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Chhath in Delhi: Evolution of a private purvanchali festival into a Yamuna carvinal

With the population of Purvanchalis growing steadily, Chhath had started making an impact in Delhi by the turn of this century, culturally and electorally

delhi Updated: Oct 26, 2017 15:04 IST
Parvez Sultan
Sugarcane stalks planted into a water body as Hindu women perform rituals at sunset to mark Chhath Puja in New Delhi.
Sugarcane stalks planted into a water body as Hindu women perform rituals at sunset to mark Chhath Puja in New Delhi. (AP Photo)

Chhath Puja, which brings lakhs of devotees to Yamuna today, was a family affair in Delhi till the nineties. Though people from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar started moving to the national capital in the late 1970s for work during the construction for Asian Games in 1982, they preferred to travel back home for Chhath, celebrated six days after Diwali.

But with population of Purvanchalis growing steadily, Chhath had started making an impact in Delhi by the turn of this century, culturally and electorally. Over the last 50 years, the four-day festival has evolved from being a phenomenon when the labourers took a break en masse to a celebration that has the Delhi cabinet on its toes with 35,500 municipal workers manning more than 500 Yamuna ghats.

1971-1980

Retired IPS officer Amod Kanth, who came to Delhi as a magistrate in 1973 from Ranchi, then in Bihar, remembers that people in Delhi were hardly familiar with Chhath Puja and its significance around then. Families praying to the Sun god at Yamuna were far and few. The four-day festival used to be a homely celebration mostly.

“When I joined the police service in 1974, it was not as grand as it is now. It picked up only after the seventies when people started coming to the city in large numbers,” he said.

Governor of Goa, Mridula Sinha, says only one Chhath puja organising committee existed in Delhi during that time in the outlying ‘jamnapaar’ (trans-Yamuna area). The committee would make arrangements at ITO ghat. Over the last 50 years, the number of such committees has grown to more than 300.

“We sourced all puja items from Bihar. Volunteers cleared wild shrubs to make way to the river bank for devotees. No arrangement was done by the government or civic bodies then,” Sinha, a renowned Hindi writer. She came to Delhi in 1977 and worked closely with puja samitis for years.

1981-1990

A large number of migrants from Purvanchal were already here for massive construction work in the run-up to the Asian Games. The satellite town of New Okhla Industrial Development Area, popularly called Noida, carved out in 1976 also had opportunity for construction workers. Purvanchalis came to stay in east Delhi areas. But festivities were still to pick up in the capital.

“These workers mostly slept on pavements and did not have proper shelter. For Chhath, purity is supreme and the worshippers have to follow strict rituals. Hence, a majority of them would leave for home around Diwali,” said Rajesh Kumar, a media professional born and brought up in the Walled City with roots in Bihar.

Those who stayed, celebrated at their residence with a makeshift water tank or a pit in the neighbourhood. Ghats were not so accessible then. “We would worship at Kudesia Ghat along with 9-10 other families,” he said.

Renowned Kathak danseuse Shovana Narayan said people began visiting Yamuna ghats only in the late 1990s or early 2000.

1990-2000

There was a sharp rise in the population of Purvanchalis during this time. “People from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pardesh make 1/3 of the total population of Delhi and in 1981, it must have been 33 % of purvanchali population at present,” said Sanjay Kumar, director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

As per the 2011 census data, Delhi’s population was 1.68 crores, which means nearly 56 lakh residents were from Purvanchal region and in 1981, their number was around 18 lakh.

The Purvanchalis settled down in unauthorsied colonies, which were cropping up in the city especially in trans-Yamuna area. Once they had adequate space to bring in their families, they didn’t mind celebrating Chhath here.

“We have been working here for years and have our families with us. The city is now our home,” said Thakur Jagdish Singh, general secretary, Chhath Puja Samiti Delhi Pradesh.

OP Jain, a heritage conservator, attributed this transformation to prosperity and changing social norms. “The festival used to be a private affair involving husband and wife but now Chhath has reached a different level. Earlier, earnings would be meagre. People are more prosperous now and have more income at their disposal,” he said.

Post-2001

With the rise in their population, the Purvanchalis started commanding a sway in city’s politics. Chhath became the biggest annual platform for political parties to curry favour with the community.

The Congress government during its second stint from 1998 to 2013 had set up facilities at the ghats for the first time. The Aam Aadmi Party government has now scaled up the preparations further. “The festival has been politicized. But it brings people together to celebrate, which is a good thing,” Jain said.