October 28, 2017 11:26:38 am
Chhath is not just a festival for the people of Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and the Bihari diaspora across the world. It is an earthly emotional connect to one’s cultural roots. Chhath is also perhaps the only festival in which you see the “god” you worship. It symbolises the purity of your heart in practice — crime incidents are all-time low during the four-day festival that is mentioned in the Rig Veda. The best part of Chhath is the people’s zeal in keeping their surroundings very clean. Long before Prime Minister Modi came up with his “Swachh Bharat” mission, Chhath has been an eternal ambassador of both cleanliness and godliness.
So when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar says the self-discipline practiced for Chhath – the fasting and the abstinence and the single-minded devotion to Surya, the Sun god – can change the personality of a person, you know that the comment comes not from a politician but a self-appointed social reformer.
For Nitish, the celebration of the “mahaparv,” or big festival, is synonymous with the austerity and self-denial that goes with it. It is true that there is something puritanical about the chief minister that makes him undertake projects and initiatives others would not even contemplate from a distance. For example, the campaign against liquor that he began soon after he came to power a second time in end-2015, which ended with him imposing a drastic ban in April 2016.
The chief minister’s newest political enterprise is a state-wide campaign against child marriage and the taking and giving of dowry. Awareness pamphlets against dowry have been scattered across the state. Marriage halls will have to perforce seek affidavits from either party that dowry was not given and taken. Gender Resource Centres, under the social welfare department, have announced awards for journalists who will write “good reports” against child marriage and dowry.
Of course, the Bihar chief minister refers to Mahatma Gandhi’s calls for reform on all these social issues. The unkind would say that Nitish knows he has lost his stake in national politics, which is why he has to look for issues that can keep him politically relevant. Perhaps, the symbols associated with the Chhath puja can help. In the hope that the Sun God will smile upon him, Nitish knew that he must ensure that the ghats on the Ganges were clean and that other amenities for the thousands of pilgrims who descend on the river were in proper working order.
He knew, too, he will not survive another stampede like the one at the Adalat ghat four years ago during the Chhath festival. That is why his involvement in its administration was total, right from ensuring the flow of the Ganga is just right – too fast a flow will pull pilgrims into the water, but too slow a flow will also mean that the large amounts of flowers and fruit and other “samagri” that is offered to the Sun God will stagnate and not be washed away by the tide – to ensuring that the festival is treated like a “state event” complete with communication systems to prevent panic and rumours.
The massive organization reminded one of the ‘Kumbh Mela’, which takes place every four year in one of the sacred ‘teerthas’ associated with the Ganges. Perhaps the Chhath festival is seen as a poorer cousin today to the Kumbh, even though the Sun worship takes place on the same river, the Ganges.
Perhaps Nitish Kumar wants to scale up the Chhath so that it attracts domestic and international tourists much like the Kumbh Mela. Perhaps this will allow him to bask in the glow of the Sun God who rides his chariot across the four-day festival which concluded on Friday.
Certainly, there is something about the Chhatt festival that casts its long rays of hope around a Bihari or Poorvanchali audience. In Delhi, former chief minister Sheila Dikshit was the first to announce Chhatt holidays to keep the rising Poorvanchali vote in Delhi in good humour. Delhi BJP president and member of Parliament Manoj Tiwari uses the fact that he is a NRP – a Non-Resident Poorvanchali – to full effect. Billboards and posters advertising his devotion to the Sun God adorn the streets of Delhi. No doubt he hopes his devotion will come in full use when the elections come around. The fact that Tiwari also sings Chhath songs only adds to the thickening socio-cultural paragraph on the “religion” column of his resume.
For Lalu Prasad, Chhath is an occasion for family reunion. His wife and former chief minister Rabri Devi had stopped observing Chhath for some years because of poor health. She was probably hoping she would take off this year as well, until a war of words broke out on Twitter between Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi and Lalu’s younger son and former deputy CM Tejasvi Prasad Yadav. Sushil Modi wanted to know if Rabri Devi would pray to the Sun God to “save her son” embroiled in CBI and Enforcement Directorate cases. Tejasvi responded by asking if Sushil Modi’s wife Jessie George, a Malayali, would stand in the water along with his mother so that “we know” who can stand there longer.
And so it goes. As the Sun God descends upon the horizon, the sight of women applying vermilion down their hair parting and down to the tip of their nose, not only tells the story of eternal faith, it also connects the people with their political masters. Politicking as we know it is suspended for these four, full days, but politics seems to be an integral part of the celebration.
In the end, that is the importance of Chhath. It helps if the powers-that-be will assist the Sun God in his journey across the skies by enhancing the experience of mere mortals on Earth. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t really matter. Punishment will come at the ballot boxes after five years and that’s enough warning. Meanwhile, the Chhath will renew the faith and journey of Biharis, Poorvanchalis and the Bihari diaspora the world over – as well as anybody else who celebrates it – and remind them of their vows every year.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines