Each year, millions of pilgrims congregate along the banks of the Ganges, flowing through a large swathe of the Northern plains, to perform an age-old tradition that goes back to the early Vedic times. The Chhath Puja, celebrated 6 days after the beginning of the month of Karthik (October-November), is one of the few festivals dedicated to the Sun God today. Surya, the Sun God and Usha his wife, may no longer have the pride of place they enjoyed 3500 years go in the Hindu pantheon, but on this day, they reign supreme.
Hints of the power of the Sun are still evident in what is considered the most powerful of the Vedic shlokas or chants - the Gayatri Mantra. But go through the Rig Veda and you will find that Surya, held a special place along with Indra the god of thunder and Vayu, the god of the winds. The earliest mention of sun worship is found in the Rig Veda which contains hymns dedicated to Sun God and also rituals similar to what is practised today during the Chhath festival especially during the time of the setting and rising Sun.
Each of the 4 days of the festival is marked with unique ritual. On the first day, the devotees take a dip in the river. The most auspicious are the Ganga and her tributaries river Kosi and river Karnali and carry home the holy waters to prepare their offerings. On the second day worshipers fast the whole day and end it, with the setting Sun with a simple offering of kheer, chapattis and bananas. This is the only meal devotees have before a rigorous 36 hour fast that follows.
On the third day, prayers are offered to the setting sun and this is followed by a grand ceremony where thousands gather on the riverbank to witness the offering of the special ‘Thekua’ or wheat cakes which are offered to the setting sun. The grand festival ends with one final offering to the rising sun the next day and that’s when devotees break their fast.
During the Chhath Puja along with Surya or the Sun God, Usha his consort or wife is also worshipped. According to the Rig Veda - Usha was the Goddess of the Dawn and during the Chhath Puja, she is referred to as the Chhathi Maiya. Symbolically Usha represents the dawn of consciousness and is invoked to help overcome all troubles. Interestingly, in what is possibly a mark of its ancient roots, this is one of the few Hindu festivals that does not involve a visit to the temple. The Chhath Puja represents an ancient tradition of a devotee’s connecting with the elements - the sun, water and air.
What makes this festival so interesting is that its roots lie in the early Vedic times dating back to 1500 and 600 BCE, when as per the Rig Veda, Agni - the fire god, Vayu and Indra - the God of wind & rain and Surya - the Sun god were the most important deities in the Hindu pantheon. The earliest mention of Surya is in the Rigveda describes him as the rising sun and the dispeller of darkness. Perhaps the most famous hymn dedicated to Surya is the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ , which also appears in Rigveda and is dedicated to a Vedic deity Savitr also identified with Surya.
Equally important in Rigveda was the Goddess Usha or Dawn, along with her sister Ratri or the night. Dr David Kingsley, a noted scholar on Hindu goddesses, in his book Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition writes -
‘(Usha is) consistently identified with dawn, revealing herself with the daily coming of light to the world, driving away oppressive darkness, chasing away evil demons, rousing all life, setting all things in motion, sending everyone off to do their duties’. The dawn goddesses are very popular in ancient cultures as can be seen from the Roman Goddess Aurora and Germanic goddess Ostara, in their cultures.’
In the initial days, the worship of Surya and Usha just involved the worship of the rising and the setting Sun. The oldest known image of a Sun god is from a piece of pottery found in Patna, dating back to the Mauryan era. During the Kushana period, between 1st century BCE to 2nd Century CE, images of Sun god found in India showed a distinct central Asian influence with high boots and a girdle round the waist. By Gupta era in 4th -5th centuries CE, Sun worship was popular in large parts of Northern India and continued till 13th century CE. During the medieval period, the sun worship evolved and large sun temples were established. The prominent ones include the Modhera Sun Temple (Gujarat) in Western India built in 1026-27 CE and the Konark Sun Temple (Odhisa) in East India built in perhaps 1255 CE. There are also temples in Bharatpur in Rajasthan and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh dedicated to Usha, the goddess of Dawn.
However, over the next few centuries Sun worship became amalgamated with Vaishavism. Vishnu came to be considered Surya-Narayana and within Shaivism the Sun got amalgamated in the form of Shiva as Martanda-Bhairava. The aspects of Surya as bringer of abundance and prosperity would be attributed to Vishnu and Shiva.
While the magnificent and popular tradition of Sun temples and Sun worship declined in India over time, the yearly Chhath puja is a living legacy of an ancient t tradition which lives on even today. The four days long celebration of the Sun and Usha, in all its glory and primordial form, marks an ode to one of the most revered forces of nature and so the heavens - Surya the Sun God.
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