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Chhath in Delhi: How Yamuna got a facelift for the ‘biggest’ festival in town

More than 35,000 workers will ensure that celebrations go peacefully at 565 Yamuna ghats in Delhi as Chhath Puja starts today. See pictures

delhi Updated: Oct 26, 2017 13:21 IST
Gulam Jeelani
Gulam Jeelani
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Devotees shopping for Chhath Puja at a market in Gurgaon.
Devotees shopping for Chhath Puja at a market in Gurgaon.(Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

Over the last two decades, Chhath Puja — dedicated to the Sun god and his wife — has developed into one of the biggest festivals in Delhi, manifesting the growing aspirations of the largest migrant group in the city, the Purvanchalis.

From people offering water to the Sun god in plastic buckets in working class neighbourhoods, Chhath has transformed into one of the biggest festive congregations at the Yamuna.

Essentially, a festival of Purvanchalis (natives of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh), Chhath’s political and cultural influence has swelled over the years. In 1998, the then-Congress government in Delhi had set up 78 ghats on the banks of Yamuna for the celebrations. This year, there will be 565 ghats or sites on the river bank for the people to perform puja rituals.

The rituals of the four-day festival include take a holy bath, fasting, and offering water and other material (arghya) to the setting and rising sun.

Preparation for Chhath Puja on the banks of Yamuna near Kalindi Kunj. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Rising scale and influence

More than 35,000 workers would ensure that the celebrations go peacefully. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, along with senior members of his cabinet, is overseeing the preparations. The Delhi government is spending Rs 20 crore on the facilities for the faithful who would fast and offer water at sunset and sunrise (arghya). The BJP-ruled South Delhi Municipal Corporation has spent Rs 41 lakh.

Municipal workers cleaning the bank near ITO Bridge. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

Vikas Rai, 52, recalls how fewer than 5,000 people came for the puja in 1997, the year since when he has been overseeing arrangements at Kalindi Kunj Ghat under the Lohia bridge. On Thursday, the third day of the festival, Rai expects over a lakh devotees thronging the river bank for the rituals.

At the three ITO ghats, which host the biggest congregation of Chhath devotees every year, organisers claim over 1.5 lakh people would start assembling just ahead of sunset on Thursday.

A pool filled with borewell water for near ITO Bridge. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

The venue, a few metres away from the Delhi Secretariat, has already been made ready with pandals, sand bags, floodlights, decorations and sign boards welcoming the faithful who would walk towards the river for the holy dip on a green mat.

For the hygiene conscious devotees who do not want to wade through the effluents of the Yamuna, the organisers have made an artificial pit, filled with water from a borewell.

Carpets being laid out at the ghat near ITO Bridge. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

“The scale of festivities has grown over the years. It is not only people who observe the 36-hour fast but also tourists and locals who now come to the ghats to enjoy the festivities,” said Abhay Sinha of the Purvanchal Vikash Sangathan Chhath Puja Samiti at the ITO ghat. At least 10,000 people are expected to attend the cultural show where a makeshift stage has been installed on the other side of food stalls.

Arrangements for night stay have been made for at least 500 devotees each at Wazirabad, Kalindi Kunj and ITO ghats where over five lakh devotees are expected for Chhath, organisers say.

Rush at Harola market in Noida ahead of Chhath Puja. (Sunil Ghosh/HT Photo)

Political significance

The population of Purvanchalis today stands at 60 lakh or roughly 20% of the voters in the national Capital. For obvious reasons, politics underscores the festival as the AAP’s Delhi government and BJP’s MCDs are trying to outdo each other by making extensive arrangements for the devotees.

The Congress, which was the first to tap into the Purvanchali votes, has been accusing its rivals of politicising the festival.

Massive arrangements near Kalindi Kunj Bridge. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

“There are two reasons for the festival assuming significance. One, the numerical proportion of people from Bihar and eastern UP which has started migrating to Delhi over the last decade. Two, with many generations of the migrants now settled in Delhi, most of them have stopped travelling back to their towns and villages in Bihar during Chhath,” said Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies(CSDS) and author of Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi.

“The Delhi government has developed 565 sites, double than last year, where devotees can perform the rituals.” said Delhi development minister and AAP’s prominent Purvanchali politician, Gopal Rai.

Officials supervise arrangements at a ghat near Kalindi Kunj bridge. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Delhi BJP president and a famous face of the Purvanchali community, Manoj Tiwari claimed the Yamuna ghats were looking good this year due to the hard work of the municipal corporation staff and Chhath committees. “The Delhi government is trying to fool the people by saying that it has spent Rs 20 crore on Yamuna ghats. People know that it not government money but the one donated by the people,” said Tiwari, the first Purvanchali president of Delhi BJP.

Former Congress MP Mahabal Mishra, a Purvanchali himself, said, “It was the Congress government in Delhi that first starting facilitating Chhath Puja on the ghats of the Yamuna. In 1998, the then urban development minister Ajay Maken gave permission to construct a ghat at ITO by granting Rs 2.5 crore,” Mishra said.