Why harvest festivals are so important for mind, body and soul

As veneration of the first fruit of labour, rice preparation - khichdi - is a customary part of these celebrations.

 |  5-minute read |   15-01-2017
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Happy Lohri/Pongal/Makar Sankranti and Bihu folks! 

These festivals pan India follow a solar calendar and are celebrated on or around the 14 of January every year. They mark an important astronomical significance - the beginning of Uttarayana, the Sun's movement northward for a six-month period, a very auspicious event.  

These festivals are often referred to as the " harvest festival" for all practical purposes. They signal the end of the traditional winter farming season, giving farmers a break from their monotonous routine.

The crops sown during the monsoons require a lot of water, such as rice, daal (lentils), beans, sorghum, and millet. The harvesting of these crops is the cause of January’s harvest festivals. As veneration of the first fruit of labour, rice preparation - khichdi or Pongal - is a customary part of these celebrations. 

Not only do they symbolise agricultural or astronomical importance, nutritionally it is the time to detox, cleanse the system, and stoke back the metabolic fire which had slowed down a bit due to low temperatures during harsh winters. Yes, so much can be done while dancing to dhols or flying kites. Replenish your body, mind and soul.

Why celebrate rice?

During winters, the metabolism slows down and the gut weakens, so easy-to-digest food is the best bet, hence rice. The more popular and one bearing a better reputation vis-a-vis health, brown rice, may be used as it is more nutrient-rich but the husk makes brown rice much harder to digest.

During winters a time of already compromised digestion, this can irritate the intestinal wall and cause flatulence leading to abdominal pain.

In addition, long grained white rice should be chosen over short grained rice, as it is more nutritious. Even without the husk, it is a more stable food than short-grained rice. Recent studies show that long-grained white rice has a lower glycemic index than short grain. Thus, long-grained white rice is preferred for ease of digestion.

However, different states choose different millets too for preparing khichdi - bajra or pearl millets being the most popular choice as it is easy to digest, high in proteins and contains a good amount of amino acids. 

It is a good source of iron and contains phytic acid and niacin which helps in lowering cholesterol. It is rich in fibre, which makes it divine for diabetic people, keeping glucose levels normal. The arid, cold state of Rajasthan celebrates harvest with bajre ki khichdi topped with a generous amounts of desi ghee. Please note, one can't fight the cold or stay insulated in the absence of a rich source of vitamin D, hence, ghee.  

harvest-embed_011517052514.jpg It is heartening to know how India has been light years ahead in practising the scientific rituals that the rest of the world is only beginning to discover. (Photo: PTI)

What's with the rice-dal marriage? 

The combination of rice and legumes is a staple in every nook and corner of India. The reason is much bigger than the idea of comfort food. Nutritionists around the world go hoarse talking about “complete protein” - traditional Indian recipes like khichdi are the brand ambassador of this celebrated and much coveted complete protein saga. 

Rice contains an amino acid lysine in negligible numbers, making its protein content incomplete. At the same time, legumes are rich in lysine, but they are generally low in methionine, tryptophan and cystine that rice can boast of. Needless to say, the marriage of rice and beans, as found in khichdi, is the ideal match to procure essential amino acids and making proteins complete. 

For cultures that thrive on a plant-based diet, this marriage is often what allows their diet to be nutritionally wholesome. Typically, split mung dal is used in south India and split black urad in north India, highlighting the importance of "think global but eat local", which we thought is a new age mantra. Not new for sure.

Why burn food in bonfire? 

Digging deeper, it is important to note that Lohri falls in mid-January (13th). The earth is farthest from the sun at this point of time, gearing up to start its journey towards the sun, thus ending the coldest month of the year before the summer commences. 

This geographic fact makes it easier to fathom why north India burns popcorns, peanuts and jaggery - sesame candies (rewari) in the bonfire. During harsh winters, the human body needs more fat and high protein to keep itself insulated and safe.  

The invisible fats from nuts and dry fruits provide more energy to keep it going for small amounts ingested. Proteins procured from them take care of wear and tear as well as tissue repair, lowering cold-induced inflammations. Jaggery is iron rich, and required the most to fight the cold outside.

Remember, more the iron, more the capacity to bind oxygen, easier to keep the body warm. This explains why a bonfire is made and a prayer is performed to Agni, the god of fire, and prasad is distributed to all present as a token of gratitude to the fire for helping them fight the cold.

The prasad distributed comprises of five main things - til, gazak, gur, moongphali (peanuts) and popcorn. Milk and water are also poured around the bonfire. 

How scientific and amazing indeed!  

It is heartening to know how India has always been light years ahead in practising the scientific rituals that the rest of the world is only beginning to discover. It fills me with immense pride to be practising nutrition and bringing back our traditions to the fore for the world to see. 

The air around is festive; fire giving the warmth and dancing to the dhol ups my serotonin level. What a ritual to fill one with happiness and gaiety, even on an otherwise grey foggy night. Detox, eat clean, celebrate and get recharged for the coming summers.

Eat right to stay bright!

Also read: Why winters are special in north India

Writer

Nidhi Tayal Nidhi Tayal @nidhitayal20

I am a clinical nutrionist and dietician with experience of almost 20 years in therapeutic nutrition, and alumnus of Lady Irwin College, DU.

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