If there is one festival during which every Bihari wants to be home, it is Chhath puja. It touches an emotional chord with the Bihari populace and is more than just a festival like Diwali, Holi, and Durga Puja. Chhath Puja is a festival when the entire family gets together in celebration and none wants to miss. Almost exclusive to Bihar (including Jharkhand), the four-day festival of Chhath puja is dedicated to the Sun God and his two consorts, Usha and Pratyusha.
In Bihar, the festival dedicated to Sun and Chhathi Maiya (Mother Shashti or Usha) is celebrated with rigorous and strict manners of preparation. The Sun is worshipped as the prime source of energy that sustains all lives on the Earth.
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Usha and Pratyusha are the two wives that are considered as the energy of the Sun-god Himself. Therefore, the first offering, evening arghya is offered to Pratyusha, the last ray of the Sun God; and the morning arghya is offered to Usha, the first ray of the Sun.
As soon as Diwali is over, Bihar gets into Chhath mode. Every nook and corner of the state is serenaded by the Chhathi Maiya songs sung, almost every single time, by Bihar’s own daughter Padma Shri Sharda Sinha.
From ‘Uga ho Suruj dev’ to ‘Marbau re sugaba Dhanush se’, all the songs, if not memorized, have a subconscious connection with the Biharis.
The villages and town areas get into cleaning mode where it is a community service. It is not left to the people who are paid to clean the streets. The whole path from homes to the ghat, the water bodies where arghya is offered to Sun, is rid of weeds, pebbles, and other dirty items.
The four days of Chhath Puja
Day One: Nahay-Khaay (literally, bathe and eat)
As the name suggests, the first day of Chhath puja is the process of purification for the Vratin (the lady who does the vrat, or fasts for the festival) starts with her taking a bath and eating seasonal vegetables along with rice and dal. The dal is made of a gram (or chickpea), and the vegetable is of Lauki (or Kaddu as it is called in Bihar) along with chana saag (a delicacy made of leaves of chickpeas). This food that the Vratin consumes is a prasad which the whole family eats later. Vratin’s food doesn’t have any salt in it.
This day (or the next day, as convenient) the Vratin, with help of others in the family, washes the wheat that will be used to prepare various offerings to the Sun god. The wheat is washed with the utmost care and spread to dry. The kids are given the duty to see no dirty thing falls into it. They have to make sure the birds don’t eat (or poop on it while flying over!). The flour is used to make several sweet delicacies as well as rotis and puris for the prasad.
Day Two: Kharna
The Vratin fasts for the whole day without taking even a drop of water. It is a strict fast where she has to make sure she doesn’t touch any dirty things and, of course, doesn’t eat or drink. In the evening, she will cook meals for the family, Tasmai, and Puri. Tasmai is similar to kheer as it is prepared with milk, sugar, and rice. However, the milk must be from a cow whose calf is alive. No water is added to milk while cooking the Tasmai.
In the evening, after the cooking is done, the Vratin, in closed doors does the rituals where she offers naiwedya to various deities as well as gram and Kul devta. The naiwedya is prepared from chapatis, Tasmai, and bananas and spread over a banana leaf.
She eats the food that was prepared by her. When she is done eating, she will deliberately leave some food on the plate which is considered to be pious and is eaten by the family members as prasad. In fact, kids fight to eat them as it is akin to the purest form of blessing one could ever get.
Day Three: Sandhya Arghya (the evening offering)
On the third day, the Vratin starts her fast again which would last till the next morning. It is roughly 36 hours from her last meal, again without a drop of water the whole day. This day the family, normally the kids or younger children, would prepare the baskets, and soops (a bamboo-made winnowing basket of sorts) which would have various sweets like thakua, ladua, saanch, and anything that grows around that time (from sugarcane, oranges, apples to radish, banana, dry fruits, pod corn, etc.).
The male members carry the baskets over their heads from the home to ghats. The baskets are laid open at the ghats where the Vratin will take a dip, pray to the last rays of the Sun and Pratyusha.
Then she will take every basket in her hand with a diya (earthen lamp), and face the Sun as the family as well as community members will offer arghya by pouring water and milk in front of the basket facing the Sun god.
When this process is done the Vratin again takes a dip and comes out to perform some rituals at the ghat. This would include prayers, laying of flowers, burning dhoop (finely chopped sandalwood), and incense sticks.
Day Four: Usha Arghya (the morning offering)
The process of the evening arghya is repeated here. The baskets are carried to the ghats and Vratin takes a dip in the water. Everyone waits for the first rays of the sun to appear. As soon as the first ray is visible the arghya, in the form of water and milk as in the evening, are offered to Sun and Usha, the first ray of dawn.
The baskets are carried back to the homes where the family and community people share the prasad items from the baskets.
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She would get dressed in new clothes, usually a sari, and walk back home with girl members of the family. On the way, she will worship the soil in the farming fields. This bears significance as it is from the land that we grow our food and she is prayed for her fertility. The Vratin thanks the soil for bestowing us with food.
As she enters the home everyone will take her blessing by touching her feet. As pious as she is, in those moments of extreme control over all the senses and organs, it is considered that whatever she says is a word from the Mother Usha or Chhathi Maiya Herself.
(The article was originally written in 2015 and is re-edited on 18 November 2020)