Thousands of people gather near water sources in Kathmandu to celebrate the Chhath festival every year. It has been many years since the festival which used to be traditionally celebrated in the Mithila regions of Nepal and India only has made its way to the capital of the country, Kathmandu.
Now, being in Kathmandu, not only do the people from the Mithila community celebrate this festival, but many locals of the valley and other immigrants here also participate in the Chhath puja and worship the sun.
But, ever wondered how this shift happened? How did the festival of a particular community become a national festival? And, how did it travel from Madhes to Kathmandu?
Memories from yesteryear
Well, one has to go decades back to know this.
People from the Mithila region living in Kathmandu used to travel to and fro between their village and Kathmandu valley during festivals and other ceremonies including Chhath in the past, says Dhirendra Premarshi, a poet and a Mithila culture expert.
“However, among them, a few people would suggest celebrating the Chhath festival here itself as they were living here,” he says, “After all, it is the festival that needs to be celebrated near the water sources. Therefore, people began to gather on the banks of Bagmati, celebrating this festival.”
Mithila artist SC Suman remembers celebrating Chhath on the bank of the Bagmati river near Tripureshwor four decades back. Suman, having his roots in Siraha and Morang, came to Kathmandu after he began pursuing fine arts as his career 40 years ago. And, he is celebrating the festival in Kathmandu itself since then.
It means the history of the Chhath celebration in Kathmandu is more than 40 years old although no one possibly knows actually when the first celebration took place.
According to Suman, people began migrating to Kathmandu for education and for employment as the opportunities were limited to the capital. Gradually, as their jobs were here, they permanently migrated to Kathmandu, bought properties and houses and also shifted their clan gods and goddesses here.
“Along with people, they shifted their cultural and religious practices,” says Suman.
Premarshi, however, says until around four decades ago, the Chhath celebration in Kathmandu was limited to the individual level. It was much smaller until two decades back.
The first Chhath ghat of Kathmandu
Some families originally belonging to Mithila regions including the families of Dr Gauri Shanskar Lal Das (originally from Dhanusa), Sushil Kumar Sinha (Rautahat), Sachivanand Sriiwastab (Rautahat), Kamal Narayan Das (Dhanusa) among others started observing Chhath puja, as a community, at the Thapathali Ghat for the first time in the Kathmandu valley in 1987, informs advocate Satish Jha, who has been a key person behind the Chhath puja celebration in Kathmandu since 1991.
But, at that time, the celebration would be held at Thapathali ghat only, according to him.
“It was done under the leadership of Terai Bikash Samaj”, mentions Premarshi.
From 1989/90, the then government started constructing a new bridge on the western side there and the area being used for the puja and celebration was occupied. “Then, we started organising the Chhath puja behind the Paropakar Maternity and Women’s Hospital on the bank of Bagmati river,” remembers Jha.
After the people’s movement II (2006), that area was occupied by landless squatters. Since then, people have been organising the Chhath puja on the western bank of the Kupandole Bagmati bridge.
From the festival of Madhes to the festival of all
Before 2006, there was no holiday dedicated to this festival. So, people found it easier to celebrate it in Kathmandu than to travel to their original places, inform all the three. On the other hand, as the country was witnessing a violent conflict between the government and the Maoist rebels, travelling to the southern districts became even more difficult and frightening.
Premashi says, “These bad times brought good changes for the development and promotion of the Chhath festival in Kathmandu. Many started celebrating Chhath in Kathmandu only, just because of the difficulties of going to their hometown in Terai.”
Hence, gradually, people living in different parts of Kathmandu started organising Chhath pujas at different ghats (riverbanks) including at Guhyeshwari in the valley.
But, what brought major limelight to this festival in Kathmandu was the practice of observing Chhath puja in Ranipokhari that started in the early 2010s. After that, locals of Kathmandu, and people from other communities got attracted to this festival, says Premashi.
Initiated from the Thapathali ghat in an organised way over 30 years ago, the Chhath puja celebration in Kathmandu is organised at about 20 ghats in and around the Kathmandu valley. The valley sees around 800,000 people including, including Madhesis and non-Madhesis, during the Chhath puja every year. These are the numbers before the pandemic hit the country, according to Jha.
Today, this festival has become one of the greatest festivals of Kathmandu.