A week after the festival of lights, Diwali, is the festival Chhath. For one night and day, the people of Bihar literally live on the banks of the river Ganga when a ritual offering is made to the Sun God.
The word chhath denotes the number six and thus the name itself serves as a reminder of this auspicious day on the festival almanac. The venue for this unique festivity is the river bank and since the being Ganga transverses the countryside of Bihar like a lifeline it is but appropriate that the rising and setting sun as witnessed on the banks of this river should be the ideal prayer propitiation locale.
With no temples to visit, or house to spruce up before the festival, one would conclude that Chhath puja or prayer ritual would be an easy sail through. But that proves misplaced euphemisms for the ritual observances of this occasion would make a medieval Franciscan Order appear frivolous.
Almost immediately after the gaiety of Diwali has subsided, the solemnity of Chhath takes over. Adult married women of the household become major domos of this preparation and emerge as shining examples of what they set out to preach. There is complete abstinence from performing household chores, as younger women and even children are encouraged to take over these mundane tasks. Thus shielded from profanities, they begin a thorough spring cleaning of the kitchen fire and the pans that would be used to prepare the prasad or food offerings to the Sun God. The usual kitchen chulha with the telltale marks of spilt over food are removed by a meticulous application of liquid cowdung and clay. The frying pan, cooking wok, and the ladies, are purified with a brisk cleaning with coconut husk and ash till they shine as silver.
It is the bounty of the harvest which is deemed a fit offering for the solar deity. Newly pounded rice is thus soaked and made into a paste. Dry fruits, nuts and silvers of coconut are used as garnish and the cooked lump is then rolled in the palms, into hardened laddoos. Wheat flour becomes the main ingredient for the traditional cake locally termed as thekuwa. The dought is cut into shapes or pressed into wooden moulds before they are fried a crisp deep brown, to be eaten as a crumbling mouthful. Generous amounts of clarified butter, oodles of jaggery and again the constant presence of coconut shavings as garnishing, make it as tempting as the contents of the cookie jar, in a western household. Since these principle offerings are not only for the pleasure of the Sun God but also for distribution on the river bank and to the neighbours as well, the household kitchen activities take on the seriousness of a Military Operations Room during a wartime siege. The lady in command in this doman undertakes certain penances like abstaining from eating cooked meals and not wearing stitched clothes. A bath before entering the kitchen is routine, not only for her but for everyone who dares cross the threshold of the kitchen.
Then the eve of the sixth day, the excitement mounts to a solemn crescendo. Instead of the usual laughter accompanying the erstwhile Diwali do, this time it is sacrilegious to even crack a joke or make a chance remark as the processional walk to the riverside leaves the doorstep. Children are warned of dire consequences, there and then, in case any one of them has the slightest inclination. A high pitched, sing-song of hymnal sounds mark the start of this journey and, what began as a trickle from the doorstep, becomes a surging crowd of devotees as one nears the river banks. No one tells the hour of prayer or performance but, magically, the procession is timed to an accuracy that would be the envy of a drill sergeant.
The men in the procession are bare-chested and seem not to feel the nip in the chilly November air which gets more marked as the breeze becomes cooler near the approaching waters. The lead figure for every group carries a basket of bamboo weave. It is held high above the crowds hands for fear of it being profaned by the chance touch of a passing stranger and thus an unworthy offering to the mighty giver of light. Within it are the laddoos thekuwas and of course the fruits of the season. The coconut, in its surround of coir and shell, a bunch of bananas, an orange or two and always an earthen lamp, smothered in cotton cloth, dyed in turmeric, are the unchangeable contents.
At the river bank, the fading light of the evening sun makes one mind one’s step. No one can afford to let slip or falter as that would mean an evil portent but since the shallow bank stretches endlessly, there really is no reason to push or jostle. The low lying edge of the waters is slippery as the soil is alluvial but the rows of country boats, all geared to take passengers and offerings mid-stream in comparative safety, make the task easier. Then, as the western sky of early winter turns rosy, the scene is a concerted vision of devotion as countless up stretched arms hold aloft the glistening bamboo trays and baskets. The veiled oil lamps are gently glowing and a chorus of hymns rings the air. The minutes pass, a gloom descends and the faces become blurred as the crowd walk back along the narrow path, leading away from the river front.
Having paid homage to the setting sun, the next day, one must make ready for the daybreak obeisance. This is the crucial part of the ritual and the journey towards the river begins when not even the slightest hint of sunlight is visible. It is a mahogany black sky outside as the festival falls during the dark phase of the moon. One can tell when the river bank is near from the smell of dew soaked grass and the inky waters can only be decoded by the sound of a soft lapping. This time the faces turn eastwards and instead of just standing on the river bank, they enter the water for the customary holy dip. In the meantime, the precious baskets are left securely under a temporary canopy, made of freshly harvested sugar cane stalks. The four sided platform is made special with its corners decorated with terra-cotta lamps shaped like elephants or birds. The accompaniments of sandalwood paste, vermilion, wet rice, flowers and fruits, covered over with red dyed cotton cloth, to ward off evil designs and spirits, adds the right note of sanctity. The milling crowd of priests in the medley of worshippers readily oblige devotees with chantings and prayers as the family stand around their altar with folded hands closed eyes and devoted hearts to offer their prayers to the giver of all life in the world. Once the first streaks appear on the horizon, men and women, dressed in their saris and dhotis (loin cloth) plunge into the shallow waters. Having found a foothold and completely oblivious of the chilling waters, they begin the timeless mantra of the Rig Veda, specific to the Sun—the Gayatri Mantra.
It is this unquestioned faith, a reminder about the basics of human existence, a conscious upkeep of the environment in its benevolence and bounty that becomes integral to the currency of living and believing.