What is a family? You may encounter with varied definitions when a question like that arises. And, if you ask Hindus, they will certainly reply, “A family is not merely a unit of people sharing the same roof, instead, it is a group of people who come from the same ancestor and most fundamentally, the group of people that unites and works for the well-being of the members of the group.” Basically, the cultures, traditions they follow at various festivals train them to live the way they are living. Therefore, the love, respect, one for all and all for one is instilled through these festivities they observe every year at various occasions.
One of the sacred festivals that Hindus celebrate mostly in the Terai region, Southern Nepal, (also in India) is the festival of Chhath. This festival, over the years, has attracted many Hindus from other parts of Nepal who never celebrated in the past but now have embraced the culture. It might be the influence of the migrants from the Terai.
Chhath is also called; Surya Shasthi, Chhathi, and Dala Chhath. It is celebrated for the family’s good health and prosperity by venerating the eternal energy of the Sun God. In their prayer, they worship the Sun as the center of power, energy and life-force. Once, the family starts observing the festival, they are not supposed to discontinue except for there is a death in the family. If the festival is discontinued for any other reasons, they cannot partake in the festival ever. Therefore, it is the family festival, for the unity in the community and transmission of the culture to the generation next.
The Chhat festival takes place on Shasthi, the sixth day of Kartik Shukla Pakcha, the bright lunar fortnight of the Nepali month Kartik (October/November) according to the Hindu calendar. The festival is celebrated for four days. The rituals are performed at the Ghats (riverbanks), but these Ghats can be the bank of ponds too. Devotees offer prayers twice a day to the Sun God; at the Sunrise and Sunset. Both the prayers are called Arghya (offering). The morning prayer is for the family’s health and prosperity and the evening prayer is to express gratitude to the Sun God.
All the important rituals take place at the Ghats. The devotees must take a holy dip in the water before the making Prasad, the food offerings for the ritual. A wide range of offerings are prepared during Chhat Puja and some are made especially only during this festival. One of the important Prasads of Chhata Puja is Thekuwa, the wheat flour cookie with added assortments like kismish (raisin), sukkha nariwol (desiccated coconut), gudh (jaggery) or chini (sugar) and ghee or oil. Other offerings include ‘Suthune’(a kind of tuber fruit), ukhu ra paat (sugarcane with leaves), Sathi Dhan (black paddy), Nimbu (lemon), Gajal (a variety of big lemons), Syau (apple), Suntala (orange), Elaichi (cardamom), Hareyo aduwa (green ginger), Nariwol (coconut), Kera (banana), Gheu (ghee) and many more. All the family members are delighted while cooking and collecting prasad. One could also see Gulgule (sweet pudding) and Puri (deep-fried chapati) prepared at the eateries and street food vendors during the festival time.
First Day of Chhath
The first day of Chhath Puja is called Nahay Khay which literally means, ‘bath and eat’. On this day, the vratti (devotees) purify and cleanse their house at a break of dawn, take a holy dip in the rivers or ponds, and eat a vegan pure meal starting their first day fast. Rest of the family members eat their meal after the vrattis’. The meal is called Kaddu Bhat (bottle gourd and rice) with dal (lentil made only from gram or mung beans). The food must be cooked either in clay or bronze utensils. The female vratti fasting eats this food in the evening time after the Sunset ritual.
Second Day of Chhath
The second day of Chhath has three names: Baruna, Lohanda or Kharana. It is again only females of the family fast on this day. They eat nothing after the morning bath and eat their only meal of the day in the evening.
The second-day fasting is a little different than the first-day because women prepare Prasad called Kheer (rice pudding made with sugar and jaggery) instead of Thekuwa, the first day.
Kheer is offered to the Chhathi Maiya or Shashthi Maiya (the Mother Goddess of children and reproduction, also the sister of the Sun God) in the evening. Vrattis eat the same Kheer after offering to conclude their fast for the day also distribute the prasad to the rest of the family members.
It’s a very important day for the Vrattis as they offer their fast to Chhati Maiya, the protectress. She is believed to protect one’s children from any harm during the time of their nurturing. Chhati Maiya is a motherly figure usually seen carrying a child on her lap and sitting on a cat, her stride.
The Third Day of Chhath
The third day of Chhath is called Sandhya Ghat (evening offering). This is a full busy day preparing the delicacies and Prasad. It is the day to put on new clothes by the Vratti and family members. People donning new clothes gather either at the river banks or by the ponds depending upon whatever water resource is available in their neighbourhood.
They make a two-hour-long worshipping ritual to the Sun God singing Chhath songs and the evening arghya is offered at the Sunset. All the aforementioned Prasadas are also offered to Him. The Prasadas include the food items made especially at home and various fruits. These Prasadas are displayed on nanglo (bamboo trays) or mud trays which are praised by environmentalists as ecofriendly. On this day, not only the devotees go to the Ghats for the offering, but the whole family and relatives partake in the ritual. This evening, both the Sun and Chhati Maiya are worshipped.
The Fourth Day of Chhath
The fourth and final day of Chhath is called Prana. This is the day to worship the rising Sun. On this day, Vrattis gather together at the same Ghat where they had made offering on the third day. All the rituals (the puja processes) are repeated with lots of prasadas and fruits offerings to the rising Sun. Vrattis then return back home after the full ritual and break their fast either by eating food or by drinking liquids like milk or juice.
The Stories behind Chhath Puja
Long ago, a king named Priyabrat with his wife queen Malini lived a content life. Later they grew sad and miserable because Malini could not bore any offspring. They spoke about their problems and consulted great rishismunis (learned saints). Then taking suggestions of Maharishi Kashyap (the greatest Saint) the couple organized a big Yagya (a fire offering ritual). Finally, couples prayers where answered and queen got pregnant but to their dismay she gave birth to a dead child.
The desperate king thought of committing suicide. Then Goddess Shashti/Chhathi Maiya appeared in front of him and said that she was the sixth part of the universe and if the king worshipped her with a pure mind and soul for six days, their wish will be granted. Both, king and queen followed Goddess Shashti’s advice and they were consecrated with a baby boy after worshipping the Goddess for six days.
Since then everyone started venerating Chhathi Maiya and celebrating the Chhath Puja.
Another popular story takes us back to the time of the Mahabharata. According to Mahabharata, one of the greatest epic of India, the five Pandava brothers were exiled from their Kingdom by their cousin brothers, the Kauravas for fourteen long years. Draupadi, the wife of all 5 Pandava brothers wailed in pain for her husbands difficult circumstances. Upon seeing Draupadi’s misery, Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother went to Dhoumya Muni and asked for a solution to this wretchedness.
On Yudhishthira’s request, Dhoumya Muni told about why people must worship Surya Deuta (the Sun God) who is the reason behind all the lives on earth. According to Dhoumya, if people worshipped Surya Deuta on the sixth and seventh day of the fortnight of Kartik Shukla Paksha with a pure heart and chant the 108 names of Surya, they get boons of a son (the carrier of family name), trinkets, prosperity, strength and wisdom.
Yudhisthira taking suggestion of Dhoumya Muni worshipped the Lord Sun. The pleased god appeared before Yudhisthira and gave him a magical copper pot that cooked four types of food to feed the brothers and their common wife Draupadi. Not only the Pandavas got rid of their hunger, but they won Indraprastha (their kingdom) in an epic battle with Kauravas after their fourteen-year long exile.
This story administered people’s faith in Chhat Puja and the festival observant gets rid of all their sufferings.
The third story of Chhat Festival is linked to Lord Ram, the embodiment of chivalry and virtue. He is the seventh incarnation of Lord Bishnu and also known as Ramchandra.
After fourteen years of exile and victory over demon Ravana, Lord Ram and wife Sita returned to their Kingdom Ayodhya and fasted together in worship of Surya Deuta in Kartik Shukla Paksha during their coronation. Observing Chhath Puja then became a yearly tradition among the citizens of Ayodhya, India and eventually Southern Nepal.
Not many temples are dedicated to Sun in Nepal, unlike India, except for the Suryabinayak Temple of Bhaktapur which is basically a Ganesha Temple but also believed as the only Sun Temple.
The Science of Chhat Festival
Only Vrattis (devotees) can confirm whether their Chhat festival wishes are fulfilled or not, but science has confirmed that there are innumerable health benefits when fasted during Chhath.
Physically vrattis’ immunity improves because they get rid of fungal and bacterial skin diseases. Their blood is purified. And mentally, they get creative, also tranquiled mind and body. Anxiety and negative thoughts are diminished. The concentration power is boosted which helps in the peace of mind. Therefore, it is advisable to celebrate Chhath for the family together.
In this modern time, family structures are slowly and gradually moulding. People are extremely busy. They do not even find time to talk and share with each other in person. Children are sent to boarding schools, consequently, children are growing cold. They do not care about family happiness as they are sent to boardings. A new culture is emerging which is more self-centered. At such a situation, isn’t it a must to celebrate the festivals together with the family? I say festivals are necessary to keep family thread fastened tight.