- In Monroe, N.J., devotees adhered to Coronavirus restrictions as they observed vrat and offered puja, which was streamed on Zoom and Facebook Live.
Hundreds, if not thousands of Indian Americans celebrated the festival of Chhath in different cities over a four day period that came to an end last Friday. Braving sub-zero temperatures, their faith and devotion steadfast, they went to take their dip in the nearby lakes or rivers, at sunset and sunrise. Some used inflatable pools in their backyards, even affording themselves the luxury of using warm water, to dip themselves.
Chhath is the most important festival of the people who trace their origins to Bihar, Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. It is also the most rigorous of all the religious practices of Hinduism. According to the spokesperson of the Bihar and Jharkhand Association Of North America, Sanjeev Singh, this year the celebration was greatly affected by the pandemic and big gatherings were avoided. Devotees performed pujas in their homes. Arrangements were made for drive-thru araghya (obeisance) and prasad distribution in various cities.
In New Jersey’s Monroe town, tents were installed at Thompson Park around Lake Manalapan for small groups of ‘vrati’ or those who observe fast, to offer puja. Volunteers got together in large numbers, taking turns, to prepare the prasad in big quantities. There was even a live event telecast on Zoom and Facebook Live, and about 600 people from around the Tristate area, including Consul General of India in New York Randhir Jaiswal, Deputy Consul General Shatrughan Sinha and their families participated. Dr. Avinash Gupta was one of the main organizers of the event along with Anurag Kumar, Vandana Kumar, Vishal Sinha, Tripti Singh and others.
Chhath celebrations have gained momentum in recent times as the numbers of people originating in the aforementioned states has been growing and they have formed their organizations. In 2016, the largest celebration in the U.S. had taken place when hundreds gathered on the banks of the Potomac in Virginia. In California there have been celebrations, according to the members of the Bihar Association of the U.S.
Chhath is celebrated on Kartik (coinciding with the month of October-November) Shukla Shashthi or the sixth day, falling on the sixth day after Diwali. The word chhath means six in Nepali and dialects of Hindi. In mythology, it is believed to be celebrated by Draupadi and the Pandavas to regain their lost kingdom. Another legend has it that after Ram and Sita returned to Ayodhya, Diwali was celebrated and six days later they observed fasts and established Ram Rajya.
The celebration of Chhath involves rigorous fasting without water so that people gain their energy only from the rays of the sun. This is believed to detoxify and energize their body, mind and soul. Prayers are offered to the Sun God or Surya devata and his consorts Usha (sunrise) and Pratyusha (sunset) also known as Chhathi Maiya. Gratitude is expressed to the sun for showering his gracious rays on the earth and his powers propitiated to get the blessings of health, wealth and happiness. While observing the fast, the devotees also cook special food which is devoid of salt, onions, garlic and anything non-vegetarian. Fresh and dry fruit, rice, coconut, nuts, wheat, jaggery and ghee are used for cooking. Cookies made of whole wheat and jaggery are a specialty of this time. At dawn and dusk, they spend a long time immersed in water, gazing at the sun or its reflection in the water. Normally a very caste and class ridden society, the celebrations around Chhath, however, bring the rank and file together in the observance of some of the harshest rituals known in the Hindu religion.
The first day of the festivity is called Nahay Khay and begins with a dip in the holy river and cooking meal of rice and pumpkin, with Bengal gram. Traditionally these were cooked in bronze or mud pots over a mud stove burning with mango wood.
The second day is called Kharma and on this day everyone fasts until sunset and a rice pudding or kheer is prepared with chapati or unleavened bread to break the fast. After this begins the 36hour fast. The third day, or Sandhya Araghya, is the most important. The fasting continues since the previous evening and the day is spent preparing goodies for prasad and offering to the sun at the banks of the river. Women wear yellow saris and sing folk songs that extol the virtues of the sun. The fast is not broken and continues till the next morning.
The last day is called Usha araghya as on this day devotees reach the river bank before sunrise, make offerings to the rising sun and break their fast. Thereafter, they spend the day visiting each other to share in the delicious food prepared.
The festival is also celebrated a few days after Holi in the month of March-April and then it is called Chait Chhathi.
Ironically, this festival is looked down by some. In 2008, at the height of Shiv Sena’s language politics and regionalism, there were attacks on people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar led by the party’s sprinter group Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Shiv Sena leader Raj Thakrey had derided the celebration of Chhath as a drama and a display of arrogance.
Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leading Indian national dailies. After leaving India for Europe, she has been working as a teacher, translator and freelance writer and editor. She lived in Mexico briefly where she worked in intercultural communications. Currently she is based in Miami.