Equinoxes and Solstices
As the earth keeps going around the sun, there are certain points in the orbit, when due to the angle of the earth’s tilt, the days and nights either become equal (equinoxes) or day is longest in the Northern hemisphere (summer solstice) or night is longest in Northern hemisphere (winter solstice).
This occurs due to the tilt of the earth’s axis by 23.5 degree.
Seen from the earth, it gives us a perception that the sun is moving northwards and southwards every 6 months between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn which are latitudes at 23.5 degrees north and south of the equator, respectively.
The perceived, northern movement of the sun from Tropic of Capricorn to Tropic of Cancer is called Uttarayanam in India.
Uttar meaning North and Ayana, the journey. It is the day when Sun starts its Northward journey. We celebrate this day as Makara Sankranthi.
Makara – Crocodile
Why is this day called Makara Sankranthi?
Makara is the Capricorn zodiac. Sankranthi means change over, transit into. This day marks the Sun moving into Makara Constellation.
The Tropic of Capricorn is also called “Makara Rekha” as this is the lattitude when the Sun transits into the Makara zodiac. Makara is also the name in Samskrt, for a wild sea creature that resembles a Crocodile.
If we look at the shape of our galaxy, the Milky Way, Akasha Ganga along with the Dark Rift, it does seem like a crocodile with its mouth open.
Representation of Dark Rift
Resembles a crocodile
As cycles of time go by, life forms and meaning of life also happen to evolve. These goings-on are known as parinama, change, evolution and they continue to happen. New forms and meanings happen to life, be it from the ocean to land or from sky to land, creating a spectrum of life.
Makara Sankranthi marks such a day of change, a change of season to come with a change of lifestyle, a change in mindset and a change in spirit.
“Sol” means sun and “Stice” means stationary. Sun seems stationary over the tropic of Capricorn for a couple of days.
The Winter Solstice, the starting day of Uttarayanam today occurs on 21st December. December 22nd is start of Uttarayana Punya Kala Tithi.
Why do we then now celebrate Sankranthi on 14th January every year?
In ancient days, the starting day of Uttarayanam, i.e. Winter Solstice fell on 13th January every year.
There is a text called Kaushitaki Brahmana, an accompanying text to the Veda, which has been authored by Rishi Kahola Kaushitaki. This text also mentions that Sankranthi was celebrated around this time.
Precession of Equinox and Solstice
How do we account for this gap?
As the earth keeps revolving around the sun, its own axis of rotation, about which it spins, also undergoes a slow spin like that of a rotating top. This movement is called Precession.
Precession of the Earth about its Axis
Due to this Precession movement, the dates on which the equinoxes and solstices occur, keep shifting by one day every 72 years.
This cycle is called “Precession of Equinox and Solstice”.
Precession of Equinoxes and Solstices – A Depiction
This accounts for the difference of 22 days. Thus, the Uttarayanam Punya Kala Tithi fell on 14th January every year then.
Makara Sankranthi is still celebrated on the same day every year.
While the Uttaranyanam has preceded from January 14th to December 21st over the last 1500 years, Makara Sankranthi of the Sun moving into constellation, Makara occurs on January 14th.
The celebration of Makara Sankranti every year, brings to our focus, our understanding of the annual turning of the Sun, of the changes taking place in Nature and new hope of life.