By Kristin Schultz
With red pomegranates, yellow bananas, orange carrots still holding onto their green leafy tops and thekua molasses cookies piled on a tray, and ghee candles lighted, dozens of people gathered at a home in Niskayuna to celebrate Chhath Puja.
That home belongs to Amritesh and Sunita Singh, who have been inviting friends, family and acquaintances into their home for years to celebrate the festival that honors the sun. The celebration draws people from around the region (and even a niece from New Jersey) who are looking to observe the festival and experience community and commonality they left thousands of miles away when they left India.
Chhath Puja is a festival that begins six days after the best-known Hindu festival, Diwali. Chhath Puja, held this year from Oct. 23-26, pays homage to the sun for the energy that gives life to the earth and everything on it. Believing that the Sun God’s power is greatest during sunrise and sunset, offerings are presented during those times of day.
Chhath Puja involves rigorous rituals, including periodic fasting. In India, people perform elaborate bathing and rituals in rivers and ponds. In the United States, hundreds gathered on the banks of the Potomac River to celebrate.
With no river running through their yard, the Singhs offered their back deck instead. The festival lasts four days.
Both Amritesh and Sunita, along with a few other attendees and friends, observe the fast, which requires periods of abstaining from food and water.
The first two days build up to the third evening, called Sandhya Arghya, when friends, co-workers, acquaintances and sometimes even perfect strangers gather at the Singh home to make offerings before the sun goes down.
Some hurried in, having come straight from work, in order to present the offering before sunset. They rushed to get in line under the pop-up canopy on the deck. To make the offering, participants presented the tray of produce to Amritesh, Sunita and others observing the fast. Once they presented the tray, Amritesh turned around in a circle and bowed to the setting sun. The person making the offering poured a small amount of water onto the tray. Those steps are then repeated four more times.
After all the people had the opportunity to make their offerings, everyone went inside for another ceremony. The women, dressed in vibrantly hued saris, then sat and sang traditional songs.
In the kitchen, those not observing the fast ate traditional snacks like crispy vegetarian samosas, soft and savory idli rice cakes with spicy chutney and a variety of sweets. They sipped on cups of steaming, ginger-spiced chai tea. Men, women and children are welcomed and encouraged to celebrate.
“Everybody is equal,” said Sid Prasad, a retired demographer who came to the United States in 1970. “No matter your age, we all worship together.”
Among the children was 6-year old Ashita Misra, who attends Glencliff Elementary School. Her favorite part of the festival is “wearing pretty clothes.”
Iroquois Middle School student Aishani Misra likes being with her family and friends and performing the ceremonies.
“One of the goals is building community,” Amritesh said. Everyone is welcome, and no one is turned away.
Although Amritesh had not eaten or had anything to drink all day, and the kitchen counter was covered with dishes of food, he said he felt good. Holding to the fast in the face of food made him stronger, he said.
The families gathered their children and headed home by 9 p.m., but some of the women lingered, sharing stories and childhood memories. At 3:30 a.m., the Singhs arose for an additional offering ceremony.
On the fourth day of Chhath Puja, festivities began at sunrise with the same offerings being made before the sun fully rose. Instead of water, however, the offering trays were anointed with milk in the morning ceremony.
Fewer people came to the sunrise ceremony, which began around 6:45 a.m., but the atmosphere of reverence and celebration was just as present as the night before. Some people made their offerings in the damp morning air before going to work. Others stayed and ate breakfast, bringing the fasting to an end.
The Singhs’ daughter, Shivani, is a sophomore at Niskayuna High School. In the past, she has observed the fast, but couldn’t this year because she had to take the PSAT and needed to be nourished for the test. She helps her mother decorate the house and prepare for the festival.
“It’s a community,” Shivani said. “Everybody comes and it’s fun for everyone.”
As the festival concluded, all the produce and other foods offered during the festival were distributed among the community.