Women wearing traditional Punjabi dress perform the giddha folk dance around a bonfire during Lohri celebrations in Amritsar in 2015 (Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)
Women wearing traditional Punjabi dress perform the giddha folk dance around a bonfire during Lohri celebrations in Amritsar in 2015 (Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)

KaiJanuary 23, 2020

Fun, frolic, fire and food: Celebrating the Indian festival Makar Sankranti

Women wearing traditional Punjabi dress perform the giddha folk dance around a bonfire during Lohri celebrations in Amritsar in 2015 (Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)
Women wearing traditional Punjabi dress perform the giddha folk dance around a bonfire during Lohri celebrations in Amritsar in 2015 (Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)

As this colourful festival of giving thanks is marked across India, Renu Sikka calls on societies around the globe to stop undervaluing women and girls, and shares a Punjabi recipe for spinach curry and exquisite chapati. 

Makar Sankranti is four days of thanksgiving celebration to four great forces of protection: Indra (the giver of rain), Surya (the sun), gracious cattle and beloved ancestors. 

This joyful occasion is known as Pongal by Tamils, Pedha Panduga among the Telugus and Lohri by Punjabis. It begins on the day the sun enters Makara (Capricorn), between January 13 and 15. 

I have beautiful memories of Lohri from my childhood. My family and I would visit my grandparents in the winter and Lohri was a big part of our holiday celebrations. We would all gather at my aunt’s house and there would be a huge bonfire and plates full of traditional sweets. 

This festival of Makar Sankranti and Lohri has a lot to offer – dance, dhol (double-headed drums used throughout India) and great food, some of which comprise jaggery, peanuts and popcorn, the three edibles normally associated with Lohri festival. This food is often fed to the fire.

There are many traditions and stories associated with Lohri. In Punjab, children go knocking from door to door and are offered savouries like til laddus, gazak, peanuts, puffed rice and gur ki patti (candy made from jaggery and peanuts). Turning them away is considered inauspicious. Songs are sung in praise of Dulha Bhatti, the Punjabi equivalent of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich and gave his loot to the poor. He is also said to have prevented the village girls from being sold off as slaves and getting trapped into arranged honour marriages with dowry and all. 

Gur ki patti or chikki, a sweet made with jaggery and peanuts that is eaten during Lohri (Photo: Getty Images)

Bonfires are an integral part of these festivities, as families dance to the tunes of famous folk songs:

Sunder mundriye ho!

Tera kaun vichara ho!


Beautiful girl

Who will think about you

Dulla of the Bhatti clan will

Fun, frolic, colours, music and dance. These are some of the essential Lohri elements. Kite-flying competitions are also organised across different parts in India, with people often battling to cut each other’s kites down.

People donate food to the temples and gurudwaras, often rabi crops to thank god for their good harvest. In Punjab, farmers consider the day after Lohri as a new financial year. 

Many people also believe this festival marks the passing of the winter solstice, as Lohri was originally celebrated on winter solstice day, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. 

I dedicate this festival this year to our girls around the globe, as 2020 is a pivotal year for advancing gender equality worldwide. The global consensus is that despite some progress made, the real change is yet to be seen for the majority of women and girls. Not a single country that I know of can actually claim to have fully achieved gender equality. Still there are many obstacles as far as law and culture are concerned. Women and girls are still undervalued. They often work more and are paid less. 

Growing up in India, I remember how the birth of a boy was traditionally marked by giving out sweets called ladoo, while there was no such celebration at the birth of a baby girl.  Stemming from a culture where male children are preferred over female, in many parts of India the birth of a girl child is seen as a disappointment, because boys carry on the family name. With girls comes a huge responsibility and pressure of dahez (dowry), for which many families start saving from the day the girl child is born. So, this festival of Lohri for me is a timely reminder of the importance of a girl child and gender equality.

Here’s a recipe for one of my favourite foods eaten during Lohri. This combination of saag (mustard greens) and makki ki roti (chapati) with a big dollop of freshly churned white butter or desi ghee on top is one of the most celebrated winter Punjabi delicacies that no one can resist. 

Sarson ka saag makki ki roti (Photo: Getty Images)

SARSON KA SAAG AUR MAKKI KI ROTI (green mustard leaves and maize flour roti)

For the sarson ka saag:

  • 750g sarso (mustard greens)
  • 250g spinach
  • 250g bathua leaves (an Indian green; substitute bok choy)
  • 2 tomatoes, cored, chopped
  • 4 green chillies, chopped
  • 25g ginger, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • pinch of asafoetida
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric 
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon maize flour
  • ½ teaspoon red chilli powder
  • salt to taste
  • fresh coriander

To make the sarson ka saag, separate all the greens from their stalks. Wash the leaves and drain off any excess water. When dry, finely chop.

Make a paste out of the tomato, green chillies and ginger using a mortar and pestle or small food processor.

Put the greens in a pressure cooker with ½ cup water, close the lid and cook until it whistles once, then turn off the flame until the steam settles down completely. Open the lid of the pressure cooker and mash the veges with a ladle. Alternatively, cook the veges with the water on a pot on the stove until soft.

Heat the oil in a wok and when hot, add the cumin seeds. After they crackle, add the asafoetida, turmeric and coriander. Saute for a while then add the maize flour, stirring constantly to roast the flour until it turns slightly dark in colour.

Add the tomato-chilli-ginger paste to the wok and saute this masala until the oil leaves the edges of the masala. Keep stirring. When the masala is cooked well, add the mashed greens into it, followed by the red chilli powder and some salt. Mix well.

Add 1 cup of water and some fresh coriander, then cover and cook over low heat for 10-12 minutes. Stir every two minutes until it’s ready.

For the makki ki roti:

  • 500g makki atta (maize flour, available from Indian food stores)
  • water (as needed)
  • ghee or oil for frying

Put the flour into a big mixing bowl and add water to it gradually in small portions, kneading until you have a stiff and tight dough. Knead the dough well for 2-3 minutes until smooth.

Meanwhile preheat a tawa (skillet) with oil or ghee. Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a round shape. Wet your hands and flatten the dough ball into a roti.* Very gently place this rolled roti on the tawa.

When the roti turns dark on the surface, flip and cook the other side until you see golden brown spots. Now lift the roti with tongs and hold it directly on the gas flame until it gets golden brown spots on both sides.

Place the roti on a plate and add some ghee. Cook the remaining roti, adding them to the plate with ghee. Serve hot with the sarson ka saag. 

*You may find it easiest to roll the roti on a piece of plastic wrap – put some water on the wrap and the ball of dough, cover the dough ball with the wrap and flatten the dough ball with your palms or with the help of a rolling pin. Very gently separate the roti from the plastic wrap sheet, then place on the tawa to roast.

Renu Sikka is the founder of Our Stories On Plate, a non-profit community social enterprise for empowering refugee and migrant women through cooking and sharing their cultural food stories.

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