Also referred to as Surya Shashti, Chhath Puja is a significant festival that marks the culmination of the winter festival season in the Vedic calendar. Shashti or Chhath refers to the number six in Devanagari and is celebrated six days after Deepawali. Mainly celebrated in Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal, this festival honours and propitiates the Sun god, that sustains life on earth. The fasting and puja are performed to seek Surya dev’s blessings for a long and healthy life filled with prosperity.
From the epic Mahabharat, this festival is marked to fulfil all desires and release from pain and suffering. It is said that during their exile in the forest, the Pandavas were in so much misery that Draupadi was inconsolable. Seeing this, Yudhisthira went to Dhoumya muni requesting a solution. The sage advised Yudhisthira to worship the Sun god and chant his name 108 times, as he sustains all life on earth. Pleased with Yudhisthira’s worship, Surya dev bestowed upon them a magical copper vessel that could cook four types of food for all of them and lasted till Draupadi had taken her meal.
Another legend tells the tale of a king named Priyabrata and his wife Malini. They had a good married life but were childless. They decided to arrange a yajna with Maharishi Kashyap’s help in order to be blessed with a child. With the effects of the yajna, the queen conceived, however, the child did not survive beyond nine months of birth. Seeing the grief that the king and queen were in, Devsena – the Manas Kanya – appeared to them and mentioned that she is Goddess Shashti, an incarnation of the sixth part of the universe. She advised them to perform puja with a pure mind and soul for six days to be blessed with a child. Following her guidance, the king and queen were blessed with a beautiful baby boy. Since then, people have been worshipping Chhathi Maiya (Goddess Shashti) and celebrating the Chhath Puja.
Rituals and Puja
The rituals of Chhath Puja are said to date back to ancient times and find a mention in the Rigveda where hymns are dedicated to adulating the Sun Lord. There are also mentions of this puja in Mahabharata where Draupadi is described as observing these rituals.
This festival is spread over four days and has a strict code of observance. It starts with Nahai Khai, which means bathe and eat. The devotees or Vratti, take a dip in the river or pond and bring Ganga Jal home. This water is used to cook the prasad, which consists of pumpkin, bottle gourd and mung/ chana dal. The person fasting consumes only one meal this day. The meals are prepared without any contamination and the other members of the family are allowed to eat only after the person keeping the fast has done so.
On the second day, Kharna is observed, where devotees observe a strict fast for the whole day, without food and water. This starts before sunrise and ends after sunset. In the evening, a special prasad is prepared called Rasiao-kheer, which is a sweet dish of jaggery, rice, and milk. Worshippers offer the prasad first to Chhathi Maiya and then break their fast by eating the prasad. On the midnight of Kharna, devotees prepare thekua – a special prasad that is made with flour and jaggery.
The third day is divided into two parts – Sandhya Arghya or Sanjhiya Ghat and Kosi or Koshiya. For Sandhya Arghya or evening offerings, devotees spend the whole day resting and preparing offerings at home, which is usually done before sunrise. During the day, a daura – bamboo basket/tray – is prepared with all the offerings including thekua, flowers, incense, and seasonal fruits. Just before sunset, the worshippers with their families, gather at the river banks and worship the setting sun. Folk songs and chants fill the air. After returning home, the second part of Kosi is commenced. At night a canopy is prepared with five sugarcane sticks, which are tied together with a yellow cloth. Earthen oil lamps are lit and placed under the canopy along with elephant idols made out of mud. The five sticks of sugarcane are indicative of panchatatva – five natural elements of earth, fire, sky, water, and air. This ritual is conducted in the aangan – open courtyard spaces of the house or the rooftop. After the puja, the kosis are taken in a small procession to the river banks and lit up again.
The final day is of Bihaniya Arghya or Bhorwa Ghat. The worshippers once again gather at river banks before the break of dawn. The people who are fasting enter the water and make offerings to Surya dev with songs sung in the praise of Chhathi Maiya. With the rising sun, Bihaniya Arghya or morning offerings are performed, after which prasad is distributed and people seek blessings from elders on the ghat.
This 36-hour fast is finally broken by consuming ginger and water. The meals prepared are first offered to the vratti and this is called Paran or Parna. With this, one of the holiest festivals is concluded.