Somehow, I always thought the meaning of the word “sankranti” was something to do with sweetness. Perhaps because the sound of it tinkles and falls so sweetly on the ears. Like drops of water merrily bouncing off a steel vessel. Or if they could speak, like the sound of a million spangles of sunlight trembling ecstatically on the gently breathing skin of a river. Or maybe because the word for sugar in Kannada sounds so similar. “Sakkare”. But apparently the origin of the word “sankranti” is from the Sanskrit word “sankrama” which means journey or change. So the festival of “Sankranti” is thus named because it marks the auspicious moment when the sun moves into its northern sphere and so inaugurates a new solar year.
And to mark this blessed journey, in my part of the world, we have a very special tradition called “yellu beerudu”. Which loosely translated means to “fill with til” or sesame seeds. What happens is that in the evening, after everyone is done with the poojas and the feasting, the women and children toodle off to visit friends and relatives. Where, after the niceties are done, you open your “yellu beerudu” bag and whip out the goodies which you proceed to place in a convenient tray or plate that your hostess has thoughtfully provided. First, you put the “yellu” (Kannada for sesame), which is actually a wonderful mixture of til, roasted gram, peanuts, candied til popcorn and tiny chopped bits of jaggery and desiccated coconut. (These days it’s fashionable to pack your “yellu” in trendy, just-like-Tupperware-but-40-times-cheaper, reusable plastic boxes.) You have now “filled with til” by which, I think, you’ve wished your hostess prosperity and other such nice things. Because til is an ancient symbol of goodness and purity, which is why it is til oil that is always used in pooja lamps and the Sanskrit word “taila” for oil comes from “til”. Then come a few sticks of sugar cane – I guess to sweeten things up a little more. And, finally, what for me as a kid was the highlight of the whole til-fill business. You open a box and carefully take out and place along side the til mixture and the sugarcane, a set of “sakkare acchus”. Literal translation – sugar moulds. Which doesn’t do justice to what they actually are. Tiny, perfect replicas of all kinds of things made by pouring hot sugar syrup into specially carved wooden moulds and left to harden. Parrots, horses, elephants, bananas bunches, gopurams, shankh-chakrams; many joyously lurid green and pink, some just left a creamy sugar-white, the sugar crystals winking softly at you every now and then. My favourite was the miniature traditional tulsi plant pot.
The first task of an avid sakkare acchu aficionado is of course to try and amass as vast a variety of shapes as possible, passing on the boring, the damaged or the triplicates to whiny younger cousins or indiscriminating adults. Once the collection of sakkare acchus is sufficiently impressive in variety, size and dotted with rare shapes, you can now proceed to actually consume some, starting with what you consider to be the most dispensable. The boorish way of the sakkare acchu Philistine is to just scrunch off bits and gobble the whole thing up in a matter of seconds. But a true acchu connoisseur is more leisurely, unhurried, savouring sugary each moment…
You start by gently licking at the acchu, making sure never to disturb the basic shape. Occasionally, and only if you are a brave and skillful practitioner many Sankrantis old, you may even shave off a layer now and then by gently grating the acchu against your lower canines. And thus you carry on till finally, when the acchu has shrunk enough to fit comfortably into you mouth, you gently pop it in. And sink into a sweet, sticky bliss as the acchu disintegrates and the grainy-sugary flood swills around in your mouth.
So, Happy Sankranti dear reader, as I symbolically fill your tray with much prosperity, happiness and joy. But since it is a festival dedicated to the glorious sun without whom neither the til nor the sugarcane nor you or me would be, I also wish you this beautiful suryanamaskara to bless your days and life.
Om Saptaashwarudham, nakshatra malam,
Chaya lolam, chandra palam,
Om Bhaskaraya namaha
He who rides a chariot driven by seven horses,
Garlanded by stars, beloved of Chaya (shadow)
He who rules the moon and rides across the sky
To This Sun, I bow.