To return to the subject of ‘Uttarayan’ ~ in the culture of our land, the day marks a significant movement of the sun in the celestial sphere and since it is a solar event, it is probably one of the few Hindu festivals which falls every year on the same date of the Gregorian calendar –14th Jan (with some exceptions in a leap year when it is celebrated on 15th Jan.) Different regions of our country celebrate it under different names ~ in the north we have Lohri and Maghi; in a number of states it is Makkar Sankranti; the western state of Gujarat calls it Uttarayan, a name that is synonymous there with the region’s famous kite-festival; in the eastern state of Assam it is Bhogali Bihu; while the southern state of Tamil Nadu celebrates it as Pongal. Some other Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal also celebrate the day under different names and in different ways.
Traditionally most of these are harvest related festivities. However the day carries some celestial, spiritual, mythological and even historical connotations for various regions. It is said that in the heydays of Vedic astronomy and maths (generally dated to around 300 BC), much of what has come down to us about the zodiac — the arrangement of the earth’s dial around the sun — was calculated and recorded. Everytime the zodiac sign changes, our lunar calendar marks it as a ‘sankranti’, both to suggest the movement of our planet and to understand that life on planet earth is nourished and sustained by this movement since it is responsible for our seasons. Of the various sankrantis in a year, the two most significant ones are Makkar Sankranti (after the winter solstice) and Karka Sankranti in Jul (after the summer solstice). As per one Hindu legend, the period from the former to the latter –i.e. the period of the northward movement of the sun in the celestial sphere —was considered the daytime of the Gods (interestingly it is also the time of the Midnight Sun around the North Pole region!) and the reverse as the night.
As an interesting aside, i came upon this information in one of the Sadguru blogs about the significance of the number 108 in our religion. As per that in the planetary system in which we live,
“The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth. The distance between Sun and Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Sun. The distance between Moon and Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Moon. And there are 108 padas (steps) in one lunar year. Planet Earth takes 13 ½ lunar revolutions or one solar year to complete its orbit around the Sun. In this orbit it arranges itself in 27 nakshatras or 108 padas, almost like the beads of a mala. Makar Sankranti marks the completion of and the beginning of a new cycle.”
Since most aspects of our ancient yogic system were evolved and developed based on the connection between the celestial system and the human system, this time came to be considered most auspicious both for the spiritual seeker as well as the common man. And so the first festival of the year is meant to seek new beginnings for the year ahead.