Let there be lightChhath is not just a festival of the plains but also a symbol of national unity
For the last couple of weeks, the beautiful folk songs of Chhath have been echoing everywhere in the Tarai. I wake up every morning hearing the catchy rhythm of this major festival of the Madhesi community. Locals play it all the time over loudspeakers attached to tall bamboos. I have been here in Morang for three months, and have noticed that these songs are the harbinger of the festival.
Preparations for Chhath begin a month in advance. People and traders had started stocking up on materials needed for the celebrations three months ago. So the Madhesi Morcha’s long strike and India’s blockade haven’t had any effect on the bazaar. Materials like earthen lamps, clay decoration lights and banana trees are used for both Tihar and Chhath, so people had bought them well in advance. They only have to buy fruits, vegetables which they do a day before the main event. People also prepare sweets like ‘thekuwa’ which is made of wheat, sugar and ghee and ‘bhusuwa’, made of rice flour. These two sweets are very popular in Maithili culture. They are also sent as gifts when a daughter is given away in marriage.
This is the first time that Madhes protests and Chhath celebrations have coincided. The Morcha has placed its flags at the main squares to show that the movement is still on. The festivals songs dedicated to the sun and the clamour of the protestors that are heard these days both describe the pain and exploitation that the Tarai people have suffered politically, culturally and socially. Despite the similarity in the messages, this great religious festival extends across communities because of its multi-caste, multi-lingual and multi-religious nature. The participation of people from the hills as devotees, supporters and spectators proves that the festival is above politics. It also tells us that people of different castes can live together in harmony.
The strain of the festival which involves three days of continuous fasting clearly proves that Madhesis believe in equality, coexistence and hard work. They are the real followers of non-violence, purity and cleanliness because the celebrations follow a vegetarian menu. People start cleaning the banks of rivers and ponds many days before the festival. The main devotee and families give up eating non-vegetarian food a month prior to the celebrations. The sun, which is the major source of energy, is worshipped in many cultures and civilisations. But in no culture or religion do people pray to the sun with as much enthusiasm and originality as the Tarai dwellers. Sun rituals were practiced in many ancient civilisations of Africa, Asia, Europe and America. The Madhesi people have not abandoned their folk culture even in this ultra-modern age.
What makes the festival unique and popular? A female member of the family leads the celebration, which shows how important and prestigious the position of women is in the Tarai. Devotees use bamboo containers to put the offerings which are made by the so-called low caste Dom community. They even conduct the rituals with the so-called higher castes. Seen from this angle, the festival clearly avoids discrimination and promotes equality. Sunlight is also believed to cure different diseases. The main and final rituals of Chhath are held on the banks of rivers and ponds. It illustrates the relationship between humans and water since ancient times. The worshippers clear the banks which means that the source of water should always be clean. The venue of the festival, which may look isolated, dark and untidy at other times, takes on the look of a cultural village. Rainbow lighting, twinkling earthen lamps and folk music turn it into a beautiful place.
Chhath, also known as Suryashasthi, is a religious, cultural, social, scientific, harmonious and ceremonial event. It makes people respect women and speaks up against every kind of discrimination in society. It is not only a festival, but also a symbol of national unity, integrity and independence.
Sah is a senior sub-editor at Kantipur