Thousands of people gather near water sources in Kathmandu to celebrate the Chhath festival every year. The festival, once exclusively celebrated in the Mithila regions of Nepal and India, has now found its way to the country’s capital, Kathmandu, after many years.
In Kathmandu now, not only do members of the Mithila community celebrate this festival, but many locals from the valley and other immigrants also actively participate in Chhath Puja, worshipping the sun.
Have you ever wondered how this shift occurred? How did a festival specific to a particular community transform into a national celebration? Moreover, how did it journey from Madhes to Kathmandu?
Memories from yesteryear
To understand this, one must delve into the past, going back several decades.
According to Dhirendra Premarshi, a poet and Mithila culture expert, individuals from the Mithila region, residing in Kathmandu, would routinely travel between their village and the Kathmandu valley for various occasions, including festivals like Chhath.
“However, among them, a few people would suggest celebrating the Chhath festival in Kathmandu itself as they were living here,” he says. “After all, it is the festival that needs to be celebrated near 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, originally from Siraha and Morang, migrated to Kathmandu four decades ago to pursue a career in fine arts. Since then, he has been celebrating the festival in the capital.
This suggests that the history of Chhath celebration in Kathmandu spans over 40 years, although the exact date of the inaugural celebration remains unknown.
According to Suman, people began migrating to Kathmandu for education and 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, notes that until about four decades ago, Chhath celebrations in Kathmandu were confined to the individual level and remained relatively modest. The scale of the celebrations increased significantly only within the last two decades.
The first Chhath ghat of Kathmandu
In 1987, some families with roots in the Mithila regions, including the families of individuals like Dr Gauri Shanskar Lal Das (originally from Dhanusa), Sushil Kumar Sinha (Rautahat), Sachivanand Sriiwastab (Rautahat), Kamal Narayan Das (Dhanusa), and others, initiated the communal observance of Chhath Puja at the Thapathali Ghat in Kathmandu.
“This started becoming a tradition after this,” says advocate Satish Jha, a key figure behind the Chhath Puja celebration in Kathmandu since 1991.
Jha says the celebration was exclusively conducted at Thapathali Ghat and was organised by the Tarai Bikash Samaj.
In 1989/90, the government commenced the construction of a new bridge on the western side, leading to the occupation of the area used for the Chhath Puja celebration.
In response, the organisers relocated the event behind the Paropakar Maternity and Women’s Hospital along the Bagmati river, recalls Jha.
Following the People’s Movement in 2006, that particular area was occupied by landless squatters. Since then, the Chhath Puja has been organized on the western bank of the Kupandole Bagmati bridge.
From the festival of Madhes to the festival of all
Before 2006, there was no specific holiday designated for this festival. Consequently, individuals found it more convenient to celebrate it in Kathmandu rather than undertaking the journey to their native areas, as shared by all three individuals. Additionally, given the violent conflict between the government and Maoist rebels at that time, travelling to the southern districts became even more challenging and intimidating.
“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,” says Premashi.
Consequently, residents from various areas of Kathmandu gradually began organising Chhath Pujas at various ghats (riverbanks), including Guhyeshwari in the valley.
However, the significant attention to this festival in Kathmandu was drawn by the practice of observing Chhath Puja in Ranipokhari, which commenced in the early 2010s. Following this, locals of Kathmandu and individuals from other communities became attracted to this festival, ays Premashi.
Starting over 30 years ago at Thapathali Ghat, the Chhath Puja celebration in Kathmandu has expanded to about 20 ghats in the surrounding area. Before the pandemic, the event attracted approximately 800,000 participants annually, including both Madhesis and non-Madhesis, according to Jha.
Nowadays, this festival has evolved into one of the most significant celebrations in Kathmandu.