PATIALA, India—A cozy warm day, a pack of freshly roasted groundnuts, and jaggary sweets is all it takes to create a memorable gathering of friends and family at any Indian home during the festival of Lohri—the biggest North Indian thanksgiving day.
This grand feast, however, is not any ordinary gathering.
The long-awaited bonfire festival is celebrated annually by Punjabi people worldwide on Jan. 13. For farmers it’s a way of relaxing and celebrating before setting on the tiresome labor of reaping the golden harvest. For all indians the festival holds a unique place in their hearts.
“Lohri is for peace and goodwill for all. Such festivals give us a special reason to take some time out of our busy lifestyles, to sit together, share, eat, and enjoy,” said Sarabjeet Dhaliwal, a schoolteacher in Patiala City, Punjab.
Dhaliwal, who is celebrating her first Lohri after marriage at her in-laws’ home on Monday, wished that this year’s Lohri would “eliminate all unrighteousness and negative intentions from people’s hearts, and tie everyone closer in the thread of love.”
For Laure Gyot, a French national who works as a cultural coordinator at Alliance Française in Chandigarh city, this year’s celebration is her third Lohri in India. “Lohri is a nice festival to gather and spend time together around the warmth of the bonfire,” she said.
While drawing a French parallel with the Indian culture, Gyot said that Lohri bonfires remind her of the festival of Saint John (la fête de la Saint Jean), which is celebrated around bonfires during the summer.
The Melodious Hunt of Indian Robin Hoods
It is considered almost a “crime” to wake up late on Lohri morning, so children are among the first early birds to get out of bed and dress in their best of outfits. Then they begin the “do-re-me” of the Lohri hunt, that is, visiting almost every house in the neighborhood, singing and singing until they get the Lohri loot!
The centuries-old custom comes alive when people rush to open their doors by the mere echo of the famous, old folk songs. Children and adults alike, sing the praises of the legendary Dhulla Bhatti—a figure like Robin Hood—who would steal from rich people, looting taxes sent to the emperor, to help the poor.
According to the legend he rescued two poor young girls, named Sunderi and Munderi, from being enslaved, adopted them, and arranged marriages for them, giving only a handful of “shaker” (powdered jaggary sweets) as a wedding gift. The selfless actions of Dhulla Bhatti forged a way for some of the catchiest Indian folk songs like, “Sunder mundriye ho! Tera kaun vicaharaa ho! Dullah bhatti walla ho!”
“It was fun. All the children in the lane used to form a group and go marching and singing for the Lohri hunt on set targets—newlyweds who had a newborn baby,” said Tarandeep Kaur, a working mother of a 1-year-old baby from Patiala city.
For Tarandeep the charm of this year’s Lohri is doubled by the blissful arrival of her younger daughter. She shared that nothing matches the thrill of waking up to the echo of Bhangra drum beats and folk songs—a unique call for Lohri loot.
Every house seems to be full of the festive mood, giving sugar candies, gachak (the jaggary sweet), moongphali (the peanuts), popcorn, sesame seeds, and a small token of money.
A 17-year-old medical student, Amandeep Kaur, another enchanted celebrator, confessed that her busy schedule doesn’t leave her with enough time to roam around even during Lohri, but she eagerly waits for people to come to her place every year to get Lohri loot.
“The sound of dhol (the traditional Indian drum) forms an integral part of the festival. People go from one home to another, giving their blessings, singing, and dancing on some famous Punjabi folk songs,” she said.
Bonfires, The Jewels of Lohri Nights
At sunset bonfires are seen sparkling in every nook and corner. People often light bonfires in their front yards. They sing and dance in circles around the rising flames.
The collected munchies are distributed at night and thrown into the bonfire as a part of offering prayers to the god of fire, to bless everyone with abundant harvest and prosperity. The traditions and myths hold that with the burning of the small loot, suffering and hardships are prevented.
“As we stayed in the army quarters, where my dad worked, we used to celebrate the festival within our big campus with many neighbors, preparing a huge bonfire, singing and dancing for hours,” Dhaliwal said while sharing her old childhood memories with a spark in her eyes, which showed her mixed feelings; the joy of celebrating her first Lohri with in-laws while missing the childhood fun of her parental home.
“Whatever the reason may be, every day is a festival; only if we believe in the beauty of each other’s hearts, and don’t forget to pray for the betterment of all,” Sarabjeet said with a broad smile.
Amid the freezing cold weather on Lohri night, the glowing warmth of the bonfires radiate an old tradition, reviving the spirit of brotherhood and encouraging moral values.