Chhath Puja has currently evolved into a major festival in the regions of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. With roots in Bihar, it is a four-day post-harvest festival in which devotees keep a strict fast from sunset to sunrise, and offer foods to the Sun God and Chhathi Mai in gratitude for a good crop. Celebrated six days after Diwali, it falls in the lunisolar month of Kartik (October-November of the Gregorian calendar).
What is interesting about Chhath Puja is that this festival is one of the few in which the devotee himself/herself performs the rites, with no Brahmin mediating the rituals. Even though Chhath Puja is regarded as a solar festival, the goddess Chhathi Mai/Usha, said to be Surya’s consort, holds a significant position of reverence and worship. This is not a gender-specific festival, but has traditionally and socially been female-centric, partly also because Chhathi Mai is said to be the protector goddess of children, ensuring their longevity and good health.
But who is Chhathi Mai? As the name suggests, six is a crucial element in the story. “According to the Brahmavaivarta Purana, when God created the world, He also created the duality of Purusha and Prakriti. Prakriti was then further divided into several elements, of which the sixth part is Chhathi/Shasthi… She is called Devasena,” says Pradyumna Kumar, an award-winning Madhubani artist, who has extensively researched Chhath Puja.
Chhath Puja and the story of Devasena
Kumar goes on to recount the story of how Devasena came to be associated with children. “There were a king Priyavrat and his queen Malini, most likely in the belt around current Bihar and Jharkhand. They did not have any children and conducted a Putrakaamesthi Yagya (a ritual requesting the gods to beget a son), during which a bowl of kheer (rice pudding) appeared from within the havan kund (fire pit). The queen eats the pudding and becomes pregnant. However, the child is stillborn. Grief-stricken, she rushes to a river to commit suicide when a woman appears and stops her. Identifying herself as Devasena/Shasthi, she asks the queen to worship her and the sun god, for begetting children and their protection. Queen Malini did as asked, and was soon blessed with a child. Since then, the practice of Chhath Puja started.”
Chhath Puja in Ramayana and Mahabharata
Like many popular Indian rituals and festivals, the Chhath Puja too is referenced in the two epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. According to Kumar, in the Ramayana, Sita and Rama performed the ritual after their return from exile, when Rama was advised to atone for killing Ravana, a Brahmin. While Rama performed the Rajsuya Yagya, Sita kept a fast from sunset to sunrise, which is said to have later taken the form of Chhath Puja. Local people in Munger, Bihar, believe Sita performed the Chhath vrat (ritual) there. They say that Sita Charan Mandir, a temple with impressions of Sita’s feet, stands testimony to this lore.
In the Mahabharata, Kumar says, ahead of the Kurukshetra war, Surya and Kunti’s son Karna performed some of the rituals that are now a part of Chhath Puja. This includes standing in the water, waist-deep and then distributing the offerings as Prasad to people. Later, Draupadi and the Pandavas performed similar rituals to win back their kingdom.
So, in case you’ve been curious about the origin of the festival of Chhath, these are some myths and lore associated with it.
(The author is Editor, Digital at www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India)