Chhatha: Greatest Festival Of Madhesh
– By Ram Dayal Rakesh
Chhatha is a colourful festival of Madhesh celebrated with pomp and show in the autumn season. This folk festival has taken the shape of a national festival, celebrated as it is from Mechi to Mahakali of Nepal. Whether it is in neighbouring Bihar and Uttar Pradesh of India or Nepal, all roads lead to the Ganges River on this auspicious occasion.
Chhatha is celebrated in Janakpur, the holy city, and the business city of Birgunj. This festival is celebrated on the banks of the pious ponds of Dhanush sagar and Ganga sagar. Likewise, it is celebrated in a grand manner on the banks of the Ghariharwa pond of Birgunj, where an idol of the sun god has been constructed permanently for this purpose. There is either a pond or river in almost all the villages, where the devotees congregate to celebrate Chhatha.
This festival is directly related to water as it gives life. Devotees stand knee-deep in water to offer water and other offerings to the sun god. The Aryans during the Vedic period revered the rivers, as is understood from the famous Nandistuti (river hymns) of the Rig Veda. The sun is a visible god, and is also called Grahraj (King of the planets). This festival, solemnised in honour of the sun god, is also known as Suryashasthi because it is chiefly celebrated on the sixth day of the bright half of Kartik, corresponding to late October and mid-November. This year, devotees celebrated Chhatha on November 16 (Kartik 30).
Chhatha was first celebrated by Anusuya, wife of the famous sage Atri, according to the Surya Puran, for happiness, good health and a safe and sound conjugal life. After that, during the Dwapar period, it was celebrated by Draupadi, wife of the Pandavs, as per the Mahabharat. There is mention of this festival in the Rig Veda, the most ancient scriptures of South Asia, also.
According to the Agni Purana, devotees who perform this festival in the month of Kartik (October-November) and pay homage to the sun god receive a big boon. In the Rig Veda, Surya has been described as one of the three greatest gods. Life is impossible without the sun. Thus, Hindu scriptures present the sun as the most potent, potential and powerful god. The worship of the sun god means the worship of all the Puranic gods and goddesses. The sun’s rays have the amazing power to heal several diseases. Scriptures mention that Samba, son of Lord Krishna, got cured of leprosy after worshipping the sun god.
This festival is observed for four full days. Day 1 is observed by taking a bath in a river or pool to purify the body and mind. This way, all sins committed in the past are also washed away. This ritual is called Naha Khau in the local language, which means eat only after taking a bath. Bathing is the first prerequisite for this festival because Maithili culture is chiefly riverine. Some of the rivers are considered masculine, forceful and turbulent and are known to be troublemakers.
People of this region especially worship the Koshi River as they also do the Kamala, which is considered very sacred. They sing and dance while worshipping this river, which is considered a water goddess. Most of the rivers of the Mithila region are feminine, and on their banks, the Chhatha, the folk festival of fraternity and friendship, is solemnised annually with great fanfare.
This festival is one of fasting and also of feasting. Collective participation is clearly seen during this cultural festival.
Day 2 is celebrated by fasting the whole day. Devotees of Chhatha break their fast late in the evening. Before breaking the fast, they worship their kuldevta (clan-deity). This way they prepare mentally and physically for this religious festival. This is called kharna in the local language.
They prepare rice puddings laced with molasses. They are not supposed to take salt, garlic or onion. The diet is purely vegetarian. Cleanliness and purity are strictly maintained.
Day 3 is marked by taking a bath early in the morning and worshipping their local deity. They spend the whole day preparing offerings at home. They themselves make cakes out of pure ghee and wheat flour which is called thekuwa. Another preparation is the kasar (ladoos made of ghee, sugar and rice flour). These two types of sweets are considered the purest of offerings for the sun god. Besides, seasonal fruits like sugarcane, banana, orange, guava, green coconut along with blossoming seasonal fresh flowers fill baskets, which are carried on the heads by the male to the riverside or nearby pond. However, women are the major actors in the festival.
Male members carry the baskets to the ponds or pools or nearby rivers because the women have been observing a fast for a long period. Local drummers, and nowadays musical bands, also accompany them. Devotees sing Chhatha folk songs, which are mainly and mostly religious in nature.
They gather on the banks of rivers to pay homage to the setting sun. They take in rays of the red sun, which is beneficial for health. Thus, new energy, strength, spirit and courage are gained. As night falls, the devotees along with their family members, friends and relatives return home. At home, another colourful celebration takes place. They worship the fire-god and eat nothing the whole night.
On day 4, or the final day of the festival, the devotees early in the morning with their friends and family members go to the river bank to make offerings. They offer morning prayers to the rising sun.
People generally adore the rising sun, but the Madheshi people adore the setting sun as well. The fast is broken, and offerings are distributed to the people around.
There is a local legend associated with the Chhatha. In ancient time, there was a king, Priyabrat. He was very worried because all his babies were born still. Finally, he decided to end his life out of frustration. But a goddess, Chattha Mai, appeared before him, who promised a live son to the king. So women also worship Chhathi Mai during this festival so that they can beget a child.
As in other traditions, the Maithil people greatly revere the sun god. This has become the living tradition of the Maithil people, in general, and Madheshi people, in particular. The festival is still observed in great faith, which should bring good fortune to the worshippers.
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