Dancers perform near a bonfire as they celebrate the Lohri festival in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh on Monday. Lohri marks the culmination of winter in many parts of northern India and is celebrated on Jan. 13.
Dancers perform near a bonfire as they celebrate the Lohri festival in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh on Monday. Lohri marks the culmination of winter in many parts of northern India and is celebrated on Jan. 13. Ajay Verma/Reuters/Landov
Northern India is recovering from its coldest temperatures in 20 years by doing what it loves to do: stage a festival.
Across the country this week, Indians frolicked around bonfires in traditional festivities meant to herald the end of winter.
The Punjabis of northern India celebrate this annual ritual with particular gusto in a centuries old festival known as Lohri.
By custom, Lohri falls on the auspicious Jan. 13, and is seen as marking the longest night of the year in northern India. In the southern part of the country, it's called Pongal.
Never mind that the actual winter solstice falls on Dec. 21. In India, it's time for traditional music, food, and dance.
Lohri marks the start of the sun's ascendency into the northern hemisphere, which gladdened the heart of merry-maker Rita Shrivastava.
Singers take part in the Lohri festival in New Delhi, which marks the end of winter.
Singers take part in the Lohri festival in New Delhi, which marks the end of winter. Julie McCarthy/NPR
"The severity of the winter goes now, days will be longer, and the weather is going to change," she says with sense of relief.
Retired Col. R. Shrivastava, Rita's husband, says Lohri also presages blue skies for farmers as the winter wheat of the Punjab, India's breadbasket, is harvested.
The festive farewell to winter also ushers in a New Year in the Hindu calendar.
Revelers offer their Lohri blessings by tossing sugar-candy, sesame seeds, and popcorn into a blazing bonfire, which hundreds did in the courtyard of the India Habitat Center in central Delhi.
Anita Malhotra instructed her two sons on how to properly throw, correcting their baseball overhand pitch with the more respectful palms-up toss into the flames. It's an offering to "the fire god," she explains, "We're trying to pay our respects."
There are many legends on the origins of Lohri. One has it that two beautiful Hindu sisters escaped being married to a covetous Moghul emperor when a Sikh sardar, or leader, helped them find two suitable grooms and married them off the night before the emperor was to wed them.
Songs celebrating the Sardar have been passed down generations and the legend explains why Lohri is especially auspicious for newlyweds.
One modern age guru calls the occasion the transcendence from "darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge."
Kapil Saini, 32, says Lohri provides an excuse for families that have become more fractured in the new India to come together:
"Eating a meal, sharing thoughts, wishing each other a bright future," Saini says. "This is what Lohri is."
Delhi's damp and gloom this time of year can make it difficult to imagine that winter is nearing an end. Anita Mulhotra, the mother of two, shrugs off any doubts and declares the meaning of the moment: "Life and Hope!"