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Read this article to know more about one of the most important and oldest festivals of India, Chhath Puja.

Chhath Puja

Chhath Puja is an ancient Hindu religious festival in which the Hindu Sun God, Surya and his consort, Chhathi Maiya are worshipped. The Puja (worship) is done to thank Surya for supporting life on earth and to appeal for the fulfillment of special wishes. In Hindu mythology, the Sun is considered as the God of energy and life-force. Offering him prayers is believed to bring forth peace, prosperity and health. The customs and rituals of the festival are observed over a period of four days and are usually conducted by the women in the family. The rituals include holy bathing, 'vratta' (fasting and refraining from drinking water), standing in water for long duration of time, and offering 'Prasad' (prayer offerings) and 'Arghya' to the rising and setting sun. The festival is usually observed by people in Nepal and India, especially in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh.

History and Origin
Chhath Puja has great significance in the Hindu religion and is believed to have been practiced since the ancient time. The Rig Veda contains songs worshiping the Sun God and describes similar rituals. It is also believed that the learned 'Rishi(s)' (sages) could remain without food for days as they obtained their energy directly from the sun's rays, using the Chhath method. Furthermore, on returning to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, Lord Rama and his consort Sita had kept a fast and worshipped the Sun God during their coronation. Since then, Chhath Puja has become a significant annual celebration in Sita's land of birth, Janakpur and the neighbouring areas. The ceremony also finds mention in the epic Mahabharata, in which Draupadi is said to have observed similar rituals to find answers to her immediate problems and help her husbands, the Pandavas. The ritual may have also been initiated by Surya 'Putra' (son) Karna, who was a great warrior and the ruler of Anga Desh (a region in modern Bihar) during the Mahabharata period.

Chhath Puja Katha
There is a popular story associated with Chhath Puja. A long time ago, there was a king named Priyavrat. His wife's name was Malini. The royal couple was happy except for the fact that they did not have any children. They decided to do a big 'Yagya' (a Hindu ritual of worship and offering done in front of a sacred fire) with the help of Maharishi Kashyap, to be blessed with a child. As a result of the yagya, Queen Malini became pregnant. However, after nine months of wait she gave birth to a still born child. The king was heartbroken and decided to commit suicide. At that very moment, Goddess Khashti appeared in front of him. She informed the king that when someone worships her with complete devotion, their wishes are fulfilled. The royal couple offered worshipped the Goddess and was eventually blessed with a beautiful child. Since then, people have celebrated the Chhath Puja.

Rituals and Traditions
Chhath Puja is characterised by rituals conducted on river banks, worshipping the Sun God. The 'ghats' (riverbanks) are full of worshippers as they complete their 'arghya' (a worship ritual) of the Sun both at dawn and dusk. The morning 'arghya' is a prayer for good harvest, peace and prosperity in the New Year while the evening 'arghya' is a thanks giving for the blessings showered in the previous year. The religious ritual spread over four days is unique as it does not involve any priest. It requires bathing, worshipping, and isolation of the devotee from the rest of the family. During this period, the worshiper maintains cleanliness and purity, and sleeps on a single blanket laid out on the floor. They offer 'prasad' (food offering cooked without salt, onion and garlic) to the Sun God consisting of sweets, 'Kheer', 'Thekua' and fruits arranged in a small bamboo basket. Once a family begins Chhath Puja, they have to perform it annually and even pass it on to the next generation. It can only be missed in the year there is a death in the family.

Nahay Khay
The first day of Chhath Puja is called 'Nahay Khay'. Early morning, the devotees take a bath in river and carry home the water to prepare the prasad. If they cannot reach the river, they take a dip in a nearby pond and carry the water to their home. The house and surroundings are meticulously cleaned. The worshippers are allowed to have only a single meal on this day known as 'kaddu-bhat', which is cooked in bronze or earthen utensils on a mango wood filled mud stove.

Lohanda and Kharna
The second day of Chhath Puja is known as 'Lohanda'. On this day women worshippers observe a fast for the entire day, ending it only after sunset and Puja. The prasad consisting of 'kheer' (sweet rice delicacy), 'puris' (deep-fried wheat flour puffs) and bananas are distributed among family and friends. Having completed their evening meal, the worshippers commence another fast which is 36-hour long. It is one of the toughest fasts as the worshippers are not allowed even a sip of water.

Sandhya Arghya On the third day, the devotees prepare prasad at home. In the evening, the entire family visits the riverbank or pond along with the worshipper. After a holy dip in the water, the worshipper makes Sandhya Arghya (evening offerings) to the setting sun. It is a joyous occasion with everyone singing, and eager to help and receive the blessings of the worshipper. After Arghya, the worshippers wear a yellow coloured saree, which is a garment traditionally worn by women in India.

Usha Arghya (Morning Offerings)
On the fourth and final day of Chhath Puja, the worshippers along with their family and friends visit the riverbank or pond before sunrise, in order to make Usha Arghya (morning offerings) to the rising sun. It is only after this Puja is done that the worshippers can break their fast. The festival comes to an end with the prasad being distributed among family members and friends.