As Chhath, the festival of Sun God, for 2022 is approaching, the markets across the Madhesh Province are flooded with traditional items like earthen stoves, baskets made up of thin strips of bamboo, sugarcane and among others used in different days of the “Mahaparva” (grand festival). Of late, wherever you roam around, in the streets or in markets, you will hear the loudly played melodious devotional Maithili and Bhojpuri folk songs dedicated to the God, which are mostly sung by Sharda Sinha, Poonam Mishra, Kalpana and others.
Moreover, a cleanliness drive is in the villages, ponds and markets. The local folks are rigorously engaged in cleaning watercourses (ponds or rivers where Puja is to be performed). This festival advocates for cleanliness and the natural environment.
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. As the word Chhath means six, it is celebrated on the sixth day of the month of Kartika. However, 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. The Chhath celebration usually begins six days after Diwali, the festival of lights.
Chhath in Hindu scriptures
Also known as Kartik Chhath Puja, Chhath is a festival popularly celebrated in Nepal’s Tarai region 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). Chhathi Maiya 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 goddess of children, ensuring their longevity and good health.
All the devotees without any distinction of caste, color or economy, arrive at the bank of rivers or ponds for extending prayers,promoting equality and fraternity.
There is a fair corpus of Hindu scriptures mentioning the importance of Chhath. Of them, Ramayana and Mahabharata hold much water. 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 at dawn the 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. Yet another story holds a significant space in Hindu texts about how Draupadi and Pandavas performed similar worship to defeat and dethrone Kauravas.
The devotees express their solemn gratitude towards lord Surya and perform important rituals over a period of four days. The people, generally women, who hold fast, are called Vrati. This festival is neither caste or class-centric. In fact, it’s the festival which promotes socialism, equality, cleanliness and fraternity among the community members.
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 a complete submission to God.
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 catalysts to impress Chhathi Maiya, for there is an assumption from time immemorial that the god blesses her devotees with well-being, prosperity and longevity.
The devotees by relinquishing impure foodstuffs (that is, non-vegetarian, and onion and garlic) make a humble submission that they have submitted themselves before the God for observing Puja and pledge to live under the blessings of the God throughout the life.
This way, the devotees on the first day take a vow to not to consume fish and other non-vegetarian food items or any other unholy products during this four-day long festival. It’s called “Machh-maruwa Barnai.”
In general, it’s believed that Chhathi puja starts from Nahay Khay. 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 foods, garlic and onion-made food items. 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 foods bought from hotels or markets.
The Kharna is considered as the second day. 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 the God and distributed among the family members later in the evening (after sunset).
The third day is called Saunjh ka Arghya (evening offering), often called Pahila Arghya. This day is considered to be the toughest day for the devotees, who are 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 and Prasad prepared in their own but separate kitchen, like Thakuwa, Bhuswa, Khaja, Mithae and other fruits, including oroblanco 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. In addition to this, the offerings are also kept in potteries.
A woman smears vermillion on the forehead of another woman at the Ghat (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 her husband and for the prosperity of her 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. 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 36 hours (beginning from Saunjh ka Arghya to the Bhor Ka Arghya). Eventually, the Prasad is distributed among family members and friends after completion of morning offerings.
Importantly, the festival is synonymous to the sacrifice and dedication of women devotees. The devotees take fast and abstain from taking even a single drop of water for more than 36 hours and apply vermillion to impress the Chhathi Maiya so as to seek her blessings for the wellbeing of her husband and kids.
This showcases that women, in our part of the world, always put husband, children and family first. They take rigorous fast to seek blessings of God and that too for the prosperity of her family members. It’s believed that childless couples take fast to seek blessings of the Sun God for getting progeny.
There was and is a ritual of offering 70 types of homemade foods and fruits. However, it has some exceptions as well. 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.
Cleanliness, socialism, equality and fraternity
A few things about Chhath are worth remembering 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, on the days 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.
Dedicated to Chhathi Maiya and Sun God, Chhath is one of the unique festivals that does not require worship of any idols.
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 of caste, color or economy, arrive at the bank of rivers or ponds for extending prayers. In this respect, the festival promotes equality and fraternity.
Maybe this is the only festival that goes without necessity of male priests and utterance of Sanskrit mantras. However, on the final day–on Bhorka Arghya–a woman devotee at the ghat (bank of pond or river) recites a story of how Chhath puja began and became a part of festivity among its devotees.
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.
Message to take
The food items prepared for Prasad or the melodious songs played at the Ghat or streets showcases our culture and invoke people 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.
Cleanliness, fighting against environmental pollution, equality, socialism, natural products, fraternity and submission to the God for the prosperity of the community members are the messages of the Chhath, the grand festival, and it’s high time we acknowledged these messages in our daily life.
Our atmosphere deserves to be pollution-free, at least for keeping the messages of Chhathi Maiya alive throughout the year.