Chhat Puja, the festival honouring worshipping the Sun, and Chhati Maiya, is one of the biggest festivals of Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal and Chhattisgarh. Chhat Puja involves offering flowers, whole fruits, incense, and ghee to Lord Surya. The offerings are usually, and traditionally left untouched in water bodies until they rot and decompose. Many environmentalists have claimed that such rituals do more good for maintaining the ecosystem in rivers, lakes and ponds than harm. However, some environmentalists do contradict this view as well.
Other than the states where Chhat puja is widely celebrated, Chhat puja is discouraged by local authorities, citing environmental issues. Kolkata, which has sizable Bihari and UP communities, see conflicts related to rituals involving water bodies. Some alleged that the rituals hamper water quality in the short term for bathing, washing, drinking and other purposes. But the biggest obstruction is made by several environmentalist groups, which sprang up with or without authorization, who are not opposed to idol immersion but raise serious concern over Chhat rituals.
Let us for the time being focus on Kolkata, where Chhat is widely celebrated by a sizeable minority. For a long time, only the river Hooghly was used for Chhat rituals, while local ponds, lakes and other places were avoided. But as the Bihari and UP communities grew with time, there was the need of using ponds and lakes for Chhat puja in places far away from the river. That only caused minor local conflicts, most of which got resolved as soon as they started. However, as the State Government intervened, and provided the worshippers with additional ghats along the river, as well as designated ponds and lakes, the celebrations not only became peaceful but also spread among the locals, creating a sense of unity. This is when some environmentalists crept in and cited environmental issues to stop the festival and hence the unity in diversity.
Let us now look into why many environmentalists claim Chhat Puja is eco-friendly. Chhat puja is performed mostly on the banks of rivers and other water bodies, involving peace, tranquillity, and nature. Chhat puja rituals do not require temple or enclosed space, overcrowding, harmful colours, paints and water-soluble materials. Flowers, fruits, ghee decompose in water, providing nutrition for aquatic life. All the products used in this puja are biodegradable, thus making this puja so eco-friendly.
However, several small factors concern environmentalists. Firstly, though the festival is supposed to be peaceful and quiet, many non-ritual elements have been added to it in recent times. Beating drums and bursting loud crackers are increasingly becoming popular among worshippers. Some protected areas surrounding water bodies, like Rabindra Sarovar Lake and Subhash Lake in Kolkata are home to a large number of migratory birds that arrive from Siberia during the onset of winter. Loud noise hampers their movement and even local birds have started avoiding their habitat in Rabindra Sarovar and Subhash Sarovar. Also, since the Bihari community has grown considerably in recent years, too many flowers, fruits, and ghee will block the sunlight and destroy the rich aquatic plants in these two places. The stagnant nature of such large lakes means that the products thrown into the lakes are likely to persist for a very long time. All these forced the National Green Tribunal to ban the Chhat puja celebration in these two lakes in Kolkata. To compensate for the above two places, worshippers have been allocated more ghats for performing the puja. Still, some miscreants try to create shortcuts and enter the lakes for rituals even though there are many other nearby places.
All these caused a section of the Bengali society to turn against Chhat puja. There are some genuine issues, which most worshippers can bring a change to celebrate the festival together. Voices must be raised against those who are not following law and order in environmental protection. Also, we need to raise our awareness against false allegations and petitions given by some environmentalists, without any justification for their cause. Social media is their best platform for spreading hatred. The number of hate posts, claiming rampant environmental pollution should be cross-checked and verified with reason before any action is taken. Otherwise, the peace and bond that this festival brings will remain a distant reality.
Written by – Himadri Paul