Chhath is an ancient Hindu festival dedicated to Surya(Sun God). This festival is celebrated twice every year. One is celebrated in Chaitra on Shashthi( After Holi in March-April) and the other is celebrated in Kartik on Sashthi (Exactly six days after Diwali). According to Hindu religious texts and mythology, this ancient festival is celebrated for health and prosperity. It is also associated with nature worship as the sun is worshipped on this day.
Although it is observed most elaborately in Bihar, Jharkhand and the Terai regions of Nepal. In modern times, it is prevalent in areas where migrants from those areas have a presence.
Acharya Ram Krishna Tiwari, a priest performing the rituals for a long time in the community says, “ In Hindu mythology, worshipping Sun is believed to help cure a variety of diseases, including leprosy, and helps ensure longevity and prosperity of family members, friends, and elders. So the festival is considered a festival of cure. Generally, it is associated with skin and bones. Scientifically, we get Vitamin D from the sun and its rays work as medicine. Besides, the Sun is the source of life.”
The rituals of the festival are rigorous and are observed for four days. They include holy bathing, fasting and abstaining from drinking water (Vrat), standing in water for long periods, and offering prasad and Araghya(Paying tribute with water to Sun) to the setting and rising sun. Folk songs sung on the evening of Chhath reflect the culture, social structure, mythology and history of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Throwing light on the religious importance and process of the festival, Tiwari says, “ The word 'chhath' denotes the number 6 and the festival is celebrated on the sixth day of the Hindu lunar month of Kartik. The word "Chha" means "six stages' ' and "Hath" refers to the science of Hath Yoga (austerity) as mentioned in several religious texts.
The Rigveda contains hymns about worshipping the Sun God and describes similar rituals. The rituals also find reference in the Sanskrit epic poem Mahabharata in which Draupadi has been depicted doing the same rituals for the long life and prosperity of Pandavas in their exile. She was suggested by a sage Dhaumya to do this Vrat(fast) for Pandavas to solve their problems at that time. Not only this but also in the epic, Karna, one of the warriors was a worshipper of Sun God and he was mentioned as Son of Surya who worshipped him every day.
Prasad has great importance in this festival. Fruits and sweets are offered to Sun God with Arghya of water and milk. Generally, a minimum of five types of fruits is taken with the traditional sweets cooked and made at home in a very neat and clean environment.
Steps in Chhath Puja
Nahakha- ( bathe and eat) on Chaturthi.
Kharna (the day before Chhath)- On Panchami, the day before Chhath, the Vratti observe a fast for the whole day, which ends in the evening just after sunset followed by the worship of earth offerings of Rasiao-kheer (rice cooked in gud), puris and banana. From this day onwards, for the next 36 hours, the Vratee goes on a fast without water.
Sandhya Arghya and Pratah Arghya (evening offering)- The Shashti is spent preparing the prasad at home. In the evening, Vratee with the family members offer setting sun and also the rising sun the next day the Prasad at the bank of a river or water body etc.
Parna (the day after Chhath) - The festival ends with the breaking of the fast by the Vratee. Friends visit the houses of the devotees to receive and distribute the prasad.