A space for rituals

15 Nov 2011 | Periferry - Guwahati, India

Variance in the water level triggers off activities in and around the area off Sukreswar ghat. With the gradual decrease in the water level at the onset of winter , the wasteland is again reclaimed as a public space. It morphs into a religious space as hundreds of Hindu devotees gather for Chhath Puja, an ancient Hindu festival where the Hindu Sun God, Surya,is worshiped. Chhath puja falls on kartika Shukala Shashti, which is the sixth day of the month of Kartika in the Hindu Calendar. This falls typically in the month of October or November in the Gregorian Calendar.The Chhath Puja is performed in order to thank the Sun God for enabling life to sustain on earth and to request fulfillment of wishes.

Rigorous rituals uch as holy bathing, fasting and abstaining from drinking water (Vratta) are generally  observed by women over a period of three days.On the eve of the festival the women who are fasting go to the riverbank along with their entire household and offer prashad (prayer offerings) to the setting sun. People stay on the ghat all night in make shift tents. Each family select a particular place in the wasteland for worshiping and purity was maintained will entering those spaces.Next morning, on the day of Chhath Puja, they bathe in the water of Brahmaputra at around 4 am and worship the rising sun.

This festival is basically celebrated in the north Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Assam, Chhath Puja is main festival of the immigrant Bihari community living in the state. Migration of Biharis into Assam has a long history. In colonial times the British administration had encouraged migration of thousands of Biharis to work on the tea-plantations and for other manual jobs in Assam. Influx of Bihari population in Assam has created repercussions amongst the Assamese community, that at times culminates to xenophobia. While festival like Chhath Puja are the apparent assertion of Bihari identity and this can be gauged by the increase in the magnitude of the festival in Assam, particulary in Guwahati.

During the festival Chhath Maiya (Chhath Mother) is also worshiped, who according to the religious beliefs symbolises river Ganga, which flows across the northern region of India. During Chhath Puja all the water bodies are considered as river Ganga. It’s interesting that the character of space changes when different symbolisims are added to it. Brahmaputra which is considered to be a ‘male river’ with masculine connotations  attached to it in local folklores and myths, is worshipped as a ‘female river’ Ganga, which is an intregal part of the cultural and social landscape of the Bihari comunity.

With women acting as the main participants of the festival, the ghat becomes a space for their congregation. Traditionally women in India are confined to their homes with very less share in the public space. So, community gathering like this creates a temporary space for them for social exchange.

Celebration of Chhath Puja during early winters is interesting, as in this season there is enough space in the riverbank for public gathering. The wasteland become easily accessible for various micro-social activities. Although in some parts of India this festival is also celebrated in the summer (March–April), the former is more popular because Chhath, being an arduous observance, requiring the worshipers to fast without water for around 36 hours continuously, is easier to undertake in the winters.

Over hundreds of people gather in  various sandbanks of Brahmaputra in Assam for Chhath Puja, the Sukreswar ghat being one such spot. On the day of Chhath Puja,the wasteland is also used by the local fish wholesellers for selling fish.  As women fast for almost 36 hrs for the Puja and men take vegetarian food during this period, so there is a great demand for fishes after the end of rituals. A  temporary fish market is put up at the wasteland where fish wholesellers sell fish caught the previous night.

With the shriking of public space in the growing cities, wastelands like this provides an alternate space for community practices. The space brims with different layers of micro-social activities, from vendor selling toys, knick-knacks to children playing around. Even the soundscape of the space changes with loadspeakers playing  Chhath Puja songs.

Images by Tanima Das

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