This morning as we drink our tea or coffee and catch up with world news on our phones, tabs and in the Sunday papers, a number of people in India and around the world — some as far away as Fiji and South America — will be observing Chhath Puja.
It’s probably our most ancient festival, older than even the Vedas, addressed to Surya, the sun, and Ushas, the dawn. A spine-tingling thought made even sweeter by thekua, the delicious Chhath Puja prasad. I used to look forward to a share of it every year from Bihari friends, whose big puja it is, and even demand it if they forgot.
It had to come from their house, the cookies of wheat, ghee and jaggery with a hint of fennel or cardamon, prettily stamped with designs of stars, leaves or flowers if their mothers were in town or had sent over a batch. As to which, despite our unalterable devotion to most things Indian, there are those who unfortunately find traditional Indian sweets far too sweet, except perhaps for a well-made kheer or gulgule and kaju katli. But thekua is a winner each time, with an elegance and simplicity that’s hard to resist.
I would like a year-round supply to go with afternoon tea or in place of the samosas that somehow insinuate themselves into our vulnerable ‘chhay baje ki bhook’.
Chhath is the Hindi version of the Sanskrit ‘Shashti’, meaning ‘the sixth day’, in this case of the Indian lunar month of Kartik. At the core of the Chhath Puja festival is an ancient detox ritual of fasting and bathing in rivers. It looks like this was constructed as a wholly personal and domestic ritual, because no priests are involved. It appears to be an individual’s personal business with the sun, to warm limbs and enjoy a bath in the river before it gets too cold, and to acknowledge the heat and light of the sun as the source of life and health.
Ushas, the radiant dawn, is personalised as Chhatthi Ma, and the thekua plays a pleasant role too. Its biscuit-like texture suggests that it was travel food, like the bati in Rajasthan and the kachoris and mathri sent with wedding invitations in north India, to be conveniently available to hand on journeys.
In the case of the thekua, it does seem as though made to be taken along for the journey to the riverbank by bullock cart or foot in the old days, to be eaten when the fast ended.
That’s us regular people in real life, but apparently there are epic examples too. Sita and Ram are said to have observed this ritual in thanksgiving after coming home from exile; and Draupadi is said to have observed it in gratitude to the sun for life and health. The old rishi-munis are also said to have been very particular about observing the fasts and dips of this festival.
It’s fascinating to think that Chhath Puja has been going on for so very long as a personal pact between individuals and the sun.
The views expressed are personal.