The rigours of Chhath
Held six to seven days after Deepavali, the festival of Chhath honours the natural forces that sustain the human body, mind and the spirit. This year, it falls on October 28 and 29. This is the only festival in the country in which prayers are offered not only to the rising sun but also the setting sun. The symbolism is evident – never forget those who are down and out.
Chhath is a festival of prayer and propitiation. Normally, people observe vrata -fasting without food and water for 36 hours. Only after the numerous rituals are completed does a devotee get to eat.
Thanksgiving for life’s many bounties and seeking the blessings of Nature’s great forces - the sun, Mother Earth and the rivers are the core of the festival. People believe that the wish of a devotee who has followed all the prescribed rituals is always fulfilled. Devotees obtain different meanings from the festival. For many, it is ‘Chhathi Maiyya’, the sacred feminine aspect of creation whom they honour, giving a feminine touch to sun worship.
The Chhath ritual detox begins a day after the excesses of Deepavali, when people go on a strict salt-less vegetarian diet cooked in earthen vessels. They sleep on the floor and wear unstitched clothes. At sunset, holy water and milk are poured in the river (in argya) and God’s blessings sought for all mankind. The devotees stand in knee-deep water during this ritual.
Interestingly, there is hardly any mythology behind the Chhath puja nor religious books that define puja rules. The custom has passed by word of mouth down the centuries without losing essential meaning.
The offerings to God make it clear that twice a year at harvest, in the months of Chaitra and Kartik, people thank the Creator for the gift of food. The offerings include thekua cakes of wheat flour, all seasonal vegetables, gram, coconut, lemon, sugarcane and milk, arranged in new baskets of green bamboo. Chhath is pleasantly universal among every Hindu caste and community in Bihar and eastern UP.