Chaot is a festival that is particularly important within Nepal’s Madheshi community who originated from the plains that stretch across the south of the country called “the Terai.” Additionally, bodies of water (and particularly rivers) are very important during this, and many Hindu ceremonies. As Gaighat is in the inner part of the Terai, and situated on the Triuga River, it is a large gathering place for people participating in the Chaot festival and I was excited to join the Shah family for the occasion.
The purpose of Chaot is to worship the Sun to please it and to ensure it continues rising every morning and sustaining life. The festival only lasts about a day and a half from sunset to sunrise 2 days later, with the most important point stretching from sunset to sun rise over the last night.
In the days leading up to Chaot my female friends jokingly (or maybe not?) complained about all the work required in the preparations for the festival. Then in the few days before and during the festival there was indeed a flurry of preparations as we (i.e. they with a touch of help from me) prepared at least types of 10 traditional foods, including grinding a variety of grains by hand with traditional grinding mills.
The spread of offerings laid out by the bank of the river at sunset during Chaot
After a few long days of work around 3:00 in the afternoon everyone got dressed up – the women decked out in their finest saris and adorned in their most extravagant jewelry. Then laden with food, vessels, and offerings we all tromped down to the river, along which spots had been claimed by the hundreds and hundreds of families that lined the sandy bank and had unpacked their offerings and laid out alters. The offerings placed on the alter to the Sun included many prepared foods, milk, oil, clarified butter, fruits, coconuts, grains, and lots of oil lamps.
As sunset grew near the men rolled up their pant legs and the women gathered up their skirts and waded into the river to begin praying, offerings in hand. One person per family was required to do an extensive fasting during this festival, and the designated person also was tasked with holding each of the offerings from the alter up to the Sun to make sure it had seen the offerings.
The crowd in the river praying at sunset
Once the sun set, most people headed for home, leaving the young men of each family to camp on the banks of the river over the next few hours keeping the oil lamps lit, keeping animals away from the food, and playing cards until everyone returned before sunrise the next morning.
Somehow at 4am without the aid of any alarm Archana (pictured below), the 24-year old mother of the family with whom I was staying switched on all the lights in the where we slept. It was time to again began the beautifying process – much less fun at this cold and dark hour – and make our way in the dark down to the river. We got there just before sunrise and joined the people wading in, covered in shawls and jackets to steel ourselves against the cold.
The Shah family and I praying at sunrise
The sunrise was less than climactic as the horizon was covered by a haze of gray clouds. Yet we waited, and the prayers continued, and suddenly out of nowhere a glowing orange orb emerged from the mist and hovered low in the sky. After the appearance of the sun and the requisite prayers were finished the official ceremony ended and the feast began. The gorgeous spread of remaining offerings, having been feasted upon by the Sun, were now available for human consumption. And consumed they were! The remainder of the day was spent lazily eating, napping, and appreciating the sunshine that finally and fully broke through the haze and gave us a beautiful warm day.
All in all, I have to say that it was a dramatic and fulfilling end to an incredible festival season.
Not bad for 6am! From left to right: Archana, her mother in-law, and her sister-in law Ranjana
Posted By Nicole Farkouh
Posted Dec 15th, 2007