Sulabh has been celebrating 'Chhath' for years, which synonymous with sacredness and simplicity, to spread the message of harmony. On this occasion, the widows of Vrindavan and the emancipated scavengers of Tonk and Alwar in Rajasthan make offerings to the Sun God
“Kaanch hi baans ke bahangiya bahangi lachakat jay/ Penhi na pawan jee piyarira daura ghaate pahunchaay…” On hearing these lyrical tunes, you know there is a Chhath celebration going on in full-swing. The very melody and various others were mixed in the air in and around the residence of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, where breaking all barriers widows of Vrindavan and emancipated scavengers of Alwar, Tok (Rajasthan) made offerings to the Sun god and Chhathi Maiyya.
This was a celebration standing tall as it was a true projection of simplicity and societal harmony amidst the purity and sacredness of Chhath Puja. For years now, these women, the widows and erstwhile scavengers, have been a part of the festive zeal at Dr Pathak’s Delhi-residence – soaking in the purity, positivity and soulfulness of the Chhath Parv.
Just as Chhath depicts the purity and detoxification of mind, body, soul, such celebration with the widow mothers and the uplifted erstwhile scavengers is the best way to give the world the true sense of celebrating the grand festival.
The widow mothers were once leading a life of monochrome and darkness, full of restrictions and taboos. Similarly, these women from Alwar and Tonk (Rajasthan) were living a life of misery where they were forced to do manual scavenging and considered ‘untouchable’. Today there is hope, happiness, colours and dignity in their lives. They celebrate Diwali, Holi, Rakshabandhan and Chhath with Dr Pathak. They are now happy. They sing, dance, offer prayers on various pious occasions (which were once out of their bound), and sit, eat and talk with others.
Eversince Dr Pathak has brought light in their lives, they have been celebrating the four-day festival of Chhath with fervour and gaiety with him. Their very participation is what stands this celebration apart from all.
Sulabh Chhath 2018
On November 12, Amola Pathak, wife of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, began the rituals after a bath and a vegetarian meal of rice, pumpkin, bottle gourd, milk etc. (Kharna). The residence of Dr Pathak was decorated with flowers and banana trunks, with the devotional songs and Bhajans that are rendered during the Chhath Arghya being sung by the Sulabh music section.
Amola Pathak observed the fast for 36 hours as ordained by the Shastras. She would stand with folded hands facing Sun god, knee-deep in water, in a traditionally decorated small water tank, with banana trunks on its four sides to give ‘Arghya’ (offerings) to the setting Sun in a ‘soop’ (winnowing basket).
Chhath Sandhya Arghya had the trappings of a carnival in Dr Pathak’s residence. Besides the erstwhile scavengers and widows from Vrindavan, there were elders, friends, members of family, onlookers and numerous volunteers and senior officials from Sulabh who all paid tribute to setting Sun in the west. Pandits recited shlokas from Aditya Stotra eulogising the Sun god.
The rising Sun was worshipped in the morning of November 14 with offering ‘Usha Arghya’ (morning offerings). The end of this puja marks the end of the fast. After the worship, Amola Pathak gave Prasad, tied Baddhi (sacred thread) and applied vermilion to all present to participate in the holy rituals of Puja as a mark of blessing wishing a long life of their husbands and welfare of their family. It is indeed the time when the family bonds and feels rooted more than ever.
The biggest feature of this Chhath Puja at Dr Pathak’s residence is that while on one hand, it is an integral part of our folk tradition, on the other it is an occasion where the cordiality of family and society is visible prominently. The simplicity and purity of this Chhath celebration gives social message to all.
Chhath Puja isn’t just a festival, it’s life – life to the withered souls, life to the downtrodden, life to one and all. And that is how Dr Bindeshwar Pathak has seen it and has been celebrating not one but thousands of lives.
So, What Is Chhath Puja?
Chhath is an ancient Hindu Vedic festival historically native to the Indian subcontinent, more specifically the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. The Chhath Puja is dedicated to the Sun and Chhathi Maiyya (Usha, one of the wives of Sun).
It is the festival that makes people leave everything that is going on in their lives and head straight home, no matter which part of the country they stay in – back to the place where they belong.
The ghats are decked up, the roads wiped clean, the surroundings stand tall in all their shimmering glory, there is a smell of thekuas and sugarcanes in the air, and people start flocking in with much fervour to observe this one of the most important festivals dedicated to the Sun god and Chhathi Maiyya as a thanksgiving for granting health, prosperity and abundance.
The word ‘Chhath’ in Chhath Puja denotes the number six in Hindi as the festival begins on the sixth day of the Hindu lunar month of Kartik. The celebrations carry on for four days, during which the devotees follow rigorous rituals including long fasts, holy baths in the Ganga at sunrise and sunset, and eating food cooked without salt, onion, and garlic.
Devotees rigorously fast for four days without even drinking water. Not only this, devotees stand in the water, usually river or lake, for long periods chanting prayers for the welfare of their family and making offerings to the Sun god thanking him for bestowing the bounties of life on earth.
The rituals are usually performed by the women folk clad in colourful attires. Each village communion has a water body designated for the purpose and the final day of the Chhath Puja offers visuals worthy to marvel at.
Tracing The Roots
Chhath Puja is one of the most ancient Hindu festivals. It first finds mention in the Rig Veda which contains hymns worshipping the Sun god and describes similar rituals.
There are diverse stories on why Chhath puja is celebrated. In the Mahabharata, there is a poem where Draupadi and the Pandavas, rulers of Indraprastha (modern Delhi), are depicted observing rituals similar to Chhath puja on the advice of noble sage Dhaumya. Through Draupadi’s worship to the Sun God, she was not only able to solve her immediate problems, but also helped the Pandavas reclaim their lost kingdom.
Scientific history tells the tale of rishis who could stay without consuming any food and gain energy directly from the sun’s rays using the Chhath method.
There is also a belief that Lord Rama and Sita had fasted and offered puja to the Lord Sun during their coronation after returning to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile. From that time, Chhath puja became a significant and traditional festival in the Hindu religion.
The Blissful 4 Days!
The first day called ‘nahan khan’ or ‘nahai khai’ is when all the worshippers can be found at the river ghats taking a dip early in the morning and carry water from the same water body. This water is then used in the preparation of the prasad or the holy offerings to the Sun God. The worshippers, on the other hand, clean their houses and surroundings and eat only one meal in a day. First the Vratti eat and then other members of the family.
On the second day, women of the house observe a fast, not even a drop of water for the entire day and end it only after sunset. This is called ‘Kharna’. Later in the evening, Vrattis prepare special Prasad called Rasiao-Kheer. This day marks the beginning of a 36-hour tough fast which doesn’t even allow them to take a sip of water.
On the day of Chhath – the third day – there are gigantic preparations of the holy prasad and everyone flocks to the river ghats to take a dip in the evenings to worship the Sun God and Chhathi Maiyya. During the day, the daura (a basket made of bamboo sticks) is prepared putting into it all the offerings including thekua and seasonal fruit. Women of the house are accompanied by all the family members to offer ‘Sandhya Arghya’ (evening offerings) to the setting sun. This is paired with everyone singing folk songs in the background.
The fourth and the final day observes worshippers gathered around the same water body in the morning and offering ‘Usha Arghya’ (morning offerings) to the rising sun. The end of this puja marks the end of the fast. Everyone comes together to have the prasad. It is indeed the time when the family bonds and feels rooted more than ever.
Of Offerings & Togetherness
Apart from fasting, praying and taking dips in the holy Ganga, Chhath is a festival of offerings and feasts. People prepare puris along with sabjis like kaddu (pumpkin), dudhi ki sabji, and even chana (gram). In sweets, they generally prepare a sweet made of powdered rice, jaggery, saunf, and ghee.
On the second day of Chhath Puja, which is just a day prior to main Surya Shashti, people also fast for the whole day and break their fast after the sunset. They do not consume a single drop of water or a morsel of food except the one sattvik and vegetarian meal.
For breaking the fast, devotees pray to Sun and the Moon, and offer kheer, chapattis, and bananas to their family and friends as prasad. Chhath puja songs are sung with devotion.
On the main day of Chhath, people go to the river bank during sunrise and then again during sunset and make various food offerings such as thekua, kheer, malpua and the likes. They also gather and sing folk songs and recite folk tales.
On the last day of the Chhath Puja, devotees visit the river bank before the Sun rises and make offerings to the Sun. Devotees break their 36-hour long fast and then feast on the prasad along with their loved ones.
The food prepared during these four days is pure vegetarian and is cooked without the use of onion, garlic and table salt. Of all, what stand out are the kheer and the thekua that are enjoyed the best.
Thekua Stands Apart
For the ones celebrating the Chhath festival and even the one who observe it from a distance, thekua is something of a top attraction.
Thekua is a sweet that is traditionally made of whole wheat flour, raisins, dry coconut, jaggery or sugar and ghee or refined oil. First of all, a solution of sugar or jaggery is made with water. This is then added to the wheat flour to form dough. This is followed by rolling a small chunk of the dough and pressing it against the wooden mould that has been greased with ghee to form small tikkis, which are then deep-fried in ghee till golden brown and crispy. Also known as khajuria or thikari, thekua is widely prepared in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Traditionally, in olden times, thekua was prepared on earthen chulhas using mango wood as fuel; nowadays, people prefer preparing it using bronze cookware. Thekua is generally prepared on the second day of Chhath (which is known as Kharna) or in the next morning, also known as Sandhya Arghya. After offering it to the Sun God, devotees distribute thekua in the form of prasad.
It’s Scientific, Healthy
With roots in Mahabharata and Ramayana, Chhath Puja also has certain health benefits. The science and yogic philosophy behind Chhath dates back to the Vedic times. According to yogic philosophy, the physical bodies of all the living organisms are highly sophisticated energy conducting channels.
The four-day Puja is believed to be very beneficial for the body of the devotee, who keeps the fast, and helps the human body get rid of toxicity. It helps the human body to detoxify, and the dips in the water by exposing oneself to the sun increases the flow of solar bio-electricity in the body. This bathing in sunlight improves the functionality of the body.
Worshipping the Sun in Kartik month allows absorption of Vitamin D (essential for the absorption of calcium and the prevention of rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults) from UVB rays which are predominant at sunset and sunrise. Vitamin D is then responsible for absorbing calcium from the food (all the food items used in this puja are high in calcium).
The rituals help the flow of blood and stimulate a balanced secretion of the hormones for the proper functioning of the body. The significance of worshiping the Sun God is that during the periods of sunrise and sunset, human beings can obtain optimum energy from the Sun and safely harness it.
Standing in the water of the Ganga allows the energy absorbed from the Sun to move along the spine, cleansing the human body. A kind of polarisation in the spine helps the body to be transformed into a cosmic energy powerhouse.
It is said that it also helps eliminate harmful microorganisms present in the body and with this prepares the body for the onset of the winter by strengthening the immune system.
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