Today is the festival of Lohri, celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. It is observed the night before Makar Sankranti, also known as Maghi, which according to the solar part of the lunisolar Bikrami calendar typically falls on this date every year. Historically, the festival has been both a winter crop season celebration, and a remembrance of the Sun deity (Surya). Lohri songs mention Surya, asking for heat and thanking him for his return. Other legends explain the celebration as a folk reverence for fire (Agni) or the goddess of Lohri.
Other Punjabi folklore links Lohri to the tale of Dulla Bhatti. The central theme of many Lohri songs is the legend of Dulla Bhatti who lived in Punjab during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar. He was regarded as a hero in Punjab, for rescuing Hindu girls from being forcibly taken to be sold in slave market of the Middle East. Amongst those he saved were two girls Sundri & Mundri, who gradually became a theme of Punjabi folklore. As a part of Lohri celebrations, children go around homes singing the traditional folk songs of Lohri with “Dulla Bhatti” name included. One person sings, while others end each line with a loud “Ho!” sung in unison. After the song ends, the adult of the home is expected to give snacks and money to the singing troupe of youngsters.
Lohri is celebrated with a bonfire. The lighting of bonfire during this winter festival is a longstanding tradition, as is true of midwinter festivals throughout the northern hemisphere.
In Punjab, the harvest festival Lohri is marked by eating sheaves of roasted corn from the new harvest. The January sugarcane harvest is also celebrated in the Lohri festival. Sugarcane products such as gurh (solidified and unrefined sugarcane juice) and gachak (recipe below) are central to Lohri celebrations, as are nuts which are harvested in January. The other important food item of Lohri is the radish which can be harvested between October and January. Mustard greens are cultivated mainly in the winter months because the crop is suitable to the agro-climatic conditions. Accordingly, mustard greens are also a winter produce. It is traditional to eat gajak, sarson da saag with makki di roti, radish, ground nuts and jaggery. Jaggery is a solid brown sugar product made from cane sugar and toddy palm juice. It is also traditional to eat “til rice” which is made by mixing jaggery, sesame seeds and rice. In some places, this dish is called ‘tricholi.’
In various places in the Punjab, about 10 to 15 days before Lohri, groups of young and teenage boys and girls go around the neighborhood collecting logs for the Lohri bonfire. In some places, they also collect items such as grains and jaggery which are sold and the sale proceeds are divided amongst the group.
A popular activity engaged in by boys is to select a group member to smear his face with ash and tie a rope around his waist. The idea is for the selected person to act as a deterrent for people who refrain from giving Lohri items. The boys will sing Lohri songs asking for Lohri items. If not enough is given, the householder will be given an ultimatum to either give more or the rope will be loosened. If not enough is given, then the boy who has his face smeared will try to enter the house and smash clay pots or the clay stove.
During the day, children go from door to door singing traditional songs. These children are given sweets and savories, and occasionally, money. Turning them back empty-handed is regarded inauspicious. Where families are welcoming newly-weds and newborns, the requests for treats increases. The collections gathered by the children are known as Lohri and consist of til, gachak, crystal sugar, gur (jaggery), moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Lohri is then distributed at night during the festival. Till, peanuts, popcorn and other food items are also thrown into the fire. For some, throwing food into the fire represents the burning of the old year and start the next year on Makar Sankranti
The bonfire ceremony differs depending on the location in Punjab. In some parts, a small image of the folk Lohri goddess is made with gobar (cattle dung) which is then decorated. A fire is lit beneath it and people chant its praises. In other parts, the Lohri fire consists of cow dung and wood with no reference to the Lohri goddess.
The bonfire is lit at sunset in the main village square. People toss sesame seeds, gur, and sugar-candy on the bonfire, sit around it, sing and dance till the fire dies out. Some people perform a prayer while they circle fire. It is traditional to offer guests til, gachchak, gur, moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Milk and water mix is also poured around the bonfire by Hindus to thank the Sun God and seeking his continued protection.
Here’s a recipe for gachak. It’s not in English, but you’ll figure it out.