When talking about Shakrain festival of old Dhaka, the first thing that comes to the mind is kites.
An occasion with a long-rooted tradition and a sleepy presence in some older parts of the capital, Shakrain gets its massive popularity among Dhakaits thanks to the colourful kite flying festival and the innumerable posts it garners on Facebook.
But historians say that there's more to Shakrain than meets the eyes. It signifies the last day of Poush—one of two months of Bangladesh’s short spanned winter. The other name of ‘Shakrain’ festival is therefore ‘Poush Songkranti.’
On the last day of Poush, the sun moves towards its southward (Dakshinayana) journey at the Tropic of Capricorn and starts moving towards the Tropic of Cancer.
The day is also known as 'Makar Sangkranti' in Bangladesh as well as in India and Nepal. Makar is the Bengali translation of the word Capricorn. Meanwhile the word 'Sankranti' signifies the movement of the sun from one zodiac sign to another.
As Makar Sankranti is one of the oldest solstice festivals and falls on the equinox, day and night on this day are believed to be equally long. After that the days become longer, and nights shorter.
So this particular festival actually signifies a day that marks a major change in the solar system. This was especially important in the subcontinent where agricultural yields heavily depend on the changes in solar system.
Why the kites?
Though the day signifies a major change in the solar system, at the end of the day it’s primarily about flying kites—and that’s true for the whole subcontinent.
An article in India Times talked about a very interesting reason behind the kite-flying tradition. Kite-flying in olden days was generally done in the early hours of the morning, when the sun's rays were bright but not too harsh.
Also, during kite-flying, the human body was exposed to the sun for long hours.
The early morning sun is considered beneficial for the skin and body. Since winter is also the time of a lot of infections and sickness, by basking in the sun, Hindus believed that the bad bacteria in the body would be cleared to a certain extent.
So, aside from the fun part, kite flying tradition actually does have health benefits.
Tanvir Hossain Siddiqui, a resident of Sutrapur area of old Dhaka however barely thinks of the health benefits. For him, this particular day is about kite flying competition.
Known to the locals as a master ‘manajamaker’, Siddiqui, otherwise an engineer by profession has taken the art of sharpening the kite string to a new level.
“On this day, we all go to the roof-top and fly kites. With sharp glass-coated string, we try to cut kites of others. It’s such a fun,” he said.
This particular festival actually signifies a day that marks a major change in the solar system
Siddiqui informed that giving manja (glass coating) to kite string is an art. “You can get Chinese strings—a heavily glass coated string—in the market but those are dangerous and can injure a person.”
“The munja that I make is not like that,” he said.
Since the last few years, after the celebration of Shakrain and kite flying get widespread recognition through social media, there are official kite flying competitions being held in different parts old Dhaka including Sutrapur,
Laxmibazar, Tantibazar, Shankhari bazar, Dholaikhal, Lalbagh, Chwakbazar, Bongshal, Dhupkhola, Sadarghat and Jagannath University.
“The competitions intensify the celebrations,” said Siddiqui who has become an undisputed champion in Sutrapur.
Other than kite flying..
Aside from kite flying, during the night on Shakrain day, colourful floating paper lanterns (fanoosh), fire breathers and thousands of fireworks from old Dhaka rooftop enchant the people of all ages. Also there are laser lightings, music, and dance parties arranged by the young people of the community.
Sharok Ahmed, a resident of Lalbagh in old Dhaka and a patron of Dhakabashi, a Lalbagh based organisation working to promote the old Dhaka culture, said Shakrain is a festival for all—irrespective of social status and religion.
Ahmed said because of social media, this festival has gained immense popularity among the people of ‘new Dhaka’. “People from Moghbazaar, Dhanmondi, Gulshan and even from Uttara all flock to old Dhaka on this special day to observe the festivities,” he said.
-In Nepal, Shakrain is celebrated as Makar Sangkranti. It is a superstition there that during the festival, the Sun God forgets his anger on his son Shani and visits him. Thus, by distributing sweets, everyone is asked to spread joy around.
-Makar Sankranti generally marks the beginning of the Kumbh Mela in Uttar Pradesh in India while in South India, in Kerala, one of the most austere and difficult pilgrimages of Shabrimala ends on this auspicious day.