Just a few days after Diwali, festivities are in full swing in parts of East and North India, as its time for Chhath Puja. ‘Chhath’ means six, and the festival is celebrated on the sixth day in the month of Kartik, according to the Hindu lunar calendar.
This is one of the biggest festivals of Bihar, and parts of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and various Hindu communities in Nepal also celebrate it. Bhagalpur in Bihar draws thousands of devotees to the Barari Ghat by the River Ganga.
What is Chhath Puja?
The festival is dedicated to the Sun God Surya and spans four days. People descend to the ghats by holy rivers and offer prayers to thank the sun for sustaining life on earth. Chhathi Maya or Usha, Surya’s consort, is also worshipped. Morning and evening offerings, dips in rivers, days of fasting, and prasad are all part of the festival, to seek Lord Surya’s blessings for prosperity.
Rituals and Celebrations
The festival defined by its specific customs and rituals, including daylong fasts. Offerings called ‘arghya’ are made to the sun, usually at dawn or dusk. Most of the prayers are conducted on riverbanks or by a water body, especially on the banks of holy rivers such as the Ganga and many people come dressed in their finery, to pray.
On the first day, called Nahai Khai, people take a dip in a river or pond, and then carry home water from the same water body to use it to cook food as prasad for the Sun God. Homes are cleaned and devotees eat only one meal on this day.
Day two involves a fast that lasts through the day. After sundown, worshippers break their fast with the prasad, usually consisting of kheer and puris. After this fast is broken, the rituals get more demanding, as another 36-hour fast then begins. This particular fast, on the third day, doesn’t even allow a sip of water.
On the third evening, devotees perform a ritual called Sandhya Arghya on the riverbanks. They take a dip in a holy river, followed by offerings made at sunset to Surya. The prasad is offered on a tray made of woven bamboo strips, and consists of fruits like banana, and a special, hard sweet called thekua, made with flour, jaggery and ghee.
On the final day, worshippers visit the riverbanks at sunrise for a morning offering called Usha Arghya. Prayers are offered to the rising sun, after which the fast is broken.
Apart from the rituals, festivities are in full swing. Homes and surroundings are cleaned, new clothes are worn and people sing folk songs. After evening prayers on the ghats, people light diyas and lamps in their homes, under a shade of sugarcane. The vegetarian food is cooked without salt, onion or garlic. Instead, deep fried sweet rolls of wheat flour, coconuts, grapefruit, and kheer are eaten.