In Punjab, the part of the world where I was born and spent my early years, the last day of the month Poh during which winter solstice takes place is celebrated as a festival called Lohri. It invariably falls on the 13th January, when the nights are long and at their coldest.

The frosty winter weather intensifies, deepens longing – the metaphor captured beautifully by Guru Nanak: ‘pokh thukhaar parrai van thrin ras sokhai, aavath kee naahee man than vasehi mukhae’ – [like] the fields wither and sap dries up in trees as the frost falls in Poh; my heart, body ache for You; Your name is on my lips – why have You not come?

The festival comes sort of mid way between the sowings in October and harvesting in April -at a time when the farmers are relatively free. May be it is some lingering longing or anxiety if the harvest will be good or just seeking some diversion from the harsh weather people love this festival. It’s origin is not clear though there are several legends about it. One associates it to Lohri, sister to Holika whose name is linked to Holi festival. A simpler explanation traces Lohri to loh, the large iron plate traditionally used for baking chapattis for feasts.

The nightly festivities are held around a bonfire. Logs of wood piled together are lighted as family and friends assemble around it. They go around the fire, throwing popcorn, peanuts, rayveri [brittle sesame candy] and sweets to stoke the flaming embers. Some may strike up a dhol [drum], its compelling rhythm breaking people into spontaneous dancing. The day ends with a traditional feast of corn bread with a dish of mustard greens and dessert of rice cooked in fresh sugar cane juice – all laced with exotic spices and creamy butter. Not associated with any faith persuasion, Lohri especially celebrates the newlyweds and the new born – a tribute to coming together and continuity in life.

In the days preceding Lohri, boys go from house to house singing songs for contributions in cash and kind for the bonfire. The lyrics from Punjabi folk lore, some eulogizing gallantry, reminiscent of Robin Hood, of Dulla Bhatti, a Punjabi Muslim highway robber of the 16th century are common. In villages, the girls would go in groups visiting households exchanging a variety of homemade sweets.

The day after Lohri is known as Maghi, another festive day celebrating the start of the month known as Magh in Punjab. Magh is considered an auspicious month. Agh means sin – Magh eradicates sin. Hindus light lamps with sesame oil as this is supposed to give prosperity and drive away all sins. Bathing in any river on Maghi is important. It is traditional to eat kheer – akin to rice pudding – on this day. Sikhs celebrate it as a three-day fair at Muktsar in commemoration of a heroic fight by forty Sikhs who laid down their lives warding off attack by an imperial army in pursuit of Guru Gobind Singh near the lake of Khidrana in December 1705. These men earlier, during a prolonged siege, had disowned and deserted the Guru but came back when shamed by their women folk. The Guru redeemed the dying heroes by tearing their disclaimer and declaring them muktas [liberated ones]. In time Khidrana came to be known as Muktsar – the Pool of Liberation.  

Guru Nanak had said about the month of Magh: maagh puneeth bhaee theerathh anthar jaaniaa, saajan sehaj milae gun gehi ank samaaniaa – in Maagh, I am cleansed and awareness of His sacred abode within dawns on me. I meet my Beloved with intuitive ease; grasp His glorious virtues, and merge in His Being. 

For sure some inner transformation was witnessed at the turn of this month around two centuries later at Khidrana!

Lohri is a festival of zeal and verve – feasts and foods – celebration and sharing – dance and music – in thankfulness for God’s provision but celebrated, if at all, in the privacy of their homes by Punjabis in the US. There may be a modest beginning to commemorate it. The East Pennsylvania Punjabi Association is planning a celebration and information about the event is available at http://www.eppa.us.   Jan 2, 2011

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