Chhath Puja, also known as Surya Shashti, is a popular Hindu festival celebrated in the northern regions of the India. These regions include Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Other places where Chhath Puja is observed are Chhattisgarh, Chandigarh, Gujarat, Delhi, Mumbai, Nepal and Mauritius. The word ‘Chhath’ has its origin in ‘sixth’ as it is celebrated on the 6th day or ‘Shasthi’ of the lunar fortnight of Kartik (October - November) in the Hindu calendar – six days after Diwali, the festival of lights.
The origin of Chhath Puja dates back to Vedic times, as Vedic texts contains rituals associated with the worshipping of Sun. It is also believed that Draupadi, from the epic Mahabharata, used to perform similar rituals. Some people also believed that Chhath Puja was started by Son of Surya, Karna from Mahabharata. Chhath Puja is not only religiously significant, but also has several mental and physical benefits. Physically, the practice of Chhath facilitates in improving the immunity of the devotee. It is also believed that light rays emitted by sun are quite beneficial for the normal maintenance of the body. Being antiseptic in nature, the safe radiations from sun can help in curing fungal and bacterial skin infections. Sunlight received during Chhath provide energy that when get combined with blood streams enhances the performance of white blood cells, which further leads to improving fighting power of blood.
Chhath can well be regarded as the state festival of Bihar, where it goes on for four days. Outside of India, Chhath is mainly among celebrated by the Bhojpuri and Maithili speaking community apart from the Nepalese Hindus. It assumes a joyous and colorful form as people dress up in their best clothes and gather by rivers and other water bodies to celebrate Chhath. Many devotees take a holy dip at dawn before preparing the ritual offerings or ‘Prasad,’ which mainly comprising ‘Thekua,’ a hard and crude but tasty wheat-based cake usually cooked on traditional earthen ovens called ‘chulhas.’ The divine offerings are placed on circular trays woven out of bamboo strips called ‘dala’ or ‘soop.’ Women adorn new clothes, light lamps and sing devotional folk songs in honor of ‘Chhat Maiya’ or the holy river Ganga. After sunset, devotees return home to celebrate ‘Kosi’ when earthen lamps or ‘diyas’ are lit in the courtyard of the house and kept beneath a bower of sugarcane sticks. Serious devotees maintain a strict anhydrous fast of three days.
While the exact origins of Chhath Puja remain undefined and ambiguous, some believe it dates all the way back to Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The two legends associated with Chhath Puja are as follows:
Said to be a descendant of the Sun god, some say Lord Rama has a lot to do with the inception of Chhath Puja. On returning to Ayodhya after the exile, Lord Rama and Sita observed a fast in honour of the Sun god and broke it only at the break of dawn next day--a ritual that subsequently evolved into the Chhath Puja.
Prominent mythological character Karna is said to be the child of Sun god and Kunti. It is said that Karna religiously offered his prayers while standing in the water and distributed prasad among the needy.
Yet another story mentions how Draupadi and the Pandavas performed a similar puja to win their kingdom back.
The 4 Days of Chhath
Day 1: Naha Kha/ Nahaye Khaye
On the first day of Chhath, devotees do not consume food before taking a bath, after which they prepare food items like chane ki daal, kheer, kaddu ki sabzi among others.
Day 2: Kharna
Devotees fast till the Kharna puja concludes. After which a combination of jaggery-laden kheer and puris is offered to the gods and distributed among those who'd observed the fast.
Day 3: Pehla Arghya
The toughest and third day of Chhath has devotees--mostly women--observe a rigid fast where they neither consume water nor food. Dedicated to Sun god's consort, Chhathi Maiya this day is marked with folk songs and taking dips in the holy waters of Ganga, Kosi and Karnali--that go on till the sun sets.
Day 4: Doosra Arghya/ Paaran
Devotees break their long fast after offering prayers to the rising Sun.