India is a land of festivals and you will see various communities across the country celebrating different festivals throughout the year. An ancient Hindu Vedic festival, Chhath is historically native to the Indian subcontinent, specifically, the north-eastern states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh and the Madhesh region of Nepal. Celebrated a week of Diwali, Chhath Puja is dedicated to the Sun and Shashthi devi, also known as Chhathi Maiya in order to thank them for bestowing the bounties of life on earth and to request the granting of certain wishes with devotees believing that the Sun is also a source of healing and helps to cure many illnesses and diseases. The most unique feature of this festival is the fact that unlike all the other major Hindu festivals, there is no idol worship. The Chhath Puja in 2020 is on Saturday, November 21.
It is believed that the main sources of Sun’s powers are his wife Usha and Pratyusha. In Chhath, there is a combined worship of both the powers along with the Sun. In the morning, the worship of the first ray or Usha and the last ray or Pratyusha of the sun in the evening are offered to both of them. And the rituals are rigorous and are observed over a period of four days. They include holy bathing, fasting and abstaining from food and water, standing in water for long periods of time, and offering Prasad or prayer offerings and arghya to the setting and rising sun. Some devotees also perform a prostration march as they head for the river banks.
Although the festival is observed most elaborately in the Madhesh or the southern region of Nepal and the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and UP, it is also more prevalent in areas where migrants from those areas have a presence. It is celebrated in all Northern regions and major Northern urban centers in India.
There are two types of the Chhath Puja, the Chaitra Chhath which is celebrated in the Chaitra month which begins around 22/23 March and the Kartik Chhath which is the more famous one and which is celebrated in a large scale in the month of Kartika, which corresponds to about 22/23 October according to the Gregorian calendar. The word “Chhath” translates to sixth in Bhojpuri, Maithili and Nepali dialects. The festival is celebrated on the 6th day of the Kartikeya month of the Hindu calendar and hence is known as the Chhath Puja. According to the English Calendar, it falls in the month of October or November. This festival lasts for 4 days, which makes it the longest festival after Navratis.
Chhath Puja is considered to be one of the oldest rituals mentioned in the prominent mythological scriptures. The Rigveda also contains some hymns worshipping the Lord Surya. Chhath Puja has been mentioned in both the major Indian epics. In the Ramayana, when Lord Rama and Sita returned Ayodhya, people celebrated Diwali in the joy of their arrival. On the sixth day the Ramrajya was established and on this day Rama and Sita fasted and the Surya Shashthi or Chhath Puja was performed by Sita. It is said she was blessed with the twins, Luv and Kush. It is believed that Sita Charan temple in Munger, Bihar is the place where she performed the Chhath vrat.
According to the Mahabharata, Lord Surya’s son Karna was the first person to perform some of these rituals. He offered prayer to the Sun god standing in the water and offered Prasad to the needy. This gradually became a ritual of the Chhat Puja. Later, Draupadi and the Pandavas performed these rituals to regain their lost kingdom.
Apart from the religious significance, there is also some science associated with the rituals of Chhath Puja. To complete the rituals, devotees have to stand at the banks of the rivers for long hours. So these rituals take place in the morning and evening as the ultraviolet rays of the sun are at their weakest during the sunrise and sunset. The sun rays at these moments are extremely beneficial and help in the detoxification of the body, mind, and soul. The festival also has an agricultural significance and is referred to as a post-harvest festival, where people show gratitude for a good harvest in the season just ended.
The main worshipers, called parvaitin, which comes from the Sanskrit word parv, meaning “occasion” or “festival”, are usually women. However, many men also observe this festival as Chhath is not a gender-specific festival. The parvaitin pray for the well-being of their family, and for the prosperity of their offspring. In some communities, once a family member starts performing Chhath Puja, it is their duty to perform it every year and to pass it on to the following generations. The festival is skipped only if there happens to be a death in the family that year. If the person stops performing the ritual on any particular year, it stops permanently and one cannot resume it. In other communities, this is not mandatory.
The 4-day rituals of Chhath Puja include taking holy baths in the river, fasting, and offering Prasad and arghya to the sun during sunrise and sunset. On the first day, called Nyay-Khay, devotees take a bath in the holy water of Ganga early in the morning. After this they prepare prasad to offer to the Sun god. The entire house and surroundings are purified with Ganga Jal. People observe fast and eat just one meal in the entire day. They prepare chane ki daal, kaddu ki sabzi, and kheer in bronze or soil utensils. Salt is not added in the preparation of this meal.
During the second day, called Lohanda and Kharna or Argasan, the devotees fast for the entire day and break it after worshipping the Sun god in the evening. A special meal of Tasmai, which is a dish similar to kheer, and puris are offered to the Sun God, after which devotees can break their fast. After worshipping the god and breaking their fast, people again fast for the next 36 hours. They go without water and food during this time.
The third day of Chhath Puja called Sandhya Arghya or the evening offerings is also observed by fasting and without drinking even a drop of water. On this day, the children of the family prepare bamboo baskets and fill them with seasonal fruits like apples, oranges, bananas, dry fruits and sweets like ladoo, saanch, and thakua. The male members take the basket in their heads to the riverside. These baskets are kept open at the ghats where the Vratin takes a dip, and offer ‘arghya’ to the setting sun. These baskets are brought back to the house after the ritual. At night, a colorful event called Kosi is celebrated by lighting diyas under five sugarcane sticks while singing folk songs and mantras. These five sticks represent the five elements of nature or the Panchatattva which includes the earth, water, fire, air, and space.
On the last day, called Bihaniya Arghya or morning offerings, devotees gather with their families on the banks of the River before sunrise. The baskets are brought back to the ghats and vratin takes a dip in the water and offer prayers and prasad to the Sun and Usha. After the offerings, the devotees break their fast and have Prasad from the baskets. On the way back home, the vratin worship the soil as a gesture of thanks for providing them with food.
The process of Chhath Puja is divided into six stages of purification and infusion of cosmic solar energy. The process of fasting during the Chhath Puja helps in detoxifying the mind and body. This is done to prepare the mind and body of the devotee to accept the cosmic solar energy. Standing in a river or any water body reduces the release of energy from your body. This stage also facilitates the prana or the psychic energy to move upwards to the Sushumna or the psychic channel in the spine. At this stage, the cosmic solar energy enters the Triveni complex which are the pineal, pituitary and hypothalamus glands. This process is done through the retina and optic nerves and in this stage, the Triveni complex gets activated. After activation of the Triveni complex, the spine gets polarised which turns the body of devotee into a cosmic powerhouse that can receive the Kundalini Shakti. In the final stage, the body of the devotee turns into a channel that can conduct, recycle and transmit the energy of the entire universe. It is believed that these rituals detoxify the body and mind and provides mental calmness. It also enhances immunity, infuses energy and reduces the frequency of anger, and all other negative emotions.
Although celebrated in many Indian states, the Chhath Puja celebrations in Bihar and Jharkhand have a distinct charm. Both of these places attract a crowd of devotees from around the country during this time. In Bihar, the capital city of Patna, which is situated on the banks of the Ganges river celebrates the festival on a grand level and is probably the best place to offer prayers and witness the magnificent celebrations across the city. The Kaunhara ghat located on the banks of the Ganga-Gandaki confluence in Hajipur, is decorated with lights and earther lamps with the ghats and other water bodies being a sight to behold. It is believed that that the Goddess Sita performed the Chhath Puja rituals at the Sita Charan temple located in Munger where millions of devotees take a dip in the water in the Kastaharni Ghat. In the state of Jharkhand, the most popular place for Chhath Puja rituals in the city of Ranchi is the Ranchi Lake. Other popular places include the Button Talab, Kunkay Talab, and Hatia Ghat. In Jamshedpur, the ghats of Bagbera, Mango, Kharkai, Subarnarekha and Sidhgora are some of the favorite spots for devotees to offer prayers to the Sun God. Bokaro’s Ganga river and the seven ghats along the river see devotees from around the country. Other ponds and reservoirs including the Cooling pond, City park pond, and Rani Pokhar pond are also used by devotees to offer their prayers.
This is a very interesting and unique festival which I had not really heard of before the infamous photo that went viral of devotees standing in a chemical infused, foam filled toxic waters of the Yamuna river in New Delhi. So I decided to research more on this festival and I am intrigued and want to, one day, visit Bihar or Jharkhand to see it for myself.