Chhat Puja is considered a true test of a would-be devotee's piety, since the rituals often call for great physical and mental strength. In fact, some worshippers, as a measure of their fortitude, travel to riverbanks by repeatedly prostrating themselves on the ground (as a means of saluting the Sun God).
Women taking dips in the river are Vratins - women who, in the next couple of days, would be fasting and also offering prayers to the Sun god. As the sun rises, people pray to the sun and give thanks for all the light and life it has given to the world.
It is the month of Karthik in India, which starts around late October and ends in mid November. The occasion is Chhath Puja - an age-old ritual dating back to the Vedas and believed to have been observed by Draupadi of the Mahabharata.
Chhath, literally means 'sixth', and this day is the sixth day of the month of Karthik. It is believed that the 'Maga Purohits' from the Vedic Age had started this tradition of Sun worship. The Chhath ritual might even pre-date the Vedas as there are references to it in the Rigvedas. It is also believed that Karna the son of the sun god-Surya, who was the ruler of Angadesh, in present day Bihar, started the Chhath tradition. It has had a major religious following in the state of Bihar and has spread further through the people of the region who have migrated elsewhere.
Chhath Puja is a four-day affair during which the devotees maintain purity and observe abstinence and segregation from the rest of the household. Offering prayers and taking dips while praying to the sun is called the 'Araghya'. It is performed on all four days of Chhath, either to the rising or the setting sun.
Chhathi Maiyya, the goddess associated with this festival, is believed to be the consort of Surya, the sun god. Chhathi Maiyya is also known as Usha, literally translating to mean the first rays of the sun and Pratyusha, the last rays of the sun. Usha and Pratyusha are referred to as the two wives of the sun god. They are worshipped and invoked to bless devotees with divine consciousness.
The first day of the festival starts with the Nahai Khai, which is a ritualistic bath, with offering of prayers. The next three days are spent observing similar rituals, cleaning the house, maintaining purity and observing fasts. The Vratins observe a 36-hour fast on the third day, when they go without both food and water, after the Prasad on the second day. The families eat vegetarian food cooked on earthen Chulhas or stoves during the next four days.
An interesting yet bizarre aspect of the Chhath rituals is the special Dandavat Pranaam, which is carried out in devotion to the Sun God. The ritual includes lying down flat on the ground, praying to the lord, marking a spot with your hands and then taking a step to that spot. This process is repeated over and over again, until the person reaches the banks of the river.
The prayers, offerings and fasts during the days of Chhath are a way of expressing gratitude as well as wishing for better harvests in the future. This devotion towards the Sun god, in these areas of North India is an expression that has been seen in many cultures across the world, especially in ancient civilizations like Egypt and Babylon.
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