Indian Harvest Festivals Venerate Sun and Soil, Decommodify Food

Indian Harvest Festivals Venerate Sun and Soil, Decommodify Food

India’s Vedic culture has three aspects to it - the philosophy, the history and the all important rituals. From the heights of metaphysics to their day to day understanding, to the emotional release of bhakti through rituals, Indian festivals have been a vehicle of Indic wisdom and thought. And shaped our collective memory.

Swami Harshananda of the Ramakrishna Math in his book Hindu Festivals and Sacred Days, says that there are two main activities that channelise our emotions - the first is vrata (derived from the root word ‘vrn’ to choose) in which an individual binds oneself to a vow to propitiate a deity. The other is ‘utsava’ which literally means to “cause to move upward” but has been used to mean  festive celebration. These two actions form the basis of devotion in almost every ancient culture around the world. 

In Swami Harshananda’s words, “An overwhelming majority of Hindu festivals are not only vratas but also utsavas, since the latter follow the former without exception.” And both are closely connected to ahara.

The total number of vratas and ustavas is listed in the Chaturvarga cintmani of Hemadri (13th century) and is around 700 and are listed as per the lunar calendar. One of the most popular among these is Makara Sankranti (or Uttarayana Punyakalam). Swami Harshananda explains that Sankranti means “the (apparent) passage of the sun from one rasi (sign of the zodiac) to the next following one and hence the rasi in which the sun enters is designated as the sankranti of that name, like Mesa Sankaranti, Vrsabha Sankranti and so on.” Of these Makara Sankranti (which usually falls on January 14th) from which the northern journey (udagayana) starts is considered very sacred. The other is the Karkataka Sankranti which marks the southern journey of the sun (dakshinayana). 

As mentioned earlier, most Indian festivals include the components of fasting and celebration. The punyakalam or auspicious time in a sankranti, says Swami Harshananda, is spread over 16 ghatikas (6 hours and 24 minutes), 8 ghatikas on either side of the actual crossing of the sun from the previous rasi into the next. “This time is to be spent on fasting, japa and dana only and not for anything else.”

Across the country, this is a time to bathe in a holy river, perform tarpana or offer water to deities, fasting and homa. In South India, sweet preparations are made with jaggery, rice, ghee and milk with newly harvested crops and offered to the Sun God Surya. The day prior to Pongal is known as Bhogi, which marks the shedding of old for new. The day after is to worship the cow. In Karnataka, ellu or sesame and blocks of sugar - sakkare acchu - are exchanged. 

In the Northern state of Chattisgarh, Chher-Chhera is an important harvest festival of the year that is celebrated on a full moon’s night in January. Anubha Sinha in an article on this festival quotes a beautiful song that is sung by the people living here during this festival: 

“Chherik chhera chher baratnin chher-chhera, maayi kothi ke dhan la her herra

Dhani re pooni re sabak naache suaa suaa

Anda ke ghar banaye pathra ke gudi, gudi

Chher chher motiyaarin naache manjhaa me ghudi ghudi

Chherik chhera chher baratnin, chher chhera”.

The song is sung when people go around the town or village to collect grains from every door. It is a song of the joy of coming together and implores the lady at the door to go in and get grain from the storage.  “The festival is a symbol of togetherness and a collective expression of gratitude as the whole village comes to celebrate the happiness of receiving another season of reaping the fruits of their hard work,” says Sinha.

The connection between Mother Earth and food has been an integral part of our civilisation. Speaking at a talk organised by CSP, US based Ayurveda supporter Maya Tiwari said the world needs to revere Mother Nature.  “Ahara is not merely sustenance to keep us alive. It is Mother nature's nourishment for the mind and memory, the imprints of our ancestors, the seed of the newborn, the spirit of the family, land, river, sky, mountains and universe. In Ayurveda, every grain of sand depends on Mother nature's food. Without honouring her seasons, her transitions, we cannot cull or garner the harmony that we so need to live.”

The birth of food as a commodity has been the bane of Mother earth and our lives, she adds and it is a betrayal like no other. “It has left us with toxic chemicals in our foods, pollutants in our water and air, animal abuse in factories and farms, use of antibiotics and GMO. With cellular agriculture becoming the new horizon, and the increase of processed foods and packaged foods, foodborne illnesses, food insecurity, obesity and cross species barriers, diseases that threaten the health and welfare of more than half the world's population are on the increase.”

The solution to getting our health back, and not just individual or global health but the health of Mother Earth, is to go back to her, urges Maya Tiwari. She quotes the Atharvaveda where we are told that the “tissue memory of the edible plant is synchronised to the seven layers of the dhatus or tissues of the body. Food was seen as medicine. We are patterned from the weave of phenomenal memory and our relationship with food determines not only our quality of life but also our communal life and global welfare. Food is (nature’s) memory and eating is remembering that we must reclaim our heritage. We must take back our local and communal practices. We must build our own personal garden. We must learn to treat mother earth with the care and respect she deserves. 

The Rigveda says 

अ॒यं मॆ॒ हस्तॊ॒ भग॑वान॒यं मॆ॒ भग॑वत्तरः ।

अ॒यं मॆ॑ वि॒श्वभॆ॑षजॊ॒ऽयं शि॒वाभि॑मर्शनः ॥ १०.६१.१२ ॥

ayaM mE hastO bhagavAnayaM mE bhagavattaraH |

ayaM mE vishvabhEShajO&yaM shivAbhimarshanaH || 10.61.12 ||

“Through our hands we can experience space, air, fire, water and earth. The same elements that pour through mother nature's untampered food, we hold in our hands. The hands are blessed that same the elements that pours through mother nature pours through every creature.” Indeed, there can be no health and wellness without restoring the wholesomeness of mother earth. 

In the second Valli or the Chapter on Ananda, Second Anuvaka of the Taittiriya Upanishad, it is said that all beings that exist on earth are born of food. Then they live by food: then, again, to food (earth) they go in the end. So, verily food is the eldest of all creatures. Therefore it is called a medicament to all. All those who worship food as Brahman obtain all food. From food all beings are born; having been born, they grow by food. Food is eaten by beings and also it eats them. Therefore, it is called Anna (food).  

Environmentalist Vandana Shiva at the CSP talk said that her ecological learnings coincided with ancient Indian wisdom. “It teaches me that the cycle of life - the ecological cycles are nutritional cycles. And that is what the Taittriya Upanishad is telling us, that everything is food and therefore you can't break out of this cycle without severe consequences.”

She said that during the pandemic, everyone is talking about oxidative stress, and “well if your soil does not have zinc and your plants don't have zinc then your body does not have zinc. Chemicals and pesticides have depleted the soil of these micronutrients. We are not supposed to eat these chemicals.” She adds that like in ancient India, for her agriculture is nothing but serving the earth. “Seeds are evolutionary memory and evolutionary potential. We are at a threshold in this (Covid) crisis of totally redefining the world. We could redefine it in ways that take the path of the total destruction of earth and society or let the earth replenish.” 

All over the world people will be repledging themselves to protect the earth, this fortnight. In Indonesia, Devi Sri, the rice goddess, will be venerated in Bali with rice, the staple crop. During the harvest, villages will be decorated with flags and temporary bamboo shrines for the Devi in the upstream corners of rice fields. Small dolls made of rice stalks will be placed in granaries. 

Sukkot celebrates Israel’s bountiful harvests recalling a time of wandering in deserts. “Families build makeshift huts, or sukkah, with roofs open to the sky. Here they eat, and sometimes sleep, for the next seven days. Wands of willow, myrtle, and palm, together with a citron (a kind of lemon), are shaken every day in all directions to honor the gifts from the land.” (Top 10 Harvest Festivals - Travel - National Geographic).

Here is a list of some very catchy Tamil songs for Pongal - Pongal Songs | Best of Pongal Festival Songs | Audio Jukebox | Tamil Movie Songs | Ilayaraja - YouTube. One can almost imagine the men and women working in the fields, singing and dancing in the fields, rejoicing in the shared spirit of the land.

For a more comprehensive listing of the different harvest festivals of India: