If there is one festival during which every Bihari wants to be home, it is Chhath. It touches an emotional chord with 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 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.
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.
Both of the great epics of India, Ramayana and Mahabharata, have references of the festival being celebrated by Sita (after Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya), and by Draupadi. It has Vedic roots as Goddess Usha is one of the Goddesses mentioned in the Vedas and there are several mantras dedicated to her.
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 memorised, have a subconscious connect 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, this day 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 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 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!).
Day two: Kharna
The Vratin fasts for 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 meal 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 prepaired from chapatis, Tasmai and bananas and spread over a banana leaf.
The Vratin would offer prayers inside as the house goes silent for a few minutes because any sound might break her concentration while praying and breaking her fast. She eats the food that was prepared by her.
When she is done eating, she will deliberately leave some food in 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 purest form of blessing one could ever get.
As she opens the door, someone would bring out the naiwedya from inside and all family eats it. Later, the food prepared by the Vratin, Tasmai and Puri, is served as supper to the family.
Day three: Saandhya 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 head from the home to ghats. The whole path is cleaned and watered and purified to maintain the sacredness of the whole process. 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. Meanwhile, the male members would carry the baskets back home and keep it inside the house where no one can touch or accidentally hit by legs etc.
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. Every item is distributed as everyone is empty stomach till the Vratin walks out of the water.
She would get dressed in new clothes, usually a sari, and walk back to 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.
Apart from the prasad from the basket, the main food as breakfast (or say, brunch) is kaddu-bhat (vegetable of Lauki and steamed rice).
Significance of the offerings in basket
One can find that every family has different numbers of baskets for the arghya. Some have one, some two, some ten or even more than that. The number depends on the number of baskets that have been pledged to be offered to Chhathi Maiya by anyone in the house or, even community.
For example, if I am suffering from a disease from a long time, my grandmother would pledge a basket as an offering for a number of years (or forever) to Chhathi Maiya. The same can be done by a concerned aunt or even a grandmother from other house who cares for you.
Not only this, but in an excellent show of village harmony and love, my grandmother might pledge to offer a basket to Chhathi Maiya for the village chief who, for example has met with an accident. The usual prayer would be, “Chhathi Maiya, if this son of mine gets up from bed healthy, I will offer you a basket of fruits every year till he lives.”
Kasht Lena (to suffer)
This process is a regular sight in two days of arghya, the evening and morning. You would find people, usually males, with a nail, small knife or any metal laying down and getting up facing the sun.
What they do is this: They would start from their house with facing the sun and doing a namaste with folded hands, then they would lie down and measure that distance with their body-length.
This process is very difficult. The one who does this has either pledged to do this himself or her mother, grandmother or any other person pledged it for his well being. This is called ‘kasht lena’ which literally means, to suffer.
This is pledged in extreme circumstances like when there is no hope for being alive or someone has met with a bad accident. It is done in desperate times when only the Gods would come to the rescue.
Even the ladies have their version of taking the ‘kasht’. They would stand in the cold waters with folded hands towards the Sun for as long as the whole process of arghya is finished. This means they would be the first ones in the waters and last ones to get out of it. The water is very cold as Chhath Puja takes place, usually in November.
Chhathi Maiya being the biggest and most thriving deity, grandmothers always pray to her and pledge these things. It is a common belief that Mother Usha takes care of her sons. This suffering is a small gesture of appreciation towards Chhathi Maiya that the we are Her sons and She must always bless us with Her kindness.
Belief is what binds us all. Chhath is that moment of belief. Chhath Puja is that moment when the family gets together and enjoys each other’s company. The Vratin is treated with utmost respect and there is a race among kids to take her blessings by massaging her head, feet or body as it aches from rigorous procedures and preparations.
It is a way to say thanks to the only visible God on earth who powers everything. It is a way to express our gratitude to the Sun, the absence of Whose rays, our whole system would collapse. Sun is the source of energy in the planet as well as cured of various deficiencies and diseases. With Chhath Puja we say thanks to Him and his two Consorts, Usha and Pratyusha.