Praying to the setting sun

What appears to be a calm, even idyllic, moment as these women in Mumbai wade into the water to pray to the setting sun belies the fact that Chhath Puja is one of the toughest festivals in the Hindu calendar.

Celebrated six days after Deepavali, Chhath Puja is an ancient four-day festival dedicated to the Sun God and Chhatti Mai, the Goddess of Power.

Undertaken mostly by women, clad in bright hues, it is a series of ritual baths in rivers and ponds, prayer offerings, singing and fasting, including a 36-hour stretch during which devotees are not allowed even a sip of water.

Chhath Puja is a homage to the cycle of birth and death, and begins with the latter with worshippers offering prayers to the setting sun.

During the festival, devotees are expected to be pure of heart and reject a luxurious life.

But following the final prayer on the fourth day, the fast is broken and an offering of fruit and sweets is distributed to family and friends.

Hindus believe the Sun God, Surya, to be the source of all life force and energy.

Chhath Puja is celebrated mainly in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and is their most important festival.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'Praying to the setting sun'. Print Edition | Subscribe