As far back as I can remember, 14 January has been a day looked forward to with great excitement in our family. 14 January is Uttarayan or Makar Sankranti is a harvest festival in many parts of India.
Sankrant is celebrated as Lohari in Punjab with huge bonfires being lit in the evening before Sankrant day. Sweets, sugarcane and rice are thrown into them and friends and relatives gather together for Lohari parties. The actual Sankrant day is celebrated as Maghi. On this day Punjabis celebrate by dancing their vigorous colorful Bhangra dance until exhaustion sets in and the sit down to a sumptuous meal of Sarson Ka Saag and Makki Di Roti. In Maharashtra Sankrant is celebrated with Tilguds made from Til (sesame seeds) and sugar and Til-laddus made from Til and Jaggery. These are proffered to everyone with the words - "til-gul ghya, god god bola" meaning "accept these tilguls and speak sweet words", the exchange of these words and symbols signifies forgetting any past ill-feeling and resolving to speak sweetly and remain friends. In neigbouring Gujarat Sankrant is celebrated with brightly coloured kites fighting it out in the skies and in South India Sankrant is celebrated as Pongal. On the day of the festival women bathe early in the morning and cook new harvested rice in a big fresh earthen pot called Pongal. When the rice boils and overflows, they shout joyfully ‘Pongal-O-pongal!" After offering the cooked rice to God, by way of thanks, family and friends eat it.
Being Gujarati my family celebrates Sankrant the Gujarati way… by taking to the skies, literally! Ours being one of the tallest buildings in our lane, it becomes the congregation point for extended family, friends and friends of friends – basically an open house… And dozens of colorful kites take flight from our terrace to battle with those from neighboring terraces.
We still have an open house for Sankrant but things are a little different nowadays, the traditional Fada ni Khichdi and Sheero are rarely made since the weight conscious new revelers won’t touch it. And we who once ran about carefree on Sankrant have since grown up. We are also now parents of school going children and cannot make it to the festival at all since Sankrant is on a school day this year!
In the past preparations for Sankrant began the very day Angadia the famous couriers of Ahemdabad delivered the humongous box overflowing with kites and ‘manja’ (kite string)! The older cousins would exclaim over the new crop of kites, the excellent manja that was rubbed with glass to make it war worthy enough (to sever other peoples kite strings) and claiming the best for themselves. Thereafter would ensue incomprehensible debates about whose prowess prevailed the year before. And before you knew it down come leftover kites from the previous year and preparation began in earnest!
Preparation meant a nightly ritual of the men in the family preparing the Kites for THE day while we, the runts of various litters, would watch in fascination – DON’T TOUCH – punctuating the quiet buzz of conversation liberally, as the older and wiser siblings applied themselves to the task of tying ‘kannis’ to the spines of the kites. If one of them felt benevolent, one of the previous years rejects would come our way and we would be allowed to try our hand at kanni tying as we gloated at our “knee high” peers! The industrious nights alternated with equally diligent days of practice; otherwise busy papas came home on the dot of six and rushed up to the terrace to join sundry neighborhood kids who had already rushed up straight from school. Some received first instructions in flying kites while others loosened up their flying arms.
Meanwhile elsewhere in the house, preparations of a more delicious kind would be underway. My grandmother would consult with Maharaj (the family cook) on quantities of milk required for endless cups of tea, or supervise her daughters – in – law as they measured out appropriate amounts of ingredients, required for sundry treats. If one was at the right place at the right time, one would get lucky as well. A lump of jaggery or some roasted peanuts would come one’s way from one of the ladies or Maharaj or even our stern faced, twinkly eyed Moti Mummy (Grandma).
On THE day, my older cousin Ashu bhai would always be the first on the terrace sometimes even before the sun. We’d wake up to his shrill Kaypyocheeeee (Ive cut your kite) … or Lapppeeeettttt (Your kite’s been cut, roll up your string). Our moms were extra vigilant that morning, grabbing us by collars and sleeves as we tried to run up in pyjamas. Unceremonious dunkings later, we’d finally burst onto an already populated terrace en masse to add our own bit of chaos!
Today was the day we came into our own because everyone wanted a minion to hold their firki (kite string). A chance at flying the kite was enough incentive but we knew there were lots more if we were wily enough and we got many a desperate kite flyer into buying us candy, ice creams on that day…. The blue of the sky would barely be visible behind the patchwork hues of soaring kites and shouts of ‘kapyoche’ and ‘lapet’ would ring through the air. We would be running around harvesting manja into little bundles, or chasing stray trailing ends of manja that might have a kite attached to the other end, our faces slowly roasting to a nutty brown under the sun as we feasted on Sesamme laddoos, Chikki, spicy Fada ni Khichadi, and ghee drenched Sheera.
Pauta - a local legume
With diabetes hanging on my head this year (I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes while I was pregnant with my daughter last year) I elected not to make the Fada ni Khichdi and Sheero either. I was also moping around about not celebrating Sankrant all of last week and my maids - perhaps out of pity or just to put a smile on my face - decided to make my day better. Shobha brought in homemade sesame laddus this morning and Anita brought in the makings of Sankranti chi Bhogi, something I had never eaten before.
Sankranti being a festival of harvest, it is celebrated to mark the arrival of new crops from the fields and some maharashtrian communities make a special dish called Sankranti chi Bogi or Bhogi palle. This is a hearty dish containing all the new food crops, leafy veges, tender green beans, oilseeds, pulses, fruit and vegetables.
Bhogi chi Bhaji
For the vegetables
3 carrots peeled and diced
2 big potatoes peeled and diced
3-4 medium sized brinjals diced
1 cup tender sugarcane cut into bite sized pieces
1 bunch chandan bhuta (chakhwat)
½ cup each of fresh green gram called harbara or hara chana locally, fresh green peas, pauta, a local legume and field beans (ghevra or papadi) all removed from their pods.
1-1 ½ tsp green chilli paste (or crushed)
¼ tsp turmeric powder
salt as per taste
For the Masalla
5-6 Dry Red chillies,
½ cup dry coconut,
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp mustard seeds
2 tsp oil
½ tsp turmeric2 tsp roasted groundnut powder
2 tsp sesame
A handful of Bor/Bor (Indian Jujube)
Place all the above ingredients in the pressure cooker with a little water. Give it one whistle and then leave on a low flame for 10 mins. When you open your cooker the vegetables should be properly cooked and falling apart. While the vegetables are cooking grind all the ingredients for the masalla in the blender. Heat oil in a large pan and add masalla mixture to it. Cook until oil separates. Add the cooked vegetables, turmeric and the ber/bor. Bring to a boil. Add the sesame seed and groundnut and mix well. Cook uncovered for 1-2 minutes. This dish is traditionally served hot with bajra bhakris studded with sesame seeds but I found it great to eat out of a bowl as a hearty stew as well.