Northern India is recovering from its coldest temperatures in 20 years by doing what it loves to do: stage a festival.
Across the country this week, Indians frolicked around bonfires in traditional festivities meant to herald the end of winter.
The Punjabis of northern India celebrate this annual ritual with particular gusto in a centuries old festival known as Lohri.
By custom, Lohri falls on the auspicious Jan. 13, and is seen as marking the longest night of the year in northern India. In the southern part of the country, it's called Pongal.
Never mind that the actual winter solstice falls on Dec. 21. In India, it's time for traditional music, food, and dance.
Lohri marks the start of the sun's ascendency into the northern hemisphere, which gladdened the heart of merry-maker Rita Shrivastava.
"The severity of the winter goes now, days will be longer, and the weather is going to change," she says with sense of relief.
Retired Col. R. Shrivastava, Rita's husband, says Lohri also presages blue skies for farmers as the winter wheat of the Punjab, India's breadbasket, is harvested.
The festive farewell to winter also ushers in a New Year in the Hindu calendar.
Revelers offer their Lohri blessings by tossing sugar-candy, sesame seeds, and popcorn into a blazing bonfire, which hundreds did in the courtyard of the India Habitat Center in central Delhi.
Anita Malhotra instructed her two sons on how to properly throw, correcting their baseball overhand pitch with the more respectful palms-up toss into the flames. It's an offering to "the fire god," she explains, "We're trying to pay our respects."
There are many legends on the origins of Lohri. One has it that two beautiful Hindu sisters escaped being married to a covetous Moghul emperor when a Sikh sardar, or leader, helped them find two suitable grooms and married them off the night before the emperor was to wed them.
Songs celebrating the Sardar have been passed down generations and the legend explains why Lohri is especially auspicious for newlyweds.
One modern age guru calls the occasion the transcendence from "darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge."
Kapil Saini, 32, says Lohri provides an excuse for families that have become more fractured in the new India to come together:
"Eating a meal, sharing thoughts, wishing each other a bright future," Saini says. "This is what Lohri is."
Delhi's damp and gloom this time of year can make it difficult to imagine that winter is nearing an end. Anita Mulhotra, the mother of two, shrugs off any doubts and declares the meaning of the moment: "Life and Hope!"
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Sure, millions of Americans have faced horrid winter temperatures in recent weeks, but think of the plight of India. In recent weeks, New Delhi has repeatedly faced temperatures of seven or eight degrees. OK, that's seven or eight degrees Celsius, still well above freezing. But in recent weeks it was colder in Northern India than it had been in decades. So it's a moment of relief as Indians gather around bonfires for their traditional end of winter celebration.
From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy sent us this postcard about the Punjabi festival known as Lohri.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Never mind that December 21st is actually the longest night of the year. By ancient custom, Lohri - which falls on the auspicious 13th of January - marks the winter solstice in large swathes of Northern India. In much of the south it's called Pongal.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCCARTHY: Traditional music, food, and dance mark this moment when the sun is said to begin its ascendancy into the northern hemisphere, making the nights shorter and merry-maker Rita Shrivastava happy.
RITA SHRIVASTAVA: The severity of the winter, it goes now. Days will be longer, and the weather is going to change.
MCCARTHY: Rita's husband, retired Colonel R. Shrivastava, says Lohri also presages blue skies for farmers as the winter wheat of the Punjab, India's breadbasket, comes in
COLONEL R. SHRIVASTAVA: A farmer when sees his crop full bloomed and he's going get a lot of money out of that.
DESHRAJ LACHKANI: (Singing in foreign language)
MCCARTHY: Sufi singer Deshraj Lachkani was on hand to as hundreds gathered in the vast courtyard of the India Habitat Center in central Delhi. India's farewell to winter ushers in a New Year in the Hindu calendar. Revelers offer their Lohri blessing by tossing popcorn into a blazing bonfire.
(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING CORN AND MUSIC)
MCCARTHY: Anita Mulhotra instructs her two small boys on how to properly throw, correcting their baseball overhand pitch with the more respectful palms-up toss into the flames.
ANITA MULHOTRA: Fire god, it's a god. We are trying to pay the respects like this.
MCCARTHY: So is there a Hindu mythology to Lohri?
MULHOTRA: There was a village in Punjab and...
MCCARTHY: Anita explains that the Mughal emperor there coveted two beautiful Hindu sisters.
MULHOTRA: Their name was Sundari and Gundari. So...
MCCARTHY: A Sikh leader told their parents to find two grooms and he performed the weddings around a fire that night, sparing the girls the clutches of the emperor in the morning. The sardar, as the Sikh is known, is celebrated today.
MULHOTRA: Yes, so Hindu religion tries to say thank you to those, you know, all the sadars that made their daughters live a respectable life.
MCCARTHY: So Lohri is auspicious for newlyweds and newborns. One modern age guru calls it the transcendence from darkness to light. Thirty-two-year-old Kapil Saini says Lohri provides an excuse for families in rapidly changing India to unite.
KAPIL SAINI: So we are sitting together, eating meal, sharing thoughts, wishing each other a bright future, say thanking to God, this is what Lohri is.
MCCARTHY: Today's gloomy skies made it hard to imagine that winter's end may be near. Anita Mulhotra shrugs off the doubts and declares...
MULHOTRA: Life and hope.
MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.