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Sunday, April 2, 2023

Astronomical Significance of the Indian Festival ‘Makar Sankranti’

Makar Sankranti marks the end of the long, cold, winter months and the onset of spring

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Niloy Chattaraj
Niloy Chattaraj
COO of Transcontinental Times, A double gold medalist engineer who covers social issues, science, and Indian history.

INDIA: Makar Sankranti is widely observed across the nation and is referred to by various names in various geographic areas. It is the festival of the sun which is not only celebrated in India but in many other Asian countries as Thailand, Cambodia, and Nepal. The ‘Kite Festival’ is celebrated throughout India with different names. In Maharashtra, it is known as Makar Sankranti, in Tamil Nadu, the festival is known as Thai Pongal, in Assam and North-East states Makar Sankranti is celebrated as Magh Bihu.

Apart from India, Makar Sankranti is also celebrated in different Asian countries. In Nepal, it is known as Maghe Sankrant whereas in Thailand it is known as Songkran. In Cambodia, the festival is known as Mohan Songkran.

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Makar Sankranti marks the end of the long, cold, winter months and the onset of spring. In ancient times, it was the time when the shift of the sun resulted in longer days. So, it is a celebration of the change of seasons – from a harsher winter to a milder climate. This festival is celebrated in honor of Surya (the Sun God) people pay tribute to the grace of his energy that has enabled life and food on earth.

Astronomical significance

To understand why our ancestors began to celebrate this festival we need to understand the motion of the Sun during the year. Since the earth is tilted 23.5° to the perpendicular axis on the plane of rotation around the Sun, it has two imaginary latitudes equidistant from the equator. One at the southern part of the earth is known as the ‘Tropic of Capricorn ( Makar Rekha)’ and one at the northern part is known as ‘Tropic of Cancer (Kark Rekha)’.

The Apparent Position of the Sun. Photo credit: Twitter
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Due to the tilt of the earth’s rotation the Sun appears to move from the South to North direction in its rising and setting position. This northward journey is known as Uttaranayan in the Sanskrit language. Similarly, the Sun appears to move from the North to South known as Dakshinayan (Southward journey). This northward journey of the Sun is marked as the Makar (Capricorn) Sankranti which signifies the end of harsh winter and the onset of the spring season.

Dark Rift and Galaxy

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Our ancestors divided the circle of rotation of the Earth into 12 constellations which are commonly known as the ‘Zodiac signs’. During December and January, we can see our Milky Way galaxy with some dark patches on the edge of it. These dark patches are the dust and gases which block our view of the center of our galaxy. This is known as the ‘Dark Rift’ or ‘Great Rift’. Interestingly, if you draw imaginary lines across this rift, an image of a crocodile appears.

The Capricorn (Makar). Photo credit: NASA

In the Sanskrit language crocodile is called Makar. This is why this zodiac is known as Makar Rashi (Capricorn Zodiac) and hence the Tropic of Capricorn (Makar Rekha).

Precession of Earth and Summer Solstice

Our planet Earth has three motions; revolving around the Sun, rotating on its axis, and circular motion of its rotating axis. Earth has an equatorial bulge as it is slightly fatter at the equator than at the poles. The combined effect of the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon on this bulge causes the earth’s axis to rotate a circle in space like a spinning top. This circular motion is known as ‘precession’.

The Precession. Photo credit: Twitter

The planet rotates a complete circle in almost 26,000 years. So vernal equinoxes precess by one day in every 72 years. Way back in 1500 years, in Rig Veda’s compilation, it is mentioned that Makar Sankranti fell on 14th January. So the Northwards movement of the sun began on 14th January. But during almost 1500 years, this Northwards journey precessed by 22 days. So, the winter solstice begins on 22nd December. The ‘Capricorn zodiac’ falls on 14th January. However, this year, it is going to be celebrated on January 15.

Also Read: Makar Sankranti: Kites Float in the Skies across India and Neighbouring Countries


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