Chhath begins today: What does it mean historically, culturally and socially?

Chhath promotes equality, fraternity and socialism as every devotee, without any distinction, takes a dip together and offers prayer to Sun god by standing in the waters.

  • Read Time 9 min.

With India to its east, west and south, Nepal’s Tarai-Madhesh is known as the land of festivals and folklore that have come down to us from generations. The cultural proximity among the people makes the celebration of festivals lively throughout the year. Chhath is one of the many holy festivals celebrated every year in India and Nepal with great zeal and festivity.

During Chhath, wherever you roam around—in the streets or in the markets—you hear the loudly played melodious devotional folk songs by popular singers, including Sharda Sinha and Kalpana.  The festival, which is associated with faith, purity and devotion to the Sun god, has become a Mahaparva (grand festival) which is mostly observed by married women and it witnesses a complete submission of devotees before the Chhathi Maiya.

Chhath Puja is the most widely celebrated festival in Nepal and the celebration usually begins on the sixth day after Diwali, the festival of lights. Chhath, meaning six, is celebrated on the sixth day of the month of Kartika. In ancient Prakrit, the word Chhath means sixth, as the festival is celebrated twice every year on the sixth lunar day of Chaitra and Kartik months of Hindu calendar.

Religious legacy 

Also known as Kartik Chhath Puja, Chhath is a festival popularly celebrated in Nepal’s Tarai and India’s Bihar, Jharkhand and the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh.  The festival is dedicated to Sun God and his wife Shasti Devi (Chhathi Maiya). 

So, who is Chhathi Maiya?

She is believed to be the consort of Sun God. Vedas mention Usha, wife of Sun God, as Chhathi Maiya. Regarded as a solar festival, Chhath is not a gender-specific festival but has traditionally and socially been women-centric as Chhathi Mai is said to be protector of children, ensuring their longevity and good health.

The local folks rigorously engage in cleaning watercourses—ponds or rivers where Puja is to be performed.  The market across the region appears to be flooded with traditional items used in Chhath Puja, like earthen lamps, sugarcane, bananas and among other fruits. Along with this, a cleanliness drive begins in villages, cities and waters.

Chhath is not a gender specific festival but has traditionally and socially been women-centric as Chhathi Mai is said to be protector of children, ensuring their longevity and good health.

There is a fair corpus of Hindu scriptures including Ramayana and Mahabharata mentioning the importance of Chhath. After returning from a 14-year exile, Lord Rama and Mata Janaki (Sita) observed a fast in the honor of ‘Surya Dev’ (Sun God) and broke it only in the dawn next day. Since then, Chhath Puja has become one of the most important festivals among Hindus, which is celebrated with devotion and dedication every year in the month of Kartika (Shukla Paksha).

In Mahabharata, Karna, the son of Surya Dev and Kunti, offered prayer by standing in the waters and distributed prasad among the devotees, Rishis and others. Draupadi and Pandavas are said to have performed similar worship to defeat and dethrone Kauravas.

The devotees express their solemn gratitude towards lord Surya and perform important rituals for a period of four days. The people, generally women, who hold fast, are called Vrati.  This festival is neither caste or class-centric. It is believed that the bath on the occasion of Chhath works as a healer of leprosy and other skin diseases. The holy baths on this auspicious festival work as catalyst to impress Chhathi Maiya, for there is a belief since time immemorial that the Goddess blesses her devotees with well-being, prosperity and longevity.  

Fasting and devotion

The Chhath Puja begins with a vow to remain pure and sublime by not taking onion, garlic, hotel-made foodstuffs or other non-vegetarian food till the conclusion of the festival. In other words, it’s complete submission to the divine.

(Photo by Sunil Sharma/Xinhua)

The devotees by relinquishing foodstuffs considered impure during the festival (such as meat, onion and garlic) make a humble submission that they have submitted themselves before God for observing Puja and pledged to live under the blessings of God throughout the life.   This way, the devotees on the first day take a vow not to consume fish and other non-vegetarian food items. It’s called “Machh-maruwa Barnai” which is going to be observed on Sunday (November 7). 

It is said Chhathi puja starts from Nahay Khay which falls on Monday (November 8). But, it’s partially true. The Puja commences from Machh-maruwa Barnai—the day before “Nahay Khay”, where the devotees and their family members take a pledge to refrain from eating non-vegetarian food and food containing onion and garlic. On this day, the devotees take food after taking bath and offering prayers to Sun God. The devotees consume foods that are prepared in their own kitchen.  It’s considered unholy to consume food bought from outside.

The Kharna is considered as the second day, which is going to be celebrated on Tuesday (November 9). The devotees fast till the conclusion of Kharna in the evening. Kheer made up of rice, milk and Gund (Jaggery) and Puri are offered to God and distributed among the family members later in the evening after sunset. 

(Photo by Sunil Sharma/Xinhua)

The third day is called Saunjh ka Arghya (evening offering), often called Pahila Arghya, which is going to be observed on Wednesday (November 10). This day is considered to be the toughest day for the devotees, mostly women. They observe a rigid fast where they neither take water nor any food item. They take dips in the waters, mostly neighborhood ponds or rivers, in the evening and it goes till the sunset. They offer prayers to Sun God with all the fruits such as Thakuwa, Bhuswa, Khaja, Mithae and other fruits, including grapefruit, sugarcane and banana.  The offerings which include a pair of coconut, turmeric roots, green vegetables that are grown under soil such as radishes, sweet potato or carrot, are kept in a “Sup” (winnow) made up of sticks of bamboo.  Along with this, the offerings are also kept in potteries.

A woman smears vermillion on the forehead of another woman at the Ghat (the bank of rivers or waters). It is considered auspicious to do so while extending prayers to the Sun God.   There is a common belief that women apply long yellow vermillion from head to nose to impress Chhathi Maiya to seek her blessings for the longevity of their husbands and for the prosperity of all family members.

On the Bhor ka Arghya (morning offering), the fourth and final day, the devotees break their fast after offering prayers to the rising Sun. It’s going to be observed on Thursday (November 11). They take a dip in the waters and offer every Prasad to the Sun God again.

This way, the devotees take fast without consuming a single drop of water, or other foods for more than 48 hours (beginning from Kharna (from Tuesday) to the Bhor Ka Arghya, that is Thursday morning). However, on Kharna, devotees are required to take Kheer prepared of Jaggery, milk and rice and tea in the evening and afterwards they are required to abstain from taking even a single drop of water. This makes a rigorous fasting—fasting the whole day on Kharna without taking even a single drop of water, then, fasting is broken with Kheer and tea. Afterwards, they hold a complete fasting till Bhor Ka Arghya (Thursday).

Eventually, the Prasad is distributed among family members and friends after completion of morning offerings.

Importantly, the festival is synonymous with sacrifice and dedication of women devotes. The devotees take fast and abstain from taking even a single drop of water for more than 48 hours and apply vermillion to impress the Chhathi Maiya so as to seek her blessings for the wellbeing of their husbands and kids.

This shows that in our part of the world women always put their husbands, children and family first. They take rigorous fast to seek blessings of God and that too for the prosperity of their family members. It’s believed that the childless couples take fast to seek blessings of the Sun God for getting progeny. In 2017, The Times of India reported that three women gave birth at Ara’s Belaur ghat during the occasion of Chhath puja. Back then, the devotees believed that the couple’s prayers had been heard by God.

 There was and is a ritual of offering 70 types of homemade foods and fruits. If a devotee fails to offer all 70 types of food items, s/he has to offer Gamhari rice, which is exclusively cultivated in Tarai and northern India, as a substitute for all the other lacking food items.

Purity, socialism, equality and fraternity   

In this backdrop, a few things about Chhath are worth mentioning here. This festival demands clean and green waters. This way, it advocates for a pollution-free atmosphere. Chhath seeks to unite the people in the fight against environmental hazards.

The male members of every family have a duty to reserve an area at the ghat, the bank of watercourse, by drawing a circle or square in the sand in which their respective family members could take shelter (in sitting mode) on the third and fourth day, that is on the day of evening and morning prayers. As there is a fair struggle among devotees to secure the best spots, every family reaches with broom and hoe tools to clean and reserve an area at the ghat.

Although the religious texts nowhere prescribe bombarding of firecrackers, these days people are seen using them contributing to air pollution. This could be taken as an adverse impact of modernization on Chhath.

Moreover, it’s the festival which tightens the bonds of equality, fraternity, unity and integrity. Every devotee—rich or middle class—prepares almost similar Prasad and other items to offer to the Almighty.

All the devotees without any distinction to caste, colour or economy, arrive at the bank of rivers or ponds for extending prayers.

After returning from a 14-year exile, Lord Rama and Mata Janaki (Sita) observed a fast in the honour of ‘Surya Dev’ (Sun God) and broke it only in the dawn next day. Since then, Chhath Puja has become one of the most important festivals among the Hindus.

In the ancient Indian context, as much as in Christianity and Islam, even if we are produced from different parts of body of that first person or God, we all are God’s product. In that respect, all citizens are equal. This festival is in keeping with equality and fraternity. Perhaps this is the only festival that goes without necessity of male priests and utterance of Sanskrit mantras. However, on the final day—Bhorka Arghya—a woman devotee at the ghat (bank of pond or river) recites a story of how Chhatha puja began and became a part of festivity among its devotees.   

The food items prepared for Prasad or the melodious songs played at the Ghat and the streets showcase our culture and remind people of the need to revive our cultural, traditional and linguistic legacy. This is also a forum to celebrate our folk music, dance, drama and revive our forgotten and fading cultural legacy of the region.  

(Photo by Sunil Sharma/Xinhua)

On the other hand, surprising though it may sound, there is evidence that compels people to believe that Chhath is an exclusive festival for the Hindus. That’s not true. In India and Nepal, a number of Muslim women have been observing Chhath. Like Hindus, they offer ‘arghya’ to the rising and setting sun to seek the blessings from Chhathi Maiya for the wellbeing of their family members. The Times of India recently reported that a group of Muslim women has been observing Chhath for five long years in Jharkhand’s Vaishali district.  

In Nepal’s Mahottari, Muslims have been observing Chhath for decades. Today, Chhath transcends geography. The celebration of Chhath is no more limited to India and Nepal. Indians from Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh Nepalis from Tarai are seen to be celebrating Chhath at various places in the US, the UK and other countries outside Nepal and India.

Unique festival

Dedicated to Chhathi Maiya and Sun God, Chhath, an ancient Hindu Vedic festival observed in India and Nepal, is one of the unique festivals that does not require worship of any idols. The festival finds a prominent place in both Ramayana and Mahabharata. The holy text of Ramayana mentions that the goddess Sita had observed Surya Shashthi puja on the day Ramrajya was established, while in Mahabharata, it’s been mentioned that the Chhath puja was celebrated by Kunti, mother of Pandavas, after getting escaped from Lakshagriha, which was torched by Kauravas to assassinate Pandavas.

Chhatha festival is unique in a sense that it ensures family gatherings. People from different walks of life come to the banks of the river or ponds to celebrate the festival.

Interestingly, this festival is not gender-specific—it neither requires recitation of Sanskrit mantras nor male Pundits. The devotees take holy baths in ponds or rivers and offer prayers to the setting and rising sun. A devotee, who extends prayers to the setting and rising sun, takes a rigorous fast of more than 40 hours long without taking even a single drop of water. This festival promotes equality, fraternity and socialism as every devotee, without any distinctions, takes a dip together and offers prayer to Sun God by standing in the waters.

There is no requirement of Pundit to celebrate Chhath puja as everyone is considered to be a pundit to offer prayer to the God.

If you look at Chhath from the prism of socialism, fraternity and equality, there is a lot to read here.

Jivesh Jha, formerly a Lecturer of Law at Kathmandu University School of Law, is currently a Judicial Officer in Dhanusha District Court, Janakpurdham. Dr Alok Kumar Yadav is Assistant Professor of Law at HNB Garhwal Central University, Uttarakhand.