Chhatt honors father Sun, reveres women priests
By Robert Athickal, SJ
Patna: Chhatt is a solar festival and is celebrated around the Father Sun in the sky. This year the festival falls on October 26-27.
Chhatt does not involve any idol worship. This festival is observed by Nepalese and Indian people, along with their diaspora. It is an ancient Hindu Vedic festival historically native to the Madhesh province and Mithila region of Nepal and Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh states of India. The Chhatt Puja is dedicated to the Sun and his wife Usha to thank them for bestowing the bounties of life on earth and to request the granting of certain wishes.
While it is a Hindu festival, some Muslims also celebrate Chhatt.
Chhatt remains the best felicitation of Father Sun. Autumn turning into winter has been a cardinal point of time-transition.
At the end of autumn and at beginning of the winter season, father Sun would start his decisive journey into the Southern hemisphere on September 23 and cold waves would set it. In ancient times, there was fear at the height of winter that the Sun might not even come back which would mean untold misery for the people.
Millions of devotees greet the Sun in the mornings and the evenings and pray zealously seeking blessings on the health of the entire family.
The rituals of the festival are rigorous and are observed over a period of four days. They include holy bathing, fasting and abstaining from drinking water (Vratta), standing in water for long periods of time, and offering prasad (prayer offerings) and arti to the setting and rising sun. Some devotees also perform a prostration march as they head for the river banks.
Chhatt traditionally has been a home-spun celebration that does not require the help of men priests. In fact, the main celebrants and officiating priests are women. The offerings at these pujas are not necessarily bought from markets, but fruits and grains collected from their fields.
Chants since then have been adapted, but it does not matter since it is the women who recite their prayers without depending on men priests.
Perhaps Bihar has honored the integrity of women in major festivals by appreciating them as the chief priestesses and main functionaries on this biggest festival. This is a new trend in India.
Environmentalists claim that Chhath is the most eco-friendly Hindu festival.
It is observed most elaborately in Madhesh (southern) region of Nepal and Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. It is also prevalent in areas where migrants from those areas live. It is celebrated in all northern regions and major northern urban centers in India bordering Nepal.
The festival is also celebrated in Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, other parts of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Macau, Japan, and Indonesia.
The festival has its counterparts in other countries.
Our Chinese neighbors have the lantern festival of the New Moon during this period seeking blessings from the Moon for family and fertility. The Moon cakes, similar to Thekua, are made by rural families to be shared among neighbors during this festival.
The Europeans would celebrate the feast of the protectors of humanity, the Angels led by Michael the chief angel seeking blessings for the difficult times of winter. The Michaelmass Blackberry pie is favorite of children.
Shouldn’t we show reverence to the Sun?
I cannot write these lines if the Sun is not here. I cannot breathe, eat or drink anything without the presence of father Sun. The Sun really is the Father of Life. From Ecological perspective this festival solemnizes the presence of Sun on the planet.
And the ubiquitous migrating Bihari families will carry this women-centered festival to other parts of the country and beyond.
(Jesuit Father Robert Athickal is the founder director of Tarumitra (friends of trees), a green movement among students in India. He is known as the apostle of ecology in the Indian Church.)