Three days post Diwali I ventured out and saw the market streets lined with popup stalls selling soop (winnowing baskets), dauri (round baskets) and other items heralding Chhath Puja, the four day festival which at one time was indigenous to Bihar and UP. Now it’s a transnational entity, celebrated across India and in distant shores
Three days post Diwali I ventured out and saw the market streets lined with popup stalls selling soop (winnowing baskets), dauri (round baskets) and other items heralding Chhath Puja, the four day festival which at one time was indigenous to Bihar and UP. Now it’s a transnational entity, celebrated across India and in distant shores among the Indian diaspora. Displaying quintessential “jugaad” many, outside India, perform the puja by dipping into inflatable baby pools in their backyards.
I remembered mama, my grandmother singing chhath songs and the many years that my mother religiously performed the puja in our village home, later shifting it to our home in Patna. I recollect the excitement of the pond being dug in our garden, of decorating its banks with plantain stalks and the generous amounts of prasad that used to be cooked. Now that the puja’s been discontinued at home, I have taken to visiting my aunt who has been a vrati (votary) for a few years.
In the 80s and 90s there was a folksy ring to the festivity – now with Instagram updates, facebook posts and advent of “Chhath fashion”, the festival has taken on millennial hues.
In all these years I assumed that the puja was about the Sun God, Surya Dev. Though the Chhath songs frequently alluded to Chhathi Maiya (Mother Chhathi) I never was inquisitive enough to figure out who she was, and why she featured in the songs. Overtly, I saw the sun being worshipped with oblations being offered at dawn and dusk, I missed out entirely on the tutelary goddess who presides over the puja. While the pandemic ensured I would not have the opportunity to locate scholars or libraries to explore more, I decided to mine the internet .
Chhathi maiya is the colloquial name for Shashti , ‘a folk goddess, venerated as the benefactor and protector of children. She is also the deity of vegetation and reproduction and is believed to bestow children and assist during childbirth.’
‘References to this goddess appear in Hindu scriptures as early as 8th and 9th century BCE, in which she is associated with children as well as the Hindu war-god Skanda. Early references consider her a foster-mother of Skanda, but in later texts she is identified with Skanda’s consort, Devasena’. Some sources identify her with Durga, as her fifth form, Skandamata . However elsewhere she is placed her as the sixth emanation, Katayayani . My father is in concurrence with the latter view as that makes her Shasthi meaning sixth. Ultimately , Shasthi is an integral part of the primordial Great Goddess Adishakti or Prakriti , the activating principle of the universe .
In a chapter called Shashthidevyupakhyanam, appended to the Brahmavaivarta Purana , there is an oft repeated story about Shahsti Devi.
King Priyavrata – the son of Svayambhu Manu (the progenitor of mankind) – and his wife Malini performed a yajna (fire sacrifice) to beget a child. Yathavsar a still-born son was born to Malini. The entire city was plunged in grief. Just then a effulgent vimaan (vehicle)- was seen in the heavens and riding it was a celestial woman. She declared to Priyavrata that she was Shasthi, the mind begotten daughter of Brahma and as foremost of the Matrikas (Mothers) of Skanda had the power to grant children to devotees. She then resurrected the infant. Priyavrata vowed to initiate and propagate her worship in all three worlds: heaven, earth and the netherworld. Priyavrata decreed that Shashthi would be worshipped on the sixth day of every month, as well as the sixth and twenty-first days after childbirth, and on all occasions auspicious to a child.
In Bihar, the goddess is propitiated on the sixth day after childbirth and the ceremony is called Chhathi and Shashthi is known by the epithet Chhati Mata. I have vivid memories of my own Chhathi as it was belatedly performed when I approached my 35th birthday. My grandmother had vowed to get it done at the Siva temple at Areraj, some 147 kms from Patna, but for some reason it was endlessly postponed . When we finally got there, I was so fixated on Lord Siva, that I never connected the dots and realized that the lump of cowdung that the priest made offerings to was none other than the Devi.
Devi emerged in my life some years after the advent of the Great God, Siva. She just appeared one day as a fervent desire to get to know her better, and then nudged her way in through inclusion of her images on my altar . Though I knew theoretically that she was one half of the God, The Prakriti to his Purusha, I realized how she held on her own, as a power to be worshipped and invoked.
In his book Hindu art, British Museum curator Richard Blurton says : “She is not obscure, nor does she have to be reached through complex meditation or following of arcane rules. This is the reasoning behind the popularity of the Goddess .She is approachable and is of this world….she listens to the entreaties of her worshippers who can reach out to her as a maternal and immediate divinity.” The goddess is accessible, more so in her folk form. She could be a lump of clay or dung , or a rock smeared with vermillion, not for her an elaborate imagery. She is earthy, bountiful and intensely protective even in her fierce aspects. I suspect, that women find a special nexus with her due to her gender. I explicitly remember groups of women flocking around the Gramdevi (village goddess) temple in our village, a row of simple earthen mounds signifying her, perhaps they felt a kinship, an intimate oneness with her. Perhaps they find in her an empowering role model. I wait for corona to abate before I venture out to investigate some more
Largely performed by women, Chhath is gender agnostic, with men sometimes standing in as vratis. Chhath transcends class, caste and religious barriers. Noted Maithili writer Usha Kiran Khan says that even muslim women observe Chhath , the only difference is that they don’t cook any of the prasad but resort to offering fruits and vegetables. When asked why they did not prepare any of the usual offerings , they say with all innocence –“maybe Bhagwan might not accept food cooked by us”. Every devotee prepares almost similar Prasad and offerings. Without distinctions all converge at river banks, lakes , ponds and sea beaches to offer their entreaties to the almighty.
I remember that the bamboo baskets used for carrying the prasad are made by the marginalised Dom community . Sometimes, in my village, I would walk on the mud track leading to their homes to see them at work. I’d remain on the periphery not venturing too near as instructed by those who accompanied me. Given a chance I’d be all to happy to transgress now ! Chhath requires stringent ritual purity and flawlessness and yet sections who were considered once to be ‘polluting’ are included in the festivities thus.
The first day of the festival arrives. On this day called Nahay Khay The vrati prepares a bottle gourd preparation along with Bengal gram lentil, rice and tarua (vegetable fritters) and serves it to the deity as bhog. Thereafter the vrati partakes the food and then the house is open for all others to eat.
I visit aunts, just in time to see her start her meal. She looks calm, no strain of the strenuous fasting, cooking and rituals that are about to unfold. In a pista green saree and delicate ornaments, she quietly eats the food. We wait in the drawing room, chatting about corona and current affairs. I try deflecting the discussions on politics which I’m loathe to deliberate on. I would rather ramble on about the goddess, who is on top of my mind , but I find no takers. Lunch begins and it’s a sattvik fare of three side dishes with rice, dal and tarua. I ruminate over the goddess and carry back prasad home for my parents
The other presiding deity of Chhath is Surya (Sun God). A newspaper article venerates the god as a Pratyaksh Devta , a visible, observable divinity bestowing the bounties of life on earth. Surya enjoyed primacy in the Vedas, which extol him as the primal cause of the whole universe. He is said to be the eye of Agni, Varuna , Mitra , the conqueror of diseases, and the bestower of good health.
The epics speak of Solar worship. In the Ramayana, Lord Rama worships Surya for strength in defeating Ravana. He invokes the Aditya Hridya Strotram (Aditya -sun god, Hridyam-heart, Strotram – Hymn) taught to him by sage Agastya and overcomes his arch enemy. Later after the exile, upon return to Ayodhya, both Rama and Sita observe fasts and worship the Sun.
The Mahabharata reverentially calls Surya as the “eye of the universe, soul of all existence, origin of all life, goal of the Samkhyas and Yogis, and symbolism for freedom and spiritual emancipation”. In the epic, Yudhisthira prays to Surya and is blessed with the Akshay patra which ensured a never ending supply of food to the Pandavas during their exile in the forest. Karna, who is the Sun’s progeny worships him everyday . Kunti, the mother of Karna and the Pandavas propitiates Surya after surving an assassination attempt inside the Lakshagriha (palace of lac). The worship of Surya was widespread till about the 13th century.
Spurred on by my mother’s stories of my Nani being an ardent Surya devotee, I’ve tried at times to know more about him, I’ve also attempted to regularly chant Saurya mantras but without the desired success. Despite my earlier failures, on day two of Chhath known as kharna, I stand in my balcony with mummy, hands raised in supplication, doggedly trying to repeat the verse she is reciting “pratah roop dhare Chaturanan,raje roop Vishnu madhyanan, Sambhu roop dhare sayan kala, Tribhuvan mahi kare pratipala” . The verse essentially says that at different times of the day, the Sun protects the universe taking the form of Brahma, Visnu and Siva, the Hindu trinity. Interestingly I have read earlier that Surya is cognate with Brahma, Vishnu and Siva
Surya intrigues me, more so, because there seems to be a preponderance of Surya temples in east India – Konark the most celebrated of all . Out of the 12 temples built by Samba , Lord Krishna’s son who worshipped Surya in order to be cured of leprosy , two are in Bihar, apart from numerous others. Also, before it became widespread, Chhath was a predominantly Bihari festival. What explains this localized focus on Surya ? I have no answers for now, except that one of my teachers, Dr John Marr had mentioned that the Surya cult had travelled from the west to the east. Surya was frequently seen wearing boots in ancient sculptures, which could indicate a north western (or further beyond) influence. There were celebrated temples of Surya in Multan (mentioned by Xuanzang in his chronicles) , and Martand in Kashmir , whose beautiful remains are still there to be seen. If whatsapp forwards are to be believed, in a story linked to Chhath, which cites pauranic references, in the hoary past a Surya worshipping contingent from Persia landed in Gaya in Bihar and started the custom of Sun Worship !
The discourse at home hovers around Chhath , Mummy recollects her own experiences, and those of her mother and mother in law . we spend the afternoon listening to Chhath songs on television . Mummy sums it up by saying “every year it comes but it seems ever new”. In the evening I head to aunts, today there is a ritual bhog of jaggery kheer and roti . Her home is teeming with people, I go over to the puja room, touch my aunt’s feet , and bow down to the offering made to Gods, their presence symbolical, with no overt markings . After exchanging a few pleasantries with the people I know, I have quick prasad and I carry back a full tiffin carrier for my parents. This meal, is the last one that the Vrati has before commencing on a 36 hour nirjala (waterless) fast. Most vratis stay up at night making thekua , a dry sweetmeat that is the main offering the following two days
As my parents sit down to eat, we get a video call from my maternal cousin. His wife has just finished the puja and we see an inordinately large plantain leaf beautifully decorated with bhog of roti, kheer, plantain, and with a baked cowdung fires placed before it. The vrati looks beautiful in a burgundy sari continuing my Nani’s tradition of not wearing any stitched garments. I wish I could see the festival up close , with all the behind the scenes preparations and activities, learn the significance of the rituals –I promise myself that next year I’ll shadow a vrati and see all that I missed out on the several years that my mother did the puja, when the sacred did not mean much to me.
On the third day is the Sandhya Arghya (colloquial -sanjhiya aragh), where libations are offered to the setting sun. Since morning loudspeakers have been playing lilting Chhath songs. This year due to the pandemic worshippers are being urged to conduct the festivities at home. River banks, lakes, ponds and beaches have restricted access. I have never attended a communal oblation ceremony, only visiting the village pond (pokhra) post the rituals. An arghya(libation/offering) is offered to the sun god in which a bamboo basket decorated with prasad – thekua , variety of fruits, roots (fresh ginger, turmeric) is lifted up by the vrati who stands in water, in obeisance to the God and goddess. family members pour an oblation of water or milk at the edge of the basket. After the worship where a few such baskets have been offered,the vrati emerges from the water, lights a fire and diya and offers prayers at the bank. At night , songs are sung and vrat katha is read. Mummy goes over her memories “ Nani wouldn’t sleep the whole night and would keep singing”. For the vratis who do sleep there is a kusha (wild grass) mat on which they must rest as they are forbidden from sitting or sleeping on regular furniture.
At aunts I arrive on the flower decorated terrace as the arghya’s are being offered. 5 soops (winnowing baskets) have been filled up with offerings. Men and women flock around the water tank, a raised concrete structure, in which the vrati stands in thigh deep water. My aunt espies me and calls me forward. In the hubbub someone suggests I hold the hand of the person pouring out the oblation, throwing social distancing cautions to the wind , I extend my hand and hold on to the closest arm performing the ritual. Once done, I step back and I receive a video call from cousin and watch my sister in law standing in the freshly dug up pond festooned with flowers and embellished with colourful rangolis, all set to start the arghya. I hang up soon and peer outside, the puja can be seen happening on many a rooftop. Soon fireworks light up the sky. My aunt emerges from the water tank and prays to a sacred tulsi tree lighting a fire and diyas before it. She then goes in to change. The terrace is full of people, I keep my mask on, but I’m in the meagre minority – most are without masks, the women and girls brightly lipsticked and equally brightly dressed. Aunt arrives in a yellow silk sari and everyone, young and old touch her feet, the vrati is a conduit for the sacred and everyone seeks her blessings. Tea is served , and I settle in a chair watching my aunt and the ladies sitting on the floor singing songs. I depart soon after taking a few pictures with me to show to my parents.
On the last day of the puja, arghya is offered to the Sun at dawn. Before sunrise, the devotees have to go to the riverbank, or to the ponds built at home. The soops and dauris filled with offerings are lined up. The vrati enters the water and family and friends hand over the baskets and offer libations as the first rays of the sun break through the sky. Praying to Surya and Chhati maiya the vrati prays for the wellbeing and happiness of the family. Once the worship is over the vrati breaks her fast which is called Paran . The prasad is then distributed among those present, and later sent to the homes of friends and relatives
The worship of dawn or Ushas, dates back to the vedas, where Ushas is a prominent goddess, one of the few goddesses who get more than average mention. David Kinsley who has written extensively on the Hindu goddess tradition writes “Usas is consistently identified with dawn, revealing herself with the daily coming of light to the world, driving away oppressive darkness, chasing away evil demons, rousing all life, setting all things in motion, sending everyone off to do their duties”. She is the life of all living creatures, the impeller of action and breath, the foe of chaos and confusion, the auspicious arouser of cosmic and moral order called the Ṛta in Hinduism. In offering prayers at dawn, the vrati harks back to an age old tradition, one that connects a folkloric goddess with her vedic counterpart.
I could not go to aunts for the morning Arghya, but I did catch the puja at cousin’s live via video call. Mummy watched with her palms joined in prayer. At the end of the call I asked her “do you miss doing Chhath?” , “yes, ofcourse, but it wouldn’t be physically possible to do it now” . I wish I had the interest I have now, when she used to be a vrati. I wish I could be completely steeped into the festivity, and not be a fringe observer. Perhaps someday Surya dev and Chhathi ma would accord me the privilege.
Prasad arrived to us in soops, and we eat and share it. This year we missed the special delicacy of Kerao Jhor (a gravy made with kerav pulse) that most vratis have post the ceremony with rice and tarua. It reminds me of days gone by, when the meal would mean winding up from our village and returning to the city. I reflect on the four days of the puja and remember my grandmother singing
“runki junki poti mangila,
padhal pandit daamad chhati maiya”
(I ask for a graddaughter and an educated Son in law Chhati ma)
Customizing the original lyrics which asked for the boon of a daughter, to that for a granddaughter, she would sing it along with her repertoire of bhajans in her magical voice. While I may never know what she felt as a vrati, I vow to get indepth with Chhath in its next advent.