What Makes the Chhath Festival Inclusive

This time the Bihar government has banned the use of 'DJ music' at the festival, ostensibly to avoid situations of communal flare-ups similar to those seen in other festivals.

Patna: The Bihar government announced the restrictions on the use of a disk jockey on the eve of the four-day Chhath festival that began on November 17 in the state.

The Chhath festival symbolises the spirit of Bihar. The Biharis – wherever they are – observe it with utmost solemnity. Its hallmark is fervour, not the frenzy that has overtaken some religious events.

Hindutva bodies have, of late, been using music churned by DJs as an instrument to amplify songs which are often aimed at terrifying minorities. Chhath devotees usually do not use such music. Women devotees usually sing Chhath songs without microphones. The state home department’s notification on the restricted use of DJs is probably aimed at curbing possible designs of Hindutva groups and to prevent communal tussles.

As a precautionary measure, the government has also banned the use of swords, tridents and other traditional weapons in all festivals. Those using traditional weapons in a religious procession will be booked under the Arms Act, which might lead to stringent punishment. Only the law enforcing officials are allowed to use microphones to guide and monitor the processions.

Unlike other Hindu festivals which have Ram, Krishna, Laxmi, Sarswati, Durga and Kali as the presiding deities, the Chhath celebrates the bounty and munificence of nature. Women in knee- and waist-deep water offer arghya (pouring of milk) to the sinking sun in the evening and the rising sun, next morning. It is distinct from many other religious events in which only the rising sun is worshipped.

The offerings that are made on the occasion are seasonal agricultural products. For example, white radish, unripe pieces of turmeric and ginger, stems of sugarcane, custard apples, banana and several other varieties of fruits and vegetables grown by cultivators are used in it.

It’s believed to be the event to thank the sun god for lighting the life of mankind with his glow. But the sun god’s younger sister, Aditi, referred to as Chhathi Maiya gets primacy. Eschewing patriarchal preference for a son over the daughter, the devotees pray for a daughter from Chhathi Maiya.

Also read: The Wrath Yatras of Ram Navami

Runuki-Jhunuki beti mangila ho Chhathi Maiya (O Mother Chhath! Bless me with a vivacious daughter with jingle bells)” – is the most popular folk song that the women sing to seek a daughter. The festival involves the entire family. While the male members carry the basket full of offerings over their head to the chhath ghat, the women walk side by side, singing prayer songs with all religiosity and devotion.

The festival begins with devotees observing cleanliness by bathing, wearing washed clothes and eating the vegetables, fries of bottle-gourd, rice and daal. Next evening, they observer kharna that involves eating rasiaw (rice cooked in jaggery) and roti and then undergoing a fast. The following evening they gather at the Chhath ghat – a river bank or the edge of a pond – for offerings to the sinking sun. And in the following morning, they make offerings to the rising sun. The four days of the festival involve rigour.

Another distinctive feature of the festival is the absence of the role of a Brahmin as a priest in it. People observe it as a family ritual. The folk songs associated with the festival are sung but no Vedic or Puranic mantras that require pronunciation in a certain manner and style are recited.

Bihar’s politicians are known to celebrate Chhath.

It is believed that the rate of crime goes drastically down in Bihar during the festival too, so rooted it is in the lives of Biharis.

Legend has it that Sita of Ramayana and Draupadi of Mahabharat too had observed Chhath. While Sita had observed it for the wellbeing of her spouse Ram, Draupadi had done it for the Pandava brothers who were in exile in the forest.

It is an all inclusive festival. Muslim barber women, known as the Hajjam, accompany devotees at the Chhath ghat. One can find the Muslim women observing Chhath in almost all the villages across Bihar. And, in fact, milk offered by the Muslim cowherds and dairy owners is preferred at the Chhath puja.

The practice of untouchability and difference is an anathema at these festivals.

Communal clashes, thus, are unheard of during the Chhath festival.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author, media educator and independent researcher in folklore.