Ghyah-Chāku Salhu (Māgha Sankrānti)


Ghyah-Chāku Salhu (Nepali: माघ संक्रान्ति [/ģĥjɔ-ʧɑkʊ. sɜlhʊ/] Nepal Bhasa: घ्यो-चाकु सल्हु) is celebrated on the first of Māgha (mid-January). In Nepal Bhāsā, Salhu typifies the first day of month, and what make the beginning of this month so special than other months every year are the festivity part as well as the marking of warmer weather – the gradual increase in the length of day and shortness in night. The day also marks the shift of the sun into Makara rāshi (Capricorn) on its astronomic path. So, it is also known as Makara Sankrānti.

The sun is believed to move apparently in the northernmost extremes leaving the southernmost extremes on this day. This is referred as Uttarāyanā, the excursion of the sun to the northward region from Dakshināyanā, southward region. Uttarāyanā is also called as Devayanā, and the Dakshināyanā’ is called Pitrāyanā. This is why, Makara Sankrānti is considered as the beginning of the day of enlightenment, prosperity, and restoration of health.

On this day, Newāh people take ritual cleansing bath especially at rivers. But this tradition is no more in practice in swaniga:, Kathmandu Valley since almost all rivers in the valley are notably polluted and chemically contaminated. So, they begin this day with morning bath and visit shrines of gods and goddesses. The specialty of the festival is Ghyah-Chāku, which are ghee or refined butter and first molasses from sugar cane with some other foods that are highly nutritious and full of calcium, magnesium, vitamins, potassium, and iron in order to keep body warm and energetic.

In Newāh tradition, married daughters with their families are invited to visit their paternal homes on this day. Mother of each household offers Ghyah-Chāku with some other side dishes like Hee: Chāku (sweet potato), Hee: (yam), wāuchā (spinach), and hāmwo (sesame) with Baji (beaten-rice) to the visiting family and wishes prosperity and good health. Before they leave, each one will be blessed with money. Nephews and nieces get special treatment and care. J As the sun rises higher, people massage their body with mustard oil and bask in the sun. It is believed that massaging after eating Ghyah-Chāku restores the strength in the worn-out body of farmers.

In some of folk tradition, parents tie a vegetable called Palāwi[1] around the neck of their children. Toddlers and children suffering from intestinal worm are given to imbibe a teaspoon of syrup made of Palāwi.

The festival has been highly modified at present. Sesame cookie is very popular these days. Back in old days, a piece of Ghyah was placed on top of Chāku and Hāmwo would be at their side. However, this tradition is highly influenced by Indian version of Makara Sankrānti.

Mythology and Cultural Impression:

There is unlikely any celebration in Newāh and entire Hinduism which is not based on myths. As one myth goes like this in Purana that Surya, the sun god visits his son Shani (Saturn) who represents the zodiac sign Capricorn and owns it on this day. So, he is the lord of the Makara rāshi. As the stories goes by, the duo had broken relationship hence could not get along with each other smoothly. But Surya comes to visit his son, Shani in his house on the tenth month of the solar calendar and stayed with him for a month and mend their relationship.[2] This signifies the special relationship between a father and a son.

Nevertheless, this is not what Newāh understanding of Ghyah-Chāku Salhu. Rather, this day is special day to celebrate the relationship between maternal uncle and nephews and nieces in our culture.

Another well-known myth can be found in Mahābhārat, the longest Hindu epic. Bhishma had received a boon from his goddess mother Gangā (Ganges River) to choose his death at his will. While in his death bed in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he was lying on the shafts of arrows waiting for the heaven’s door to open, so that he could leave his mortal flesh and depart to heaven to unite with his ancestors. He chose to die on Makara Sankrānti. So, anyone who dies on this day liberates himself from transmigration of soul or rebirth.

References: 


[1] Hiroshi Ishii, Seasons, Rituals and Society: The Culture and Society of Mithila, the Parbate Hindus and the Newars as seen through a Comparison of their Annual Rites. Vol.36. (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies: Senri Ethnological Studies, 1993), 63. Professor Ishii refers Palābi as a drink made of grass to ward off illness. However, from best of my own knowledge and experience, it is not a grass but a kind of edible bean with a long pod.

[2] Shani or Capricorn thus is the tenth sign of zodiac. And the sun is in this sign is from about December 22 to January 19. So technically and scientifically speaking, Makara Sankrānti should not befall on 14th January, since the actual Uttarāyan is on 21st December.

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