RELIGION AND FESTIVALS

The majority of people are Hindu. So all traditional Hindu festivals are observed - Holi, Saraswati Puja, Durga Puja or Dusserah, Deepavali, Bhaiya Dooj etc. But there is one festival that is uniquely associated with Bihar, and that is the festival of Chhath described below.

Muslims comprise a vast minority. (At the time of partition of India, in 1947, a very large number of Bihari Muslims migrated to Pakistan - then comprising of East and West Pakistan. When East Pakistan was liberated from Pakistani rule and became the nation of Bangladesh, these Bihari Muslims had a second migration, this time to West Pakistan, now simply known as Pakistan. This Bihari minority in Pakistan is known as "mujahirs" and they are engaged in a fierce fight for their survival in Pakistan.)

Christians, although proportional to the whole population a small minority, are very large in absolute numbers. Many beautiful Catholic and Protestant church buildings dot the landscape of towns in Bihar. Special mention may be made of Patna and Ranchi.  Some examples are:  the St. Joseph's Convent, the St. Xavier's School with its chapel, Padri-Ki-Haveli, and the church at the Holy Family Hospital in Patna; and the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church at Ranchi.  For a fuller description of Christianity in Bihar, please click here.

Surprisingly, Bihari Sikhs, in the land that gave the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, are very few in number. A large number of Sikhs from the Punjab migrated to Bihar during the partition of India in 1947. This uprooted, but highly enterprising, group of people quickly established itself as very successful member of the business and industrial community in Bihar. They are now an integral part of the Bihari population. The Harmandir Takht, the gurudwara that commemorates Guru Gobind Singh, is a sacred place of pilgrimage for the Sikhs. To the Sikhs this holy place is reverentially known as Patna Sahib.

Festivals of all these religions are, of course, observed in Bihar. A calendar of the festivals for 1998 is provided at the bottom of the page. Also, clicking here will take you to the Government of India's page on Indian Festivals. As you will note, the festival described below is absent from that list.

CHHATH

There is one Hindu festival that is uniquely Bihari, and that is the festival of Chhath. This is observed mostly by the people of North Bihar. It is devoted to the worship of the Sun God. It is, therefore, also known as SuryaShashti. The festival begins on the sixth day of the month of Kartik in the Hindu lunar calendar. This will correspond to late October to mid November, depending on the year. It is one of the holiest festivals for biharis and extends to four days. On day 1, the devotees take a cleansing dip - preferably in the holy river Ganges - and bring river water to prepare the offerings. On day 2, a fast is observed for the whole day and in late evening, the devotees, after performing a worship at home, break their fast. The offerings - typically a porridge of rice, puris (deep fried puffs of wheat flour) and bananas - are shared among family and visiting friends and relatives. Day 3 is spent in the preparation of offerings at home during the day. In the evening the devotees move to a river bank (or a pond) with the entire family and friends. There the offerings are made to the setting sun. At nightfall, the devotees along with the family and friends return home where another colorful celebration takes place. Under a canopy of sugar cane sticks, clay elephants containing earthen lamps, and containers full of the offerings, are placed. There the fire god is worshipped. (You can view a full screen picture by clicking here.) The devotees maintain a strict fast without even water. Then next morning a similar procession of the devotees, family and friends, moves again to the river bank. Offerings are made to the rising sun. At the completion of the offerings, there is great celebration. The devotees break their fast and the rich offerings are made available to the family, friends, relatives and the onlookers! The offerings are also very characteristic. They are: a deep fried and sweet rolls of stone ground wheat flour, grapefruit, whole coconuts, bananas, and grains of lentils. These items are contained in small, somewhat semicircular, pans woven out of bamboo strips.

Chhat is a very colorful festival. New clothes are a must for the devotees. And the family also are dressed in their finest on the visit to the river. There is much music and a lot of singing of folk songs, both at home and on the river bank. In Patna, literally millions of people throng the banks of the river Ganges for miles. There is much gaiety even among so much piety. The streets are kept spotlessly clean by bands of volunteers, who also decorate all streets leading to the river with colorful festoons, ribbons, and banners. Loudspeakers blare chath songs all through the evening and early morning.

Paul Theroux in his travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, describes his vision of chhath at the Howrah railway station from on board the Howrah Mail. He quotes his fellow passenger, Mr. Chatterjee saying -"there go the Biharis, off to throw their bananas in the Hooghly." (Hooghly is the river that separates Howrah from Calcutta proper.) Interestingly, Theroux goes on to say that "as a Bengali Mr. Chatterjee wasn't sure of the purpose of the Chhat festival." Such is the lack of knowledge about this festival even in a neighboring State! Interestingly, Mr. Chatterjee's comment is typical of the Bengali attitude. Biharis, in large number, for centuries, have done work requiring hard physical labor in the metropolis of Calcutta- working in the dock yards, pulling rickshaws and hauling pushcarts laden with heavy loads on its streets, watching the property of the rich Bengalis, etc. In case you did not notice or do not remember, the main character in the movie "The City of Joy" is a rickshaw puller from Bihar. (Theroux's ref: p 173-74, Ballantine Books edition, 1976.)

["Images" ] Here you will find links to some large pictures of the Chhath festival.

 

KARTIK PURNIMA AND THE SONEPUR FAIR

The month of Kartik in the Hindu calendar is especially important. It is in this month that the major religious festivals occur, namely Dusserah (or Durga Puja), Deepavali, and Chhath. It is a month, like Lent for Christians, when penance is observed. The end of the month, Purnima (or full moon), is therefore a great joyous occasion (not much different than Mardi Gras!) On this day a ritual bath is taken in the holy river Ganges, or any other river. Sonepur, a river town and important railroad junction, situated across the river from Patna at the confluence of the rivers Gandak and Ganges, is of special importance. A huge fair is held here at this time which is the largest fair of its kind in the world, for it is a fair specially for the trade of animals. Cattle, horses, camels and elephants can be seen in large numbers. It attracts a huge number of people, not only from all over Bihar, but also from other parts of India and foreign countries. The Government of Bihar puts up special accommodations suited to the needs of foreign visitors.