My memory of Chhath festival goes back to my early childhood days in 1970’s when my mother observed fast and escorted us to the Chhatthghat at pond on the outskirts of our Daraily Mathia village in north Indian state of Bihar.
All the village children would gather around the water body in which their mothers and grandmothers would offer “arghya” to the rising and setting sun. My mother would say that my brothers, I and our existence were all subject to Chhath Maiya’s blessings and benevolence.
Several decades down the line, I find the Chhath a truly global festival.
My present place of work—Jalandhar/ Phagwara in Punjab—are nearly 1500 kilometers from Bihar, the place of my birth and bringing up. But I find thousands of Bihar’s migrant workers returning to Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Phagwara after celebrating Chhath at their home places in our state. Those who could not go on the occasion dug ponds and celebrated Chhath at Jalandhar, Ludhiana and other places of their work in Punjab itself.
Be it Punjab, Gujarat, Maharastra or any other Indian state or United States, England, New Zealand, Mauritius, Trinidad, Guiana in Europe, America, Africa and other continents, Chhath is celebrated wherever the Biharis are. The festival is associated with Bihari identity. Its purity and beauty have attracted countless others in several other nations and communities to celebrate it.
Everyone rooted to Bihar has his or her own story about Chhath. I am sharing with you a story related to Chhath’s beginning. Here it is:
Chhath Vrat: Why in Bihar:
During the Vedic period, there lived an ‘asur’ called Gayasur in “Keekat Pradesh”, a vast area spanning most of central India. Gayasur was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. Gayasur was very big in size. It is said that when he lay on the ground, his head would fall in north India and his legs in the Andhra region. What is important is that his heart (hriday sthal) would fall in what is today’s Gaya.
The ‘devtas’ were very scared of Gayasur as he would trouble them for no reason. They wanted to get rid of him and so they approached Lord Brahma for relief. But Brahma told them that he was helpless because Gayasur was among the greatest devotees of Lord Vishnu and nothing could be done to the supposedly atrocious asur.
The ‘devtas’ then approached Lord Vishnu, but He was very hesitant to end the life of His most ardent worshipper. The ‘devtas’ then suggested that Lord Vishnu could at least allow a ‘yagya’ (‘yagna’), invoking His name, to take place on Gayasur’s heart, which lay in the Gaya region.
Lord Vishnu reluctantly agreed to this idea and approached Gayasur, who understood that the performance of the ‘yagya’ – that too in Lord Vishnu’s name – would lead to his instant end. But since he was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu, he accepted His request.
Lord Vishnu, in turn, gave a blessing to Gayasur so that his name would never be forgotten for all times to come. Lord Vishnu blessed Gayasur that the place where a ‘yagya’ was to be performed on his body – that is Gaya – would become the holiest of holy places for Hindus, who would have to compulsorily perform “pind daan” of their ancestors in Gaya and Gaya alone. (The practice continues since then.)
Now, the ‘devtas’ started searching for priests who had to be great worshippers of Lord Vishnu and, thus, could perform the ‘yagya’. But none were to be found. They then approached Narada who told them that such priests could only be brought in from Shakya Dweepa in the ancient Iran region.
These priests were great worshippers of Surya (Sun God) and were also known as “Maga Brahmins” (Reference ‘Vishnu Purana’ 2, 4, 6, 69, 71). In ancient Irna language, “maga” means ball of fire or Surya. The Sun God is also considered a “swaroop” of Lord Vishnu.
Seven such Sun-worshipping priests were, therefore, brought in to the Gaya region to perform the ‘yagya’ on Gayasur’s heart. These priests, whose descendants survive even today in the Magadh region, were also known as “Shakdweepi Brahmins” (Reference ‘Mahabharata’, ‘Bheeshma Parva’ 12, 33/ ‘Bhavishya Purana’, ‘Brahma Parva’ 139, 142).
These seven Brahmins subsequently settled down in Gaya and its adjoining districts. Edicts found in 1937/38 in Govindpur of Gaya district mention this.
Following in the footsteps of the “Maga Brahmins”, the people of the region started the worship of Sun God. Surya is a “Pratyaksh Devta” (visibile deity) and “Surya Sashthi” (Chhath) has high scientific significance too. In due course, this came to be known as “Chhath Vrat”.
The worship was rather simple and could be performed by common people, although it required a lot of rigour. It did not require any intervention from Brahmins. With time, the significance of Sun worship (Chhath Vrat) grew and the festival became popular. One reason was that performance of Chhath actually proved beneficial to the worshippers and their families.
The origin of Chhath Puja, therefore, has to be traced in the Magadh (Magah) region from where it spread to other places. The Shakdweepi Brahmins also established Sun Temples at seven places in Magadh, including Deo, Ulaar, Aungari, Gaya and Pandarak. The Pandas of Gaya Dham – which is Hindu’s only Pitri Teerth – also call themselves “Agnihotri Brahmins”. Agnihotri is a direct reference to Surya.
During Chhath, “Usha” and “Pratyusha” are also worshipped along with Surya. Usha refers to dawn or the first light of the day. Pratyusha refers to dusk or the last light of the day. Both Usha and Pratyusha are believed to be consorts of Surya. They are popularly known as “Chhathi Maiyya”. And that is why during Chhath, the worshipper offers prayers to the setting as well as the rising Sun.
Samb, the son of Krishna, and Raja Priyavrat are also said to have performed Chhath Vrat in the same region and benefitted.
ॐ सूर्य देवं नमस्ते स्तु गृहाणं करूणाकरं |
अर्घ्यं च फ़लं संयुक्त गन्ध माल्याक्षतैयुतम् ||
परमपिता श्री सूर्यदेव और परममाता श्री प्रत्यूषा एवं श्री ऊषा आपकी सभी मनोकामनायें पूरी करें!
लोक आस्था के महापर्व छठ व्रत की मंगलकामनायें!
Credits: 1. Priyaranjan Bharti, a senior journalist based in Patna and also a Shakdweepi Brahmin from Bihta region of the district
2. ‘Glories of Gaya: Glimpses of History and Archaelogy’, 42nd Indian History Congress Souvenir, Magadh University, Bodh Gaya, 28-30 December 1981. Upendra Thakur, MA, DPhil, Professor and Head, Department of Ancient India and Ancient Studies, Magadh University; Naseem Akhtar, MA, Curator, Gaya Museum, Gaya; Naresh Bannerjee, MA, PhD, Department of Economics, Gaya College, Gaya
*(The author is Assistant Professor at Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar, Punjab)