Sun, Sea Dragons, and Sesame


Several aspects of Hindu festivals coincide with ayurvedic wisdom. For example, Makara Sankranti festival, when Sun begins to move northwards, reminds all to replenish their oils, and improve digestion, and hence the cold baths and using sesame

Makara Sankranti, the astronomical event of the Sun entering the zodiac sign of Capricorn (makara, sea crocodile or sea dragon) is observed on 14 January of the Gregorian calendar and follows the solar calendar, thus falling on the same day each year. It is one of the few solar calendar holidays in the many Hindu calendars that exist throughout India.

This date of January 14 marks the start of uttarayana for another hundred years. It is the time when the sun starts to move northwards after the winter solstice. It is still marked as December 21st in the western calendar, but the solstice moves by 50 seconds each year due to the astronomical movement of the solar system, and the Hindu calendar follows the observation of the actual movement of the sun in the sky. Incidentally, the ancient age of Makara Sanskranti festival two thousand years ago was on December 31st.

The event of uttarayana is marked in the ayurvedic medical texts as an important milestone for human physiology. As the sun starts to move northward in the sky and gets slightly closer to the people living in the northern hemisphere, the days lengthen. The sun is considered to have started the aadaana kaala, the period of the year in which no more giving (daana) is done by the atmosphere, but rather there is taking by the sun (aadaana) of our moisture and healthy unctuousness of our tissues. During aadaana kaala, we must replenish our moisture and be mindful of things that can deplete our muscles and tissues, such as too much exercise and too-dry foods. Sesame seed-filled snacks, sesame chutney, and sesame balls are served throughout the month, especially on all winter holidays.

In modern language, our clock genes are reset to the growing sunlight, giving our circadian rhythm-setter the feedback, it needs to start calculating that the days will now get longer and sleep should occur a little later. Slightly reduced moisture in the tissues begins, and indicates the need to increase the cellular digestive fire, known as dhatu-agni.

The Makara Sankranti festival reminds all to replenish their oils. Sesame laddus are homemade and fed to everyone, the family participates in kite flying and especially kite flying competitions. Ayurveda whispers that this gets people out into the sun where they can make Vitamin D and utilize the healing powers of the sun for the last few days before the depleting nature of its heat manifests.

As the crocodile or sea-dragon Makara moves as the vahana (vehicle) under Varuna, the god of wind and the great Ganges River, kites take to the wind and help us to enjoy and remember Varuna. In Varanasi, at night kites with paper lamps known as akashdeeps fill the sky with light. Vata in the body also begins to pacify naturally as we enter late winter and sesame with its immense vata-pacifying properties helps people with vata diseases jump one step faster towards health.

On Makar Sankranti, people often greet the sun with a bath in the Ganges also to honour Varuna. Ayurveda says that cold baths will light up the digestive fire in the gut and improve digestion. The fire will burn away the phlegm that is forming in the body, and help to digest all the heavy food that people crave in the winter. Festivals demand social time with neighbours, family and friends and counter the depression and seasonal affect disorder that increases when we sit alone huddling in a cold room. This period also signals the end of the cycle of full exercise, as we soon move into the longer hot days in which 100% capacity of exercise destroys the lubrication and moisture balance in the body.

The astronomical solstice invites us to get into the sun before the equinox occurs in March. Each aspect of Hindu festivals coincides with ayurvedic wisdom.