Lohri: A Brief History

As Lohri was last week I bet lots of you have asked this question since: What is the festival really about? Well, like many festivals, Lohri draws on lots of different ideas and customs. The festival always falls on January 13th, which differs from other festivals that have an everchanging date, like Diwali. Lohri is primarily celebrated by Panjabi’s and Hindus.

Lohri is generally associated with the winter solstice. The festival welcomes longer days and celebrates the sun’s journey to the northern hemisphere. Lohri is regarded as an ancient festival, and British accounts of celebrations date back to 1832. European visitors visited Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore, and described a bonfire being lit for the festival of Lohri.

There is speculation that the festival is linked to the story of Dulla Bhatti. The Panjabi folk hero is believed to have saved many Sikh Panjabi girls from being sold into slavery under the Emperor Akbar. He also led a revolt against Mughal rule, and although he may be absent from the history books, he survives in the Panjabi folk songs that are sung at Lohri. It was by Emperor Akbar that Bhatti was eventually hanged in 1599 in Lahore, his last words apparently being ‘No honourable son of Panjab will ever sell the soil of Panjab.’

Traditional Lohri celebrations, as mentioned, include lighting a bonfire. Songs are sung, and people dance around the fire in the style of the ancient Panjabi folk dance: Bhangra and Giddah. Dried foods such as rice and sugar are also thrown into the fire. Gifts are also given, and the festival acts as an excuse for families to get together in celebration. Traditional Lohri food includes makki di roti and saag. Saag and makki di roti are served because these were the foods that were in season in January. Saag would be made the night before, as it takes hours to cook.

In India, in the run up to the festival, Panjabi boys and girls would go around collecting logs to place on the Lohri fire. Children go knocking on doors, singing and asking for Lohri. Gifts would be given to the children in the form of food, the practice can be likened to trick or treating.

Lohri is celebrated if there has been a wedding in the family, or if a new baby has been born. Lohri’s association with childbirth may well be connected to the harvest. The idea of regrowth and rebirth may well have encoruraged people to associate the birth of new children with Lohri, but it is still debated today whether Lohri is a festival for baby boys, or baby girls.

Nowadays, Lohri is seen especially important if a baby boy has been born in the household. This revolved around the idea of having a male successor, something that was cause for celebration. Those hosting Lohri celebrations would be expected to give gifts to guests, including suits and mithai.

This may deviate from traditional beliefs about the festival, as research seems to suggest that the festival primarily focused on women. This builds on the stories of Dulla Bhatti, asserting that Lohri is a festival that celebrates the freedom of women, specifically their freedom from male oppression. It has been opined that the switch from celebrating women to celebrating men may have been engineered by patriarchal ideas, and the desire to restrain women. It is a more common practice now to celebrate Lohri even if girls are born.

The Hindu celebration of Lohri is slightly different, and is instead known as Makar Sankranti. In areas such as Gujarat and Maharashtra, colour kites are flown to celebrate the day.

Happy belated Lohri!

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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