The story of Chhath Puja: from pagan sun worship to the Mahabharata

Currently celebrated as a solemn offering to Surya Dev and Chhathi Maiya, this is one of the few popular Hindu festivals that eschews an idol and worships nature in the raw


Sandeep Sen

Chhath Puja, a largely north Indian celebration, has spread to Nepal, US, UK and other places the Indian diaspora reside. In places, the excitement over Chhath — typically marked six days after Diwali — remains the finale of the festive season.

At home, hundreds of thousands of people gather at the nearest large body, preferably a river, to worship the sun god, Surya, and Chhathi-Maiya, the goddess of purity, gratitude and well-being. Mantras from the Rig Veda are chanted by worshippers while offering prayers to the Sun.

Although the post-Diwali phenomenon is the more popular and brighter and louder, the festival is in fact celebrated twice every year — in the Saka calendar months of Chaitra (March–April) and Kartika (October–November).

There are several legends that explain the origin of Chhath Puja and its continuing popularity. It is believed that in ancient times, Draupadi and the Pandavas of Hastinapur celebrated Chhath in the hopes of solving their issues and regaining their lost kingdom. 

Unusual for a mainstream Hindu festival, Chhath Puja does not invoke its deities in the form of any idols. This is one of the reasons a number of environmentalists believe it is derived from older indigenous traditions (or even religions) and laud its still very sustainable way of celebrating the elements of nature. 

And so, braving the cooler devotees will take a dupki (dip) ideally in the Yamuna river before sunset, with offerings to the god and the goddess in hand, prior to ending their four-day fast. The belief is this ascetic practice also invokes for children the protection of Chhathi Maiya (or Chhathi Mata) against diseases and ensures their good health and long lives. 

Women sing joyous songs and celebrate the six-day period with colour and sparkle in both their clothing and food.

Today, both men and women have will have observed a strict fast, sometimes even without water—a nir-jal vrat. The vrati, those people who observe the fast during this festival, will break their fast after sunset with a range of simple, homecooked and delectable dishes — chana dal (split gram) with arwa chawal, lauki sabji (bottlegourd) and saag (leafy vegetables), and mitti ke bartan mein bani gur ka kheer (a jaggery-sweetened rice and milk dessert cooked in earthenware).  

Women offer puja during Chhat at Yamuna in Delhi (photos: Vipin)
Women offer puja during Chhat at Yamuna in Delhi (photos: Vipin)
The story of Chhath Puja: from pagan sun worship to the Mahabharata

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