Saturday, November 1, 2008

Chhath Puja: 2nd to 5th November 2008


SignificanceA festival dedicated to the Sun God, it is a means to thank the sun for bestowing the bounties of life in the mundane world and fulfilling particular wishes. Worship of the sun has been described in the Rig Veda, and hymns praying to the sun find mention in the Vedas.


The word Chhath denotes number six in Hindi and begins on the sixth day of the Hindu lunar month of Kartik (October-November.) It is a festival celebrated by Biharis on the sixth day after Diwali; a 4 day long celebration accompanied by rituals or Suryashashthi. The festivities comprise of fasting, folklores, hymns on the celestial Ganges or any fresh water body. Chhat Maiya is celebrated on the banks of the Ganges in Patna and Yamuna in Delhi with thousands of hands offering ‘Arghya’ to the sun making it an ethereal sight.


Offering reverence to the solar deity, Chhath is the only festival in the world where devotees offer salutations to the setting sun; the only occasion when the setting sun as apposed to its rising is celebrated for its glory as the cycle of birth starts with death. Appeasing prayers are observed with somberness.


It is an implicit belief that devotees’ prayers are invariably answered during the festival and they are punished simultaneously for any misdeed during this time span.


Legends



The ancient epic Mahabharata abounds with references to worship of the sun by Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas. It was said that worshipping the sun would cure various diseases, including leprosy and ensure longevity with prosperity of family members. It is also an implicit belief that Chhath was begun by great Danveer Karna, son of the Sun God; a great warrior who fought against the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war.


Time and Places of Celebration

Also termed Dala Chhath it is a major ancient festival celebrated twice a year. In the summer months of May-July, it is celebrated as Chaiti Chhath, and around winter in the months of September-November, as the Kartik Chhat, about a week after Diwali. The latter is overly popular because winters is generally the festive season in North India, and Chhath an arduous fast, wherein the devotee takes no water for more than 24 hours, is easier kept in the Indian winters.



Chhath a festival unique to Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand is a ritual carried down since time immemorial. The Sun Temples in Aurangabad and Baragaon near Nalanda in Bihar are famed for Chhath Puja.


It has been observed in some parts of West Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Mauritius, mainly among Bhojpuri and Maithili speaking people. Chhath is also important for Nepalese worshippers of the Sun God.


Chhath mainly a Bihari festival, has migrants from Bihar taking the tradition of Chhath to Mumbai and Delhi as well.


Chath Puja Celebration


A ritual bathing regime follows a period of abstinence and segregation of the worshipper from the household for four days. During this period, the worshiper observes ritual purity, and sleeps on the floor on a single blanket. The main worshippers or parvaitin (Sanskrit parv meaning 'occasion'), are usually women. However, a number of men also participate, praying for the well-being of their family and offspring. Chhath can generally be performed if it is passed on from older generations. However, once they decide it is their duty to follow it religiously every year; the festival can be skipped only if there is a death in the family that year.


Once a family starts performing Chhatt Puja, it is continued annually by the following generations. If unable to perform the puja themselves for some reason, it is advisable to assist some one performing the puja by providing funds or prasad instead of completely missing out on the ceremony.


Rituals

On the eve of Chhath, houses are meticulously cleaned along with the surroundings. It is customary for participants to gather and bathe in the holy River Ganges to cleanse their sins. Soon after, some sacred water is retained for offerings during the festival of Chhath. Throughout the time span, the food cooked has no salt and is totally vegetarian without a trace of onions and garlic. Even the vessels used are mostly earthen.

One the first day, the worshipper cooks a traditional vegetarian meal and offers it to the Sun God, called Naha-Kha (literally meaning bathe and eat!). The devotee has only one meal on this day from the preparation and keeps a fast from dawn to dusk followed by worship at home. The festive spread comprises freshly harvested rice, puris, and fruits such as bananas, coconuts and grapefruit served to the family.


On the second day, a special ritual, termed Kharna, is carried out in the evening after Sun down. On this day as well, the worshipper eats his only meal from offerings or prashad made to the Sun God. Friends and family are invited to the household to share the prashad.


For the next 36 hours, the worshipper goes on a fast without water, ending on the dawn of the final day.

The third day is spent preparing the prasad at home. At sunset, worshippers proceed to the riverbank with their offerings in baskets held high to avoid the impure touch of hands. The participants pay homage to the Sun God at the precise moment of the setting sun. All family members accompany the worshipper to a ceremonial bathing and worship of the Sun God, usually on the banks of a river or a common vast water body, eagerly desirous to help and receive blessings of the worshipper. The scenario resembles a carnival.

The devotees return home for another spirited celebration. Under a temporary canopy of sugar cane stalks, they place clay elephants containing diyas (earthen lamps), and baskets loaded with prasad. Agni or the fire god is worshipped and paid tribute. Regional folk songs, passed on from mothers and mothers-in-law to daughters and daughters-in-law, are sung with joyous abandon.


The folk songs reflect the cultural, social, mythological and historical sanctity of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Maithili, Magadhi, Bhojpuri and other dialects have different folk songs; but dedicated to Chhath, they have an underlying unity.


On the fourth final day of festivities, the devotees, family and friends go to the riverbank. Prasad is offered to the rising sun. Devotees remain in river water from late midnight till the first rays of sunrise.


The puja starts at the banks of a river at the crack of dawn when devotees throng the river with offerings to the Sun God, welcomed with folded hands. Offerings include sandalwood, vermilion, rice, fruits, covered usually covered with saffron-coloured cotton cloth.


This ritual is considered the focal point of Chhath Puja when the worshipper breaks his fast; an ecstatic spiritual experience. Devotees offer ‘Arghya’ amidst chanting mantras from the Rig Veda and commence the puja. Following prayers and the purifying bathing ritual, the fast ends with offerings or prasad to the Sun God. This is followed by distribution of prashad amongst the devotees.


Belief

It is commonly believed that wishes of the devotees are always granted. People at large dread the punishment meted out for any misdeed during Chhatt. Therefore the city is safe and peaceful.





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