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Happy Pongal or Makar Sankranti!

Indiaís Midwinter celebration is called Pongal. A large percentage of the Indian population still depends solely on agriculture to survive.

Consequently, most of the Hindu festivals are somehow linked to the seasons and agriculture. Actually, most of the major holidays in the world are related to the harvest, even though they might have other beliefs and stories built on top of the earth based foundation.

In many parts of India, rice is planted in October, and harvested in March or April. Midwinter marks the first tentative sprouts emerging from the soil. This is a special time of thanksgiving to God, the sun, the earth and the cattle. God for providing the crops, the sun and the earth for growing them, and the cattle for producing milk and pulling the plough.

Pongal is an agricultural festival, celebrated every year in mid January, primarily in the southern part of India. The celebration continues through the first four days of the month of Thai, which falls on January 14 every year. This is also the time when the monsoon season in southern India has passed and life is back to normal.

Different states and regions in India celebrate different variations of Pongal. It is also known in other regions as Bhogali Bihu, Lohri, Bhogi, Pradesh, and Makar Sankranti.

Customs differ somewhat during these festivals, but feasts, bonfires, and visits with friends and families are part of the collective traditions. In Andhra Pradesh, each household exhibits its doll collection.

In northern India this festival is called Lohri, The Bonfire Festival. Children go from door to door singing and demanding money, sesame seeds, peanuts, or sweets. They sing the praises of Dulha Bhatti, a Punjabi hero who robbed from the rich to help the poor.

In West Bengal, thousands of people gather at Gangasgar, where the holy river Ganges meets the sea, to wash away their earthly sins.

Kites abound in the skies of Gujarat and other western Indian states. The directional change of the wind at this time of year makes for superb flying. Thousands of kites dot the sky as young men challenge each other in kite flying competitions.

Sun worship is a big part of the rituals of Pongal. On the first day, the sun moves into its most favorable position from Cancer to Capricorn. Hence, the name Makar Sankranti which translates to Capricorn.

Each of the four days of Pongal relates to its own customs, traditions and rituals.

The first day of Pongal is called Bhogi Pongal. This day is reserved for family. Lord Indra, the Ruler of Clouds and Giver of Rains, is honored on this day. A bonfire is lit at dawn in front of each house, and all old and battered items are thrown into the fire to symbolize a fresh new year. The bonfires burn all night long, with people drumming and dancing around them. Homes are cleaned and decorated. Rice and red mud designs on the floor are a common decoration. Pumpkin flowers in cow dung are sometimes placed among the designs. Rice and sugarcane are harvested from the fields to be used to make Pongal, which is a sweet dish offered to the Gods.

The second day of Pongal is called Surya Pongal and is dedicated to Lord Surya, the Sun God. Images of Lord Surya are drawn on wooden planks and placed among the Kolam designs. He is worshipped as the new month of Thai begins.

The third day of Pongal is called Mattu Pongal and is devoted to the cattle. They are given baths, their horns are polished, painted and covered with metal caps, and garlands are put around their necks. The cattle are also given sweet Pongal to eat on this special day. After they are groomed and ready they are paraded around the village to be admired.

The fourth day of Pongal is called Kanya Pongal. This is the day when birds are worshipped. Colored balls of cooked rice are put out into the open by young girls for the birds and fowls to savor. This is also a day for sisters to pray for their brotherís happiness.

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