Celebrating Wishes, Feasting and Fasting

Features Issue 97 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: ECS Media

Nepal’s Tarai is at its best during Chhath. It is that time of a year when all of a sudden the dusty, parched roads and rustic towns of the plain are flecked with colors. The sleepy neighborhoods are abuzz with sounds of loudspeakers. And the area’s homes to wearied industrial workers burst into a euphoria of celebration as the drudgery of living is forgotten for awhile.

Chhath is essentially a community festival and it shows-up in any neighborhood you visit. It is not like Deepawali or Dashain when celebrations are limited to decorating one’s home and having a good time with relatives. Nor like Holi, the festival of colors, when people throw themselves up and about unrestrained. During Chhath people adorn the whole town, village and gullies with flowers, flags and colorful paper cut-outs. But it is also a time when an overarching sense of piety and common good governs peoples’ behavior.

Like all major towns in Tarai, Biratnagar too was gearing up for Chhath, one of the most popular festivals of the Taraibasi (the people of the plains). High arched gates framed out of bamboos and draped with red and yellow cloth with messages of welcome and goodwill stood along the main roads, reminding people of the festival just round the corner. Strings of frills of shiny golden and silver color hung over the arched gates connecting one with the other.

The centers of activity, however, are the Ghats, the banks of the ponds and rivers, the places where the main worshipping and ritual bathing takes place.

About Chhath
The word chhath denotes number six, and is a chronological allusion for the festival that falls on the sixth day following Deepawali.

The deities worshipped during chhath are the Sun God and his daughter, Shastika Mata. Though the main worshiping and fast take place on shashti (the sixth day), chhath is actually a four day festival.

Two days before shashti, the fast observers start purifying themselves by restricting what they eat and staying mostly indoors, apparently to avoid contact with things impure. On the day before, they eat only once after the prayer in the evening. The next day, on the day of Chhath, that is, seekers observe strict fasting without even drinking water for the whole day. The same evening they gather at a water body, a river or pond, and while half submerged they worship the setting sun. The fast ends the next morning after the worshippers again offer prayers, this time to the rising sun.

Purity of the offerings and rigorous fasting by the worshippers are the two main aspects of Chhath worship.

The rigorous fast is called bhakal and is observed in anticipation of getting ones wish fulfilled. All women with bhakal, however, aren’t capable of fasting. So in every neighborhood there is a group for collective prayer that assembles at the house of the one or two females observing the strict fasting. Other women bring in their offerings and observe the fast according to their capabilities.

Over the years people have learned to relent on the fasting regimen, but there is no letting up when it comes to maintaining purity.

Some communities get quite fussy about the penchant for purity. “We keep the door and windows of the kitchen airtight. We cannot allow animals or birds to desecrate the holy offerings,” said Dipak Shah, whose mother and sister-in-law were observing the strict fast for their group. Stressing the need for purity, Manish Shah, a member of the group said, “Our parents used to get the wheat directly from the field, grind it at home and use the flour to make thekua.” Thekua is a wheat-flour pancake made only during Chhath. The younger generation of Shahs is either running businesses or are employed. They neither grow wheat, nor do they have time to visit rural fields looking for it. “We buy it from local market a little in advance, wash it, dry it in the sun and then store it separately from other foods,” said Manish.    

Unlike other Hindu worship, in Chhath there are no rituals involved in the real sense of the term; that means there is no need for a priest to conduct anything. The individual worshipers take it upon themselves to ardently follow the practice as it has been passed down the generations. 

Also, unlike the major festivals, there is no explicit mention of Chhath in the Hindu scriptures. There is, as many people believe, an instance of Chhath worship in Mahabharata, the longest epic ever written, recording the lives of Pandavs and Kauravs and the battle they fought to reign supreme over each other. Draupadi, the wife of Pandavs, the virtuous and victorious in the epic battle, is said to have worshipped the Sun God. Likewise, Karna, a great warrior and philanthropist and the son of the Sun God himself, who ends up becoming a fallen hero as he sides with the Kauravs, is also believed to have offered special prayers on the day of Chhath.

Fruits of Fasting

All Hindu gods and goddesses are considered capable of bestowing one kind of blessing or another. The Godess Laxmi, for example, is worshipped for wealth; the Godess Saraswati for knowledge; and Lord Ganesha for fulfillment of any task undertaken. But worshipping the Chhath deities, devotees say, one can seek just about anything in blessing.

Most women keep bhakal seeking children, particularly, sons. The need of a male child is entrenched in Hindu society, apparently for reasons far more crucial than mere continuation of family name. Other common wishes include a suitable match (a son-in-law, daughter-in-law, groom or bridegroom), a job, a cure for ailments, success in business and, the most recent trend, going abroad.

There are scores of miraculous tales that devotees narrate about how Chhath Mata have bestowed off-spring to the childless and sons to those with only daughters.

Devika, with three daughters and no son in sight, was getting a lot of pressure from her family. Devika’s mother fasted for two years on her behalf. Once she threw her hands in the air and, to the amusement of other worshipers, shouted, “Oh god, why are you indifferent to my daughter’s plight. Why don’t you grant her a son?” The whole crowd at the river bank laughed and shouted after her, “Indeed, your indifference has left our lady with a sore heart. Oh god, please do listen to her prayers and grant her the wish.” The following year the daughter bore a son. “This time I have kept a bhakal for the youngest of the three daughters, of marriageable age now,” said the grandmother wistfully. “She wants a husband who is settled in the US, and I know Chhath Mata is not going to disappoint us.”  

“My parents lost three children born before me,” said Pashupati Giri. “They had lost all hope of raising kids, when someone advised that fasting during Chhath might help.” Pashupati, the fourth child, was born after his hapless parents observed bhakal during Chhath. “Two sons and a daughter before me didn’t survive. But here I am standing right in front of you, a 52 years old gentleman who has outlived his parents,” he says.

Likewise, Shyam Lal Keshri’s visits to the ghat used to be casual, prior to 1998. But that year when he came to Mata with a bhakal because by then he had been married for eight years, with no children. “I spent a lot of money visiting doctors in Kathmandu and Siliguri, all in vain,” said Keshri. “But the very next year after observing bhakal, my wife was pregnant—with twins, both sons!” Considering the importance Hindu society lays on sons, it was a great joy for the Keshris.

Encouraged by such success stories, hundreds of worshippers gather at ghats with great hope. As with all grand worshipping, in Chhath, too, some people pay obeisance or show gratitude to the gods in strange ways. Instead of walking, some cover the distance from their homes to the river by prostrating themselves all the way along the road. Others offer to carry all the offerings of their group members in one large clay vessel on their head. The vessel, normally weighing about 40 to 50 kg, should be carried without stopping to rest.

Dissolving Differences

On the day of Chhath, the rich give-up conceit, the poor forget about their poverty, the privileged castes disown vanity and the underprivileged put their anguish aside. The swarm of crowds gathers at one spot to worship—a river or a pond; and they worship the same deities—the Sun and his daughter Shastika; all together, once at the sunset and then at sunrise the following day.

On the day of Chhath everyone is but a beggar. Devotion and desire bring everyone to the same level as people either seek an unattained desire or show gratitude for a wish fulfilled.

The communal feeling dissolves and gets washed away with every dip people take simultaneously in the water. A harmonious spell sets-in in the neighborhood and the door is open to all despite their standing in the society.

 It is easy to see how the lines dividing people into class, community, castes and even gender can become blurred, if not erased completely.

While women observe the strict fast on behalf of their family members, males strive equally by doing the background work for women to perform the puja.

Men and boys from the community go to the river-side to clear a spot for the worship and carve a prayer platform on the bank. Earlier they used to begin this work the evening before the day of main fasting. These days they don’t seem to get enough done even after working two days in advance. In the past, uprooted banana trees were planted on the spots to mark the areas. It hardly does the job now. The ghats turn into a battleground for the display of one-upmanship among different groups vying to make their prayer area better.

“Our group spent 31,000 rupees just for the flowers and a set-up of arched gates and latticed frames all made of bamboo,” said Arun Rauniyar, the leader of his neighborhood group. The arched gates comprised of five domes wrapped in bright, pink clothes and stood at the bank’s edge covering the width of the prayer platform. The stylishness of all platforms caught everybody’s attention. “I think this time our total cost will reach 40,000 rupees,” said Arun giving a pointed glance on the ground at several decorative items yet to be placed.

People in Arun’s group, mostly residents of Siddartha Chowk in Biratnagar, gather at his home immediately after the Deepawali celebrations to discuss Chhath. His group has 25 families consisting of nearly 250 people. 

Is anybody in the group complaining about the rising costs?
“None,” said Arun.
The group collects 1,000 rupees from each member. If, however, some families fail to pay the set amount, the group does not pressure them. “Others step in to make-up the difference,” said Arun with a smile. “There are people who pay as little as 200, but since they have been praying with us for so many years, we can’t ask them to leave the group. People are free to contribute as much as they can. We’ve never had any trouble with the funds.”

Pashupati Giri, a member in the group, does not earn enough to pay the set money. “I try to compensate by working harder during the preparations,” he said as he went about tying leaves around the bamboo frame and pasting frills here and there.

At a distance, another group was busy giving final touches to its prayer platform. Shyam Lal Keshri, the leader of a group that has 16 families with 150 people, stood observing on one side. The decoration was modest compared to other platforms. A sloped roof covered in bright blue cloth stood on columns of bamboos strewn with green leaves and marigold flowers all over.

But members in Keshri’s group are not disheartened. “There are prayer platforms better than ours, but there are others that do not even match-up to our standard,” said Shyam Lal, the leader. “But that is not the point. The point is everyone here has come with a wish and that is going to be fulfilled only on one condition—that you have faith.” 

The increasing participation speaks volumes of the faith people have on Chhath Mata and the trend shows it is only getting stronger. Originally celebrated only by the Maithili-speaking community and other ethnic groups in the plains, today Chhath worship cuts across all cultural groups.

“Why else would people come in droves?” asked Shyam Lal Keshri who has been celebrating Chhath for 30 years now. “When we started celebrating, there were only a handful of others, mostly from indigenous ethnic communities and some migrants from North India. But today almost every community celebrates Chhath; be it the Pahadi community from the hills, or Marwari communities from India’s Rajasthan, or even Muslims who are not usually seen sharing any festivals with Hindus.”

“When we came from the hills to settle here in the early 1960s, the Taraibasi were already celebrating the festival,” said Jagdish Ghimire, of hill origin. He was supervising his group’s work nearby. Reminiscing about the time when the houses where few and far between and that the town of Biratnagar was all but a jungle.

People who came down from the hills, being Hindus, were already worshiping the Sun as a deity. Every morning Hindus are expected to offer a short prayer to the Sun God and to recite the Gayatri mantra, which praises the virtues of the sun. But worshipping the Sun God on the day of Chhath, obviously, was a different thing. “It is like worshiping Lord Shiva on regular days and then doing so on the day of Shiva Ratri!” said Jagdish. “If you cannot see the difference, you are damned.”

Amendra Pokharel is a freelance writer and can be contacted at amendrapokharel@gmail.com