For the past few weeks, my ears familiarised themselves to sweet strains of wafting music, played at some distance from my school. Well, the festive fervour was surely as high as the ‘josh’, since we’ve just witnessed a series of festivals. Following Durga puja, Navaratri, Lakshmi puja, Kali puja, Diwali, Gobardhan puja and Bhai Phota, we geared up for yet another one — Chhath puja.
The four-day long puja is dedicated to Surya–the sun god–and Chhathi Maiya. The sun is believed to be the force that sustains life. This is perhaps a focal point where both science and mythology coincide. The worship of Surya, therefore, is a gesture of gratitude for bestowing life on earth and acting as a healer. Besides Surya, goddess Shasthi (known as Chhathi Maiya) is also worshipped.
The relationship between Surya and Shasthi, however, is multifarious. Some suggest she is Surya’s consort Usha, while others claim she is Surya’s sister or mother. Shasthi is believed to be the deity of reproduction who also assists women during childbirth. The names, Shasthi and Chhath, both literally mean six. The puja is also celebrated on the sixth day of the lunar fortnight of kartika.
The possible origins of Chhath
Chhath is possibly a remnant of Vedic culture. The Rig Veda contains hymns praising Surya and suggests rituals similar to Chhath. This makes this one of the oldest festivals as well. However, the origin of Chhath is ambiguous. Legends offer multiple views and interpretations. The mahaparv (grand festival) finds mention in both Indian epics – the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The Ramayana suggests it was Lord Ram and Sita who observed a fast and performed Chhath puja after the completion of 14 years in exile. Meanwhile, the Mahabharata associates Chhath with two characters — Karna and Draupadi. According to one, Surya-putra (son of god) Karna stood in water, offered prayer to Surya and distributed prasad (edible offerings). The other states Draupadi and the Pandavas performed the puja to regain their lost kingdom.
In any case, what matters most is how Chhath has become a festival that unites not only families but several communities and cultures. And this coming together really is the need amid the prevalent divisiveness.
The rituals that Chhath Puja entails
In my hometown, of all festivals celebrated annually, Chhath has the most rigorous rituals. It also demands diligent handling of items and exercising caution. The ceremonies are observed over a period of four days. The highlights are nahai-khai, kharna, sandhya aarag and paran, with rigorous fasting.
Nahai-khai. The term means to bathe and eat. As the name suggests, on this day the vratin (the one who fasts) bathes and only then proceeds to eat. The meal consists of chane ki dal (gram), kaddu ki sabzi (gourd), rice and some fritters. One cannot so much as even catch a whiff of onion or garlic, and sendha namak (coarse salt) is used instead of normal table salt. The other members of the family eat soon after the vratin has finished.
Kharna. The second day is spent preparing and shopping for items such as sugarcane, fruits and other puja necessities. The late hours of the evening are witness to the Kharna juja. On this day, the vratins observe a daylong nirjala (waterless) fast. A special prasad of rotis, kheer, banana and radish, along with other items, is prepared for the puja.
The vratins break their fast with prasad, which is then distributed among friends and family on banana leaves. Later, the Chhath staple called thekuas are prepared. The kheer (rice dessert) is delicious and the sight of thekuas being fried is what gives me the strongest puja vibe.
Sandhya aarag. This is the toughest of all days. Yet again, the vratins observe a very strict nirjala fast. But this time round, they have to continue the fast until the puja concludes the following morning. The day is divided into two parts- sandhaya aarag and Kosi puja.
While some family members occupy themselves with decorating the ghats, the others begin organising and rechecking all required items for the puja. Once everything is in order and dusk is approaching, the prasad items are filled in dalas (bamboo containers). These are then carried to the ghats, accompanied by the sound of dhaks (drum beats). The aarag is then offered to the setting sun by the vratins, who also take a holy dip into the water. The attendees, mostly women, sing Chhath hymns.
After dusk, when everyone heads back home, the Kosi puja takes place. Some observe this ritual each year while others observe it only if there has been a childbirth or marriage in the family in that particular year. An elephant’s statue is placed, bordered by sugarcane sticks in a circular pattern.
Paran. The final day of the puja is the most exciting one for me personally. It is when the rising sun is worshipped. The excitement is further amplified since the devout must wake up at around 2:30-3 am, shower and carry the dalas to the ghat once again, along with the kosi. Upon reaching the ghat, the dalas are arranged before sunrise and geets are sung.
At the first glimpse of the sun, aarag is offered by vratins, while they once again take holy dips. The first glimpse always brings about a sense of joy when everyone gets ready to offer their prayers. Once the aarag is offered and the puja concludes, the vratin distributes prasad and elders’ blessings are sought.
This is followed by a hawan, katha (sharing of mythological stories) and Gauri-Ganesh puja is observed. Once all of these conclude, the vratins return home, offer prayers to other devis and devtas and then ultimately break their strict fast. Prasad is then distributed.
It is believed by several worshippers that Chhathi Maiya pays a visit to the households of all devotees. The meal is, therefore, prepared and kept aside before heading to the ghats.
Solar deity across cultures
In the course of researching Chhath, I also delved into sun worship practices observed in other parts of the world. One interesting insight was that of an Egyptian religion. It is also one of the earliest monotheistic religions called Atenism. Atenists worshipped Aten, their version of the sun god. Ancient Egypt also worshipped Amun-Ra, yet another iteration of the sun god. The underlying belief again was that the sun was the source of all life.
The Greek worshipped Helios — their sun god. Similarly, several other cultures across continents have been known to believe in solar deities for centuries.
Chhath and the rural economy
Chhath being a mahaparv, under normal circumstances, leads to migrant workers returning home from far and wide. This arrival, especially in rural areas, boosts economic activity in these areas. It is, therefore, not just families who await the arrival of their loved ones, but also small business owners.
The current year has been anything but normal. Community gatherings and processions in several states were banned, while numerous migrants were already home for months on end. The pandemic led to many families constructing big makeshift tubs on their rooftops or small pits in their backyards. This, I feel, is a good idea, especially in view of the healthcare situation at hand. It stood to not only safeguard personal health but also prevented the pollution of water bodies. The pollution is usually due to flowers being dumped into them.
What makes Chhath unique?
I find Chhath unique in several aspects. On the one hand, some claim it to be an eco-friendly religious festival. However, I am doubtful of this ‘claim’ since it involves water pollution. On a positive note, Chhath is considered a festival that is devoid of class and caste distinctions. All devotees, irrespective of their caste and financial status, arrive on the banks of water bodies and prepare almost the same type of prasad.
Unlike most other major Hindu festivals, this puja does not involve any idol worship; only nature. This year, unfortunately, I was unable to participate in the festivities owing to my academic obligations. Rather, I chose to avail the benefits of technology. Thanks to video conferencing platforms, I was able to participate virtually. The gods, after all, will bless us irrespective of our geographical location.