Invoking the Sun God for Life and Sustenance- the Chhath Pooja ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

Our first lessons in school told us that everything on Earth depends on the extent of Sun rays that falls on a particular place. This further determined the flora and fauna of the region and whether water flows in a river or is part of a glacier. No wonder then, that the Vedic texts consider the Sun as the father of the planetary system. In Vedic astrology too, the Sun represents authority, power and ego.  He is ‘Helios’ in Greek mythology, ‘Sol’ in Roman mythology and back home in India he is ‘Surya’ among many other names attributed to him.  

What we call celestial bodies are supposed to be the cosmic manifestation of that one divinity and we give them names and forms and worship them deities. This is what makes the recently observed Chhath Puja so unique – as it involves the direct communication between people on Earth and the Sun in his cosmic manifestation as the Sun God.

Usha – Or the rays of the Sun Rise (P.C: The author)

Parts of India, especially in Bihar and other eastern states celebrated the Chhath Puja on November 20th.  This festival occurs twice in a year during Baisakh (around the month of May) and Kartik (around the month of November). In the month of Kartik, it falls six days after Diwali or six days after the new moon or ‘Shashti’ and is observed in Bihar, Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh and their diaspora. It starts on the Chaturthi and ends on the Saptami with the main day being the Shashti and over the four days the rituals are rigorous.

The Chhath Puja has references dating back to the epics or Itihaasa such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata.  This makes it an ancient festival. Chhath Puja is dedicated to the Sun God and Shashti Devi (also known Chhathi Maiya by the local population). Shashti Devi is a local goddess venerated as one who is responsible for bestowing children and assisting in child-birth. She is also the protector of children. She is also the deity of vegetation.  From her origins as a folk goddess, Shashti was gradually assimilated into the Hindu pantheon as the primordial mother. In Bengal and South India, Shashti is worshipped on the sixth day after childbirth and on Aranya-Shashti (also called Jamai-Shashti), the sixth day of the bright fortnight of the Hindu month of Jyeshtha. Chhath Puja, perhaps was derived from the word Shashti.

Shashti Devi (P.C: Internet)

The Sun God Surya is invoked along with his consorts Usha and Pratyusha, the goddesses of Dawn and Dusk respectively- who are also believed to be the source behind the Sun God’s power. Hence, people worship the first rays of the Sun (Usha) and the last rays (Pratyusha).

Nimisha Sinha, an educationist from Ranchi, explains the rituals that has been followed in her family for generations. The rigorous rituals including the holy bathing, strict fasting that includes abstaining from drinking water; standing in water for prayers and giving offerings of food and water (arghya) to the rising as well as setting sun. Temporary shrines are made from stalks of sugarcane. Each shrine has terracotta elephants, several small lamps and offerings of rice and fruits.

This beautiful lady enjoys making the prasad !

The main worshipers are called parvaitin ( parv translates to “festival”), are usually women. However, many men also observe this festival. The parvaitin pray for the well-being of their family, and for the prosperity of their offspring.

The first day of Chhath Puja sees the devotees bathing, cleaning the house thoroughly, cooking and offering Kaddu Bhat (a dish made from gourd, lentil and rice) in front of their deity and this day is called Nahaye Khaye.

Kharna is the second day of Chhath Puja and involves dry-fasting for the whole day. The fast is then broken in the evening with jaggery kheer, fruits and puris/ chapatis. The third day involves giving arghya (offering of water) in the evening by standing knee deep in water. This is called the Sandhya Arghya and is done holding a bamboo basket is decorated with fruits, thekua (a sweet) and rice laddus. On the last day of Chhath puja, an arghya is offered to the Sun God in the morning. This is the Usha Arghya when the devotees or parvaitins go towards a waterbody and do the rituals. After the worship, the fast is finally broken with the prasad that was offered.

Nimisha Sinha sums up the festival by saying, “Chhath is a way to be grateful to the Sun for giving us the abundance of life on Earth and for the fulfilment of our wishes. Our family has followed this tradition for generations.”

Taking the Prasad to the ghats

 “It is a time when the family gets together in our ancestral village no matter where we are. It is done not only for the immediate family but also for the people who work for us. From the eldest to the youngest member of the family to the kids of the staff, gathers around the place where the puja is being performed and offers arghya one by one. It is simply unifying”, she continues.

In Prayer together

Indeed, the setting Sun and the rising Sun that we observe day after day is seen with awareness and a perspective of the Sun’s glory that infuses every bit of life on Earth with energy.

Pictures Courtesy: Nimisha Sinha, Ranchi

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