Monday, Mar 20, 2023

All About Ghughutiya and Kumaon's Uttarayani Mela

All About Ghughutiya and Kumaon's Uttarayani Mela

Sankranti has a special name and feel in Uttarakhand—with folklore, celebratory music dedicated to the black bird, and delicacies prepared with oodles of ghee and jaggery

Traditional sweets for Uttarayan (Makar Sankranti) in Kumaon
Traditional sweets for Uttarayan (Makar Sankranti) in Kumaon instapahaadi/Instagram

Talking in an innocent cacophony with the black bird, running around, wearing garlands of sweetmeats of different shapes and patterns threaded together—this is a day of frolicking and feasting for the children of the household. Meanwhile, the elders rummage through kitchen shelves, finding ingredients to add to the traditional palate.

When you are enveloped in the heady aroma of khichdi prepared in an excess of ghee and shakkarpare sweetened with gur, you know it is indeed January 14, marked by the transmigration of the sun from the zodiac sign of Cancer (Makar) to Sagittarius (Dhanu).

The festival of Makar Sankranti is an auspicious and important celebration throughout India. It is also referred to as the 'Ghee Festival' in some parts of the state. The biggest celebration of the Kumaon region, Makar Sankranti is called ‘Ghughutiya’ in Kumaon, ‘Khichdi Sankrant’ or ‘Gholdiya’ in the Garhwal region, and is commonly known as ‘Uttarayani’ all over Uttarakhand. 

Offerings during GhughutiyaOfferings during Ghughutiya

A strangely beautiful celebration, Ghughutiya is highlighted by the presence of children and black birds. With children singing folk songs addressed to crows, January 14 in a typical Uttarakhand household unfolds with the kids waking up in the morning and greeting the black birds on the rooftop with sweetmeats and other delicacies. This unique festival places the focus on crows, and seek the blessings of the bird which is believed to be a good omen on this day.

Folklore and Festivity

The threads of these traditions lie in an age-old folklore that grandparents narrate to their grandchildren, and the story keeps on running through several generations of families in Uttarakhand, with additions, eliminations and modifications to the tale. 

The story dates back to the reign of King Kalyan Chand in Kumaon who lived with his wife and son Nirbhay. Nirbhay’s mother fondly addressed him as ‘ghughuti’. Whenever the little boy would misbehave, the queen told him that she would give away his favourite necklace to the crows. She would call out to the black birds and feed them with sweets. It is a belief that the same crows saved Nirbhay’s life when he was abducted by the King’s ministers one day.

There are several parallel tales (in Hindu religious texts like the Shastras, Mahabharata) that outline the reason behind this celebration, though the lines of the Kumaoni folk song that children hum on Sankranti, find their source in this folklore:

Kaale kauwo kaale ghughuti bara khaale
le kauwa bara, aap sabuni ke diye sunak thul thul ghara
rakhiye sabune kai nirog, sukh samriddhidiye roj roj

(Come dear crow, you will enjoy eating ‘bara’ and ‘ghughuti’. Take the bara and give me a pitcher full of gold, and keep everyone healthy and prosperous.)

Sweetmeats are prepared in Kumaoni and Garhwali households today, using sweetened wheat flour. The flour mix is kneaded with jaggery syrup and the dough is twisted and twirled, transforming it into interesting shapes such as little drums, knives, swords, pomegranates, diamonds, circles, knots, betel leaves, betel nuts, and even cloves. These pieces are then deep fried into sweets (called ‘ghughuts’) and are threaded with a small orange in the center, in the form of an edible necklace that children can be seen wearing, and savouring.

Bageshwar’s Uttarayani Fair

A hallmark of this festival is the Uttarayani fair organised in the Bageshwar district of Uttarakhand. It is one of the oldest and biggest celebrations of this district, and a cultural fair is organised for the same. The Uttarayani fair is historical due to its significance and role in the dissemination of social messages to the local residents, at the time of India’s freedom for struggle. People from different parts of Uttarakhand flock to Bageshwar in the month of January to witness this cultural event.

The fair is marked by displays from weavers and local sellers selling handmade blankets, shawls, carpets, bamboo products, and more.

There is an array of events by local artists representing the state’s rich cultural heritage, and a special performance by ‘choiliya’ dancers taking synchronised steps to the tune of local, Kumaoni music.

In the wake of the pandemic, this year’s Bageshwar fair stands cancelled. It will only be celebrated symbolically with no religious or commercial activities being allowed. 

Despite the multiple stories and folktales that circulate in the state of Uttarakhand, people here come together to find happiness and warmth in each other’s company on this occasion, that falls amid the cold winter months of the year.

Calling out to the crows, though a practice rooted in myths and beliefs, is an act of love and kindness towards a bird that does not migrate from its homeland in extreme cold, but stays in the same place withstanding the harsh climatic conditions.

And a photograph of a traditional ‘ghughuti mala’ (garland of sweetmeats) shared over WhatsApp by parents/siblings or relatives with someone living far away from their hometown, is nostalgia and a recollection of happy childhood memories.