaken. Pachadi – a mixture that has all the different flavours, meaning bitter, sweet, hot, sour and salty, is served to all. This signifies the various shades of life that everyone must go through, and hence must be prepared for. Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra marks the very same day, probably because the region had also been ruled by the Satkarni dynasty. In Maharashtra too, neem and jaggery are partaken to mark the beginning of the day, followed by hoisting of the Gudi – a scarf wrapped on a bamboo mast, which is decorated with neem and mango leaves, and topped with an upturned pot. The Gudi is meant to mark the victory of King Shalivahana over the Huns. It also commemorates the victory of Rama over Ravana, and ascendancy to the throne of Ayodhya. In Maharashtra, a dish similar to pachadi, containing all the five flavours is eaten, along with local delicacies like shrikhand and puran poli. In Sind, the day is celebrated as Cheti Chand, which is venerated as the day of emergence of the saint, Jhulelal, and is celebrated with delicacies like sai bhaji and sweetened rice.
Mid-April is the time marked for Baisakhi, Poila Baisakh, Vishu, and Rongali Bihu, Puttandu and Pana (or Vishuva) Sankranti celebrations. While Baisakhi, Poila Baisakh, Puttandu Pana Sankranti and Rongali Bihu mark the respective regional New Year, Vishu is solely a harvest/sowing festival in Kerala. However, all of these mark the beginning of the solar year, and the onset of summer, and the beginning of the sowing season for farmers. In Punjab, it has great religious significance for the Sikh community, since it marks the anointing of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh, besides the beginning of the New Year, as per the Vikram Sanwat. Although Baisakhi as a harvest festival predates Sikhism, Gurudwaras in Punjab are specially decorated for the day.

In Bengal, Poila Baisakh is a secular celebration which follows a day after Baisakhi, and is special across all religious groups-Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist. For Bengali Hindus, the day begins with a ritual bath in the river, and drawing of alpana ( decorative designs using rice flour) on the floor, and placing of a kalash with mango leaves to mark the onset of summer, following which the family prays to the deity for peace and prosperity. Traditional delicacies like puli and pithe mark the occasion, with songs, and dancing all through the day.
Rongali Bihu of Assam follows a similar trajectory, with young girls performing the Bihu dance on this day. In Odisha, Pana Sankranti – the Odiya New Year, corresponds to Poila Baisakh, and marks the day the Sun is on the Equator (Vishuva). Since the day marks the onset of summer, a small canopy is made on the Tulsi tree in the courtyard, and a pot with water is placed on top of it. This pot has a hole through which water keeps dropping on the Tulsi plant, for an entire month. Pana, a sweet drink made of bel, mango, and grated coconut, is had on this day, as a thirst quencher for summer.

Bihu being celebrated in Assam

The Tamil New Year, Puthandu, also falls on April 14, and marks the beginning of the sowing season, or the first ploughing by the farmers. The Puthandu tray is an auspicious decoration made up of betel leaves, arecanut, coconut, three types of seasonal fruits, a mirror, gold and silver items, coins, and seasonal flowers, with an oil lamp. A mangai pachadi made using a sour mango base, with sweet jaggery, bitter neem, red chillis, and astringent mustard is served to all, signifying the variegated flavours of life that must be encountered in the coming year. The Puthandu tray is prepared on the eve of the New Year, and is to be viewed by the family members first thing in the morning on Puthandu day. The day is marked by car festivals in many major temples all over Tamil Nadu, as also exhibitions marking the beginning of the Tamil month of Chitterai.

In Kerala, Vishu is a day when families begin their day by sighting the Vishukanni – an auspicious decoration arranged around an image of Vishnu, and comprising an oil lamp, a mirror, a coconut, lemon, jackfruit, cucumber, betel leaves, arecanut, and seasonal flowers. To mark the occasion, a typical meal called Sadhya, which has all the flavours– bitter , sweet, sour, salty and hot, is served. Vishu kanji, made of freshly harvested rice powder and coconut milk, and Vishu Katta – made of rice, coconut milk and jaggery are special delicacies to mark the occasion. The day is a solemn religious occasion to mark the beginning of the sowing season, but fireworks and merriment are also a part of this harvest festival.

So much for the summer harvest festivals. But given that India generally has two main crops – there are festivals celebrating the winter harvest too.

Winter harvest festivals

In Punjab, Lohri is celebrated a day ahead of Makar Sankranti, which is always on January 14 of the Gregorian calendar. Thus, Lohri falls on January 13, and marks the end of winter. Sugarcane, corn, and sesame being winter crops, their presence plays a big role in Lohri. In Punjab, children go around door-to-door collecting gajaks (made of sesame and jaggery), corn , sugar candy, and jaggery. These are then distributed to everyone, as people gather around a bonfire to sing folk songs and dance. Corn, sugar candy, and gajaks are also thrown into the bonfire, which signifies throwing out the old to begin anew. Makar /Til Sankranti in north, eastern, and central India, and Pongal in southern India are celebrated on the following day after Lohri. The day marks the sun’s transit into Makara or Capricorn, and hence the beginning of Uttarayana, or the Sun’s northward journey, and hence, the end of winter. Sesame (til) and jaggery made out of sugarcane juice are an inherent part of winter, and sweets made of them are customarily had to warm up and prevent sickness. In North India, where winter rains are common, warm khichdi is had on this day. In Gujarat, Maharashtra and North India, kites are flown on this day. In Gujarat, undhiyo made of winter vegetables are typical of this harvest festival, while in Rajasthan, ghevar is a sweet particular to Makar Sankranti. In Bengal, Til Sankranti celebrations are spread over a week, during which various sweet delicacies using the khajur gur ( date jaggery) and nolen gur (date treacle) typical of Bengal are consumed. The Magh mela, which culminates into the Kumbh Mela once every 12 years, is held during the period of Makar Sankranti. The snan (bath) on Makar Sankranti day, is considered especially auspicious. In Assam, Makar Sankranti corresponds to the Bhogali Bihu (Maag Bihu), which is a time of merriment, dance and song, besides feasting on sweetmeats and delicacies.

In Lohri festival, corn, sugar candy, and gajaks are thrown into the bonefire to signify ending of the old and beginning of the new

In the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated to mark the winter harvest, and is celebrated on the same day as Makar Sankranti in the north. Pongal is spread over 4 days, with the first day-termed Bhogi Pongal, confined to throwing out clutter, and old utensils. In their place, new clothes and utensils are bought for the home. The actual celebrations begin on the next day, called the Surya Pongal, when the Sun God is propitiated, and the Pongal dish – Venpongal – made in both the sweet and savoury versions, using dry fruits, jaggery and ghee, is offered to the Gods. Thereafter, it is distributed to all. On the third day, Mattu Pongal, the animals are given a bath, and worshipped by farm families. Birds are also fed rice. On the last day, Kattu Pongal, everyone steps out to meet friends and relatives. In short, Pongal is acknowledgement by farmers that growing crops is a joint effort, wherein animals, birds and humans play their respective roles.

In Bengal, the winter harvest is celebrated as the Nabanna (literally, new rice) festival, in the month of Agrahayana (November-December). In rural Bengal, farmers offer the newly harvested rice to Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth and fertility. The day starts with worshipping of the Golaghar (storehouse) and offering rice porridge to the deity. Everyone enjoys a serving of a fresh milk and powdered rice preparation in the form of a thick drink. This day-long festival involves greeting the moon with lamps, giving gifts to children, and feeding crows with rice. Although it is a popular festival among Hindu farmers, Nabanna celebrations are common among non-Hindu agriculturists too. Muslim and Christian farmers too observe Nabanna in Bengal, treating it as a secular celebration of the winter harvest.
In the tribal regions of West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand, Tusu is a popular harvest festival celebrated during November-December, invoking the Sun God. Rice husks (tusu) are worshipped by placing them in a kulungi or niche in the wall. The last of the paddy husks left in the field, after everything has been harvested, is called dinimai. The head of the family brings home the dinimai, which is then established as tusu, for being worshipped. The tusu is only worshipped by the chaste virgin girls. Married women do not worship the tusu. During the month-long festival, rice powder alpanas are made, and flowers are offered to the tusu. The girls sing tusu gaans, which are folk songs dedicated to the tusu. At the end of the month, a choudal symbolising the sun, is made of jute sticks, inside which all the puja paraphernalia is placed, and carried to the river or pond to be immersed.

Dr. Rina Mukherji

A senior journalist, Dr. Rina Mukherji specialises in all aspects of sustainable development, with special focus on the environment and climate change. She has been a UGC doctoral fellow, and holds a doctorate in African Studies, with specialisation in Third World conflict and developmental issues. She is currently an independent journalist based in Pune.