Foam-covered, polluted River Yamuna plays host to ancient Hindu festival

Chhath Puja, dedicated to the Indian sun god Surya, is a popular festival celebrated with fervour across northern and eastern India. River Yamuna which is central to the worship is so polluted that devotees have to offer prayers immersing themselves in foam-covered water.

Chhath Puja, an ancient festival celebrated in honour of India’s sun god Surya, has its origins in the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, and in the neighbouring country Nepal. However, its popularity has now spread not only across northern and eastern parts of India, but also across the world, introduced primarily by the diaspora.

Women worshippers performing the Chhath Puja to sun god Surya in River Yamuna which is completely covered in toxic foam caused by industrial effluents and untreated sewage let into the river. Photo: Abhishek Singh

Celebrated six days after Diwali, the festival of lights, Chhath Puja falls in the lunisolar month of Kartik (October-November of the Gregorian calendar). It is often referred to as a solar festival since the principal god is Surya, the sun god. It is also called Surya Shasthi Vrat, with the word chhath originating from shasthi or the sixth day of the new moon.

The goddess Chhathi Mai, also known as Usha, said to be Surya’s consort, holds a significant position of reverence and worship. Interestingly, this is one of the few solar festivals that start at sunset rather than sunrise. This is not a gender-specific festival, but has traditionally and socially been women-centric, partly also because Chhathi Mai is believed to be the goddess who protects children, ensuring their longevity and good health.

Apart from the popular lore associated with Chhath Puja, the festival also has a connection with agriculture. This can be considered a post-harvest festival, as worshipping the sun is a show of gratitude for the bountiful harvest in the season just ended, rice being one of the crops harvested at this time.

The ancient Hindu festival dedicated to sun god Surya is women-centric since Chhathi Mai, the consort of Surya is believed to protect children, ensuring good health longevity. Photo: Abhishek Singh

The four-day celebrations attract so many people that city and state authorities often have to make special arrangements. Last year, thousands of Hindu men and women observed the Chhath Puja. For four days, devotees from northern India and Nepal fasted, made offerings of sweets and fruits, and immersed themselves in sacred rivers — particularly the Yamuna.

One of India’s most sacred rivers, it has turned into one of its most polluted

In fact, it’s the festivities around the Yamuna that were the most striking. One of India’s most sacred rivers, it has turned into one of its most polluted as institutional neglect has allowed industrial effluents and untreated sewage to flow into it over the years. Environmentalists have now labelled the river covered in foam as ‘ecologically dead’. Though successive state governments promoted plans to clean up the river, none has succeeded yet.

However, for millions of Indian citizens, the Yamuna remains a key water source and resonates deeply with their faith. So deep is their faith, that thousands celebrate the Chhath Puja by taking a holy dip, despite Yamuna’s polluted waters being covered in toxic foam.

Women pray while standing in foam-covered Yamuna River, which environmentalists have declared as ecologically dead. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Women offer prayers to the sun god Surya and his consort Chhathi Mai, also known as Usha, while standing in polluted water. Photo: Abhishek Singh
For Indians celebrating Chhath Puja, an ancient festival, offerings to the sun god and a dip in River Yamuna are essential. Photo: Abhishek Singh
After praying while standing in the water, women offer flowers and float lighted lamps. Photo: Abhishek Singh
In essence Chhath Puja is also a harvest festival, as it is celebrated right after the harvesting season. The waterfront can be seen with baskets of flowers and fruits, besides standing sugarcanes in the water, brought as an offering. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Thousands gather on river banks, particularly that of River Yamuna, every year to celebrate Chhath Puja. The prayers are offered just before sunset. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Men and women bring flowers and fruits and place them in the waterfront as offering to sun god Surya and his consort Chhathi Mai. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Women are seen taking a holy dip and floating flower offerings, as part of Chhath Puja celebrations. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Families bring their children also for the celebration as the belief is that Chhathi Mai is the goddess who protects children and gives them good health and longevity. Photo: Abhishek Singh
As Chhathi Mai, the consort of Surya, protects children and ensures their health, children are also part of the Chhath Puja celebrations. Here a father and his young son are seen worshipping in knee-deep water. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Flowers and fruits are offered during the Chhath Puja celebration, since it also symbolises a bountiful harvest of the just-concluded crop season. Photo: Abhishek Singh
As families congregate at the waterfront, it provides a livelihood opportunity for some. Here a vendor is seen selling kasta kachauri, a deep-fried spicy snack. Photo: Abhishek Singh
As River Yamuna is central to the celebration of Chhath Puja, men and women take a holy dip and pray while standing in the water, notwithstanding the foam caused by untreated sewage and effluents. Photo: Abhishek Singh

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Abhishek Singh

Abhishek is a photographer from New Delhi, India.

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