New Delhi, Jan 14 (IANS) As the Maha Kumbh, which occurs once every 12 years, began Monday with Makar Sankaranti, nearly 50 lakh devotees converged for a ritual bath at the Sangam in Allahabad, where Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati converge.
In other parts of the country, Makar Sankaranti marked a new harvest and worship of the sun god.
In Tamil Nadu, nearly 1,500 km from the north Indian town of Allahabad, Jan 14 is celebrated as Pongal, and special, decorated pots are used to cook the Chakarai Pongal, a sweet dish made of milk, rice and jaggery.
The festival in Tamil Nadu coincides with the beginning of the month of Thai, in the traditional calendar.
In the east, on the Sagar island, where the Ganga empties into the Bay of Bengal, about six lakh devotees converged Monday to take a ritual bath believed to wash off the sins of a lifetime.
Sankaranti is probably the only Hindu festival celebrated on the same day, Jan 14, each year.
The lunar calendar is usually followed for traditional purposes, but Makar Sankaranti is observed in keeping with the solar calendar.
There are 12 Sankarantis each year, marking the shift of the sun into different signs of the zodiac. The festival of Makar Sankaranti is celebrated when the sun transits from Dhanu (Sagittarius) to Makara (Capricorn), falling 24 days after the winter solstice.
Is it any wonder then, that thanking the sun god should form part of the rituals associated with the festivities on this occasion?
The Pongal dish is first offered to the sun in thanksgiving, and since the sun is also the symbol of divinity and wisdom, many rituals to the goddess of learning, Saraswati, too are undertaken.
At Konark in Odisha, special celebrations occur at the 13th century Sun Temple.
In parts of Odisha, people bathe in ponds to relieve themselves of sin. Not only is the bath a spiritual exercise, there are many devout who believe that a bath at this time cures physical ailments too.
In Gujarat, colourful oblations are made to the Sun god, and decorated kites are flown, almost in an attempt to reach the sun. The kite-flying ritual is also observed in Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Reports from Hyderabad city indicate that with vast numbers of people travelling to other parts of the state to be with family for the festival, city streets wore a deserted look.
Maghi, as the festival is known in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, is an occasion to make "kheer" (sweet made of rice boiled in milk).
The winter festival sees the preparation of foods that are high-calorie, meant to keep the body warm. Til (sesame seeds) and jaggery are used in many ritual preparations at this time.
Although Sankaranti is a festival spread over only a few days each year in many parts of the country, the Kumbh at Allahabad this year, which began on this festival, will continue for 55 days.
It will see the largest gathering of people that the planet ever witnesses.
The mela is set to conclude March 10, with Maha Shivratri.
Until then, devotees from across the country - and indeed the world - will descend on the Sangam at Allahabad.
For those travelling to the Sangam, it is the point of salvation. National boundaries dissolve; age matters little; of significance is only that holy dip, washing devotees clean of sin.