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Relationship between Makar Sankranti, Winter Solstice & Uttarayan

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India is a land of festivals. Thus we have a lot of festivals distributed throughout the calendar. While every festival has some or the other legend associated with it, some of them also have scientific significance. Hence, let us discuss the scientific facts associated with the first festival of this calendar year- Makar Sankranti.

What is Makar Sankranti?

Makar: Capricorn, Sankranti: transmigration of sun from one Rashi to next. Thus, Makar Sankranti marks the movement of sun from the zodiac of Sagittarius to the zodiac of Capricorn. It is celebrated every year in India on January 14 (sometimes on January 15). Makar Sankranti holds an importance as it is believed to mark the Northward movement of sun ("Uttarayan") after the season of winter in India, hence marking the arrival of longer and warmer days. This, however, is not entirely correct.  


Uttarayan and Winter Solstice

In northern hemisphere, Winter Solstice is the time when the southern hemisphere of the earth is tilted towards the sun at it's maximum value. Winter Solstice currently occurs every year December 21. After this, the earth starts tilting in the opposite direction until the Summer Solstice. Thus, winter solstice is the beginning of Northward movement of sun, which in India, we call as Uttarayan. Therefore, Makar Sankranti is not the date when sun starts it's Northward journey.  


Then why do we use Uttarayan as an alternate term for Makar Sankranti?

Winter Solstice shifts back one day every 70 years due to axial precession of earth. Therefore, around 1500-2000 years ago i.e. during the era of great mathematicians and astronomers in India, the winter solstice did take place on January 14 and the sun was in the direction of Capricorn on this date. Hence, we celebrated Makar Sankranti and Uttarayan on this date and continue to do so till today.   


Tropic of Capricorn and Makar Sankranti

During winter solstice, the angle at which the earth is titled is currently equal to 23 degree 26 minute (approx). Therefore the latitude at 23 degree 26 minute finds the sun directly overhead on this day. Around 2000 years ago, on the day of Winter Solstice, the sun was directly in the direction of the zodiac of Capricorn (Makar), hence the latitude is now known as Tropic of Capricorn. However, nowadays the sun appears in the direction of Sagittarius at this time. This is also to be noted that the Tropic of Capricorn itself is not fixed. It is currently shifting northward at the rate of 0.47 arc seconds per year.


Tropic of Cancer and Kark Sankranti

On the similar lines, we also celebrate "Kark Sankranti" in India, which however is not as popular as Makar Sankranti. Kark Sankranti is associated to Tropic of Cancer (Kark: Cancer) in the similar manner as Makar Sankranti is associated to Tropic of Capricorn. It is celebrated in India every year on July 16. Around 2000 years ago, the summer solstice coincided with Kark Sankranti when the sun was directly in the direction of the zodiac of Cancer.  


Are the day and night of equal length on Makar Sankranti?

Another common myth is that the day and night on Makar Sankranti are of equal length. This however is not at all true. The length of day and night are equal on the special days called Equinoxes. These occur twice every year on March 20 and September 22.  


Hope you enjoyed these interesting facts related to our festival. Arctic Circle, Antarctic Circle and Midnight Sun are other 3 terms that are closely related to the above facts. A blog discussing these 3 terms would follow soon


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