Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Day of Kites and Khicheri

Yesterday, Jan. 14, was the festival of Makar Sankranti, which happens every year on that day. Usually Hindu holidays happen on the lunar calendar, so I wasn't sure why this one always happened on the same day. It turns out that this is the day the sun enters Capricorn, which apparently happens on the same day every year. (More info about Makar Sankranti can be found here and here.)

Two things happen on Makar Sankranti. Everyone flies kites, and everyone eats khicheri. The kites are a spring thing. The khicheri is also about giving to the poor. So, for the past few days, more and more poor people have been showing up. There's a usual row of beggars on the road leading down to Assi ghat, but their numbers increased exponentially, so that two days ago, there were a ton of people on the ghat itself and on the road away from the ghat, past my hotel. Yesterday morning, there were even more. The routine is that people come down to the river to do their puja, and on the way back out, they give things to the poor. Sometimes they pour handfuls of rice into people's dishes, and sometimes they give money. Many of the temples also make huge vats of khicheri and feed whoever comes. (Khicheri is very simple food, a kind of porridgy lentil-rice mixture, definitely Indian home cooking and the kind of thing you might eat if you weren’t feeling well. I love it.)

Assi Ghat usually looks like this:

Yesterday morning, it looked like this:

(I was taking the pictures from my balcony, thus the view from above.)

Even at the little chai stall next to Vaatika, there was a massive pot of khicheri cooking. (The guy bent over to put another stick in the fire just as I took the photo.)

It’s probably the biggest pot of khicheri I’ve ever seen, though I certainly wouldn’t say it was the biggest pot in Benares. Andy and I took a walk in the afternoon and stopped at the temple at Kedar Ghat. There was a guy ladling out khicheri (in little banana leaf bowls) from another huge pot, and he said that they’d fed thousands of people already that day. We took our bowls and sat on the steps to eat them. A nearby goat ignored the bowls with khicheri remains in them and instead went for the garland of marigolds worn by a small child.

I’m not sure what the khicheri-kite connection is, but the kites are also a key part of the day. In the weeks leading up to Makar Sankranti, makeshift kite stalls had sprung up all over the city.

And kites were everywhere in the sky in the days leading up to the holiday.

Some of the kite flyers, both kids and men, are great at it, and it's amazing how high their kites go. Sometimes, though, they're maybe just a little too little to do it well.

This is the third time I've been in Varanasi for Makar Sankranti, and of all the Hindu festivals, it's one of my favorites. And I was glad, this morning, the day after the festival, to see little boys on rooftops flinging their kites up toward the sky til they caught the breeze.


austere said...

I hope you make it to Gujarat someday for the Uttarayan festival there, prepare to be sunburnt, to fly tons of kites and eat a lot of chiki.

Sue Dickman said...

That sounds lovely. I've been to Gujerat (though not since 1997) but never for Uttarayan. I love chiki (and kites), so that sounds great.

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