This is the only festival in India where an idol is not worshipped and people pay obeisance to the rising sun instead; a pre-Vedic festival that originated at least 2300 years ago. This is a festival where the intervention of a priest is not required. Despite its primitive origins and its association with a sizable section of the population, the Chhath, as the festival is popularly known, has remained out of the national consciousness for a long time.
Celebrated mostly in the eastern Indian state of Bihar and neighboring areas, the ancient festival has suddenly become a phenomenon in cities and has gained recognition at the national level. This was on full display this past week in the large metropolitan areas like Delhi, where traffic came to a standstill and the political classes were in competition to show off their participation in the festivities to attract voters from among the eastern Indians settled in the national capital.
For too long did people from Bihar live an unnoticed life in the cities, despite being a major component of the urban workforce. Mostly employed as laborers, auto rickshaw drivers, private guards and a select few as bureaucrats and professionals, the sizeable urban community remained almost entirely unrecognized as a cultural block. They celebrated their festivals without the attention of other communities.
But with demographic shifts and greater class mobility, the once-ignored Biharis have come to be taken seriously in larger cities where a great number of migrants have settled down. The economic turnaround of the state and successes of the youth in several professions has granted a new sense of confidence to the citizens of what was once the ‘sick’ state of India.
Not long ago “Bihari” was an epithet for abuse in the cities like Delhi where many used to look down upon from the people from the eastern Indian state because of their association with menial jobs. Not anymore.
The demography of Delhi has changed dramatically in the last two decades with migrant settlers from Bihar and the neighboring states accounting for close to 40 percent of the population. Delhi once used to be a dominant fiefdom of the Punjabi-speaking people but it has been taken over by Biharis and other migrant groups. The culture and language of the national capital now reflects this shift. Biharis are more assertive here than before. With this shift, the past disdain reserved for them has largely evaporated.
The economic turnaround of Bihar and the rising assertiveness of its people reflect not only in the way they conduct themselves, but also in the way they celebrate their festivals openly.
Today, Chhath is no longer confined to Bihar and other eastern Indian states; it is celebrated with the same fanfare across the country.
The festival is a rigorous four-day event meant to worship the Sun, which is considered a God by certain Hindus. The four-day rituals necessitate a specific place and set of utensils for cooking food, fasting, abstinence from drinking water, and giving prayer and offerings to the setting and rising Sun. Devotees generally deliver their offerings via rivers and other bodies of water. Some say that the ancient Vedic text, the Rigveda, mentions the worship of the Sun and therefore the festival dates back to the pre-idol worship era which started from the 1st century CE. The last two days are quite crucial. On the penultimate day, devotees offer prayers to the setting Sun and the next day early in the morning they welcome the rising Sun by offering special prayers.
“When I came to study at Delhi University in the mid 1990s, Chhath was hardly celebrated in Delhi. Even if celebrated, it was not visible and was hidden away from popular consciousness. The very fact that it is now one of the largest festivals in Delhi and other metros demonstrates the rising confidence and assertiveness of the Bihari people,” says Bandana Preyashi, a young bureaucrat based in Patna, the capital of Bihar.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Anand Prakash, a Bihari entrepreneur based in Delhi, says that “earlier Biharis were a little coy or sheepish in celebrating their most popular festival in Delhi. Now they are very open and assert their rights; the fact that the government has to make special arrangements for the celebration shows the rising profile and greater confidence of the community, which not long ago was a subject of disdain in cities like Delhi.”
With Delhi headed for assembly elections within a month, all the major political parties were seen struggling to draw the attention of Bihari voters. The ruling Congress party, the first to realize the importance of migrant votes, has been the major beneficiary in the past and formed government on three occasions, largely with the support of the Biharis. If the party maintains its grip, it will be lucky for a fourth time. However, the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after failing in the last three elections, is trying hard to win over the Biharis. Both parties have given their tickets to people from eastern India to fight in the elections.
The English daily newspaper, The Telegraph, quoting a former diplomat and advisor to Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Pavan K Varma, writes that “the salient feature of Chhath is that it unites a people across categories, and brings Biharis into a oneness. That Chhath has become celebrated beyond Bihar is symbolic of the new Bihar itself, its new confidence in itself. Chhath has become almost an exemplar of rooted Indian celebrations.”
When I was growing up I never heard about the Chhath festival. It’s only in the last few years I have started hearing about this,” says Ullhas Manchanda, a Delhi-based businessman, whose forefathers migrated from Pakistan after partition. Speaking to The Diplomat, he adds: “the very fact that Biharis can organize such a huge festivity in Delhi and with such awareness, is an indication of the changing profile of the people of the eastern Indian state. Delhi is now incomplete without Biharis.”
Mumbai, which has witnessed strong anti-Bihari agitation in the past led by local leader, Raj Thackeray, also came to a standstill last weekend to celebrate the festival of the Sun. According to some reports around 500,000 to 600,000 people celebrated Chhath at different places in the financial capital of India.
West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee personally supervised the arrangements for the festival, denoting the importance she attaches to Bihari migrants in Kolkata who can help her retain some important parliamentary constituencies in the city.
Wherever Biharis go, the festival also travels with them. Chhath is a living testament to this. However, the addition of the eastern Indian festival to India’s national consciousness is also symbolic of a changing political equation and the rising profile of the traditionally underdog state. It also shows the new confidence of a people who have long suffered the indignities of being considered backward and culturally marginalized. It also demonstrates the changing face of urbanization and democratization in India.