Chhath: ancient worship of the sun festival

Rani Pokharai temple during Chhath in Kathmandu
Food for the Chhath ritual in Kathmandu Nepal

Chhath in Nepal

Chhath is the ancient Hindu festival dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, Surya and Chhathi Maiya. It’s a rare occasion to witness its followers give thanks to the sun god for providing light that sustains the earth and also giving wishes.

The rituals involved in Chhath for devotees are quite rigorous and take place over four days. Though you will usually only get to see most of this on the second last day, evening and the following morning.

Rituals include, bathing, fasting, prayer and giving offerings to the sun god.

Woman sitting in front of Rani Pokhari
A woman sits and waits for the night to arrive for her all night vigil for Chhath

Chhath in Kathmandu city

While Chhath is mainly celebrated in the Terai (southern) region of Nepal and northern India you can witness it wherever there is a large number of its followers.

The largest single gathering occurs in Kathmandu city around the beautiful Rani Pokhari temple. The temple compound only opens twice a year, once for Bhai Tika and once for Chhath.

The sun sets over Rani Pokhari
The sun sets over Rani Pokhari and families start to huddle together for warmth during Chhath

People gather here on the morning or afternoon of the overnight vigil. It can get crowded during the late afternoon but the crowds soon disperse and the cold autumn night descends.

The beautiful Rani Pokhari

Rani Pokhari had eluded me for nearly ten years. It’s green gates remain closed throughout the year aside from two days. In 2015 it suffered damage in the earthquake. In 2016 Rani Pokhar suffered the indignity of clumsy repairs at low cost.

The beautiful Rani Pokhari temple during the day
The beautiful Rani Pokhari temple during the day

A solitary beauty with a noble past. in the 17th century King Pratap Malla declared his son Chakravartindra the crown prince. During the celebrations that followed an elephant ran wild and killed the prince.

Both the king and queen were distraught. While the king recovered the queen did not. In a bid to alleviate her pain he built Rani Pokhara in 1670 filling it with holy water from around Nepal and India.

People surround Rani Pokhari pond with offerings of fruit, flowers, candles and money
People surround Rani Pokhari with offerings of fruit, flowers, candles and money

Every night thereafter the queen would visit the temple over the pond. Thusly the pond became known as the Queens pond or Rani Pokhari.

Due to the holy water inside it is forbidden to commit suicide at Rani Pokhari. However the lakes beauty pulled many a morning and happy lady towards its shores. Sadly the shores were slippery and many fell into the water and drowned. Hence the gates are locked throughout the year.

Night of Chhath at Rani Pokhari

The crowds flow in through the unlocked gates all day. It’s a squeeze at the front gates but if you make your way around to the rear gates you’ll easily avoid the crowd.

Inside lining the pond will be blankets, sheets and tarpaulin where devotees will be sitting with food and other offerings.

Rani Pokhari lit up for Chhath
Rani Pokhari lit up for Chhath

Some will be talking with friends, others will be chanting. Surrounding the pond are various speakers playing ritual music. Though some is little “bollywoodesque”.

Dusk falls

As the sun fades away butter candles are lit and the fountains surrounding the temple come to life with color. I write this as it’s the only time of the year when the ponds fountains are turning on.

Triangular bamboo soop covering ritual candles and offerings during Chhath
Triangular bamboo soop covering ritual candles and offerings during Chhath

It’s all quite impressive for Kathmandu city which suffers from load shedding and a distinct lack of maintenance.

The night of Chhath

By 6pm it is dark and winters early chill has sent the curious and passersby home. Only the devoted remain. And they will remain for the entire night.

With butter candles flickering around the large pond, the temple lit up, fountains filled with color and people chanting Rani Pokhari becomes quite a beautiful place indeed.

A friendly man comes to bless himself during Chhath in Kathmandu
A friendly man comes to bless himself during Chhath

If you’ve been to the Golden Temple in India then it’s not quite than much of spectable but it’s close in terms of grandeur.

Rituals throughout the night

Families huddle in the cold. People bless themselves with Rani Pokhari’s water. Money is placed on the offerings of fruit surrounded by small bamboo soop winnows.

This is one of the only rituals where there is no priest present.

Two ladies during Chhath in Kathmandu
Chhath is only one of two occasions then the Rani Pokhari temple is opened up in the year

Wrapped in blankets people will stay here all night. While bathing is part of the ritual Rani Pokhara’s waters are deep and dangerous. Instead people scoop up the water and wash themselves with it.

Morning at Chhath

By morning things are into full swing. Chanting and praying is at fever pitch as the sun rises up. Surya the Sun God is given full attention and appreciation.

Candles are lit around the temple for Chhath
Candles are lit around the temple for Chhath

Once the sun has risen people slowly pack up and head home. Chhath comes to a close.

Chhath at Rani Pokhari for tourists

The date of Chhath changes depending on lunar cycles but it’s usually in late October to November.

If you happen to be in Kathmandu during Chhath and you’ve never been to Rani Pokhara or witnessed such a ritual then it’s definitely worth going to.

Your only problem will be trying to finding out when exactly it’s on. Only a small percentage of the population celebrate Chhath and those that don’t tend not to pay it much attention.

Two women surrounding by candles during Chhath
Chhath in Kathmandu doesn’t get much publicity, but it’s well worth going to

Pay no heed to the dismissive tones of local people. Simply find out the day/evening it’s on and make your way there. Bring a warm jacket if you can as it can get cold. It’s a once a year opportunity to witness not only Chhath but also to enter the Rani Pokhari compound.

Here’s a full list of festivals in Nepal which includes the date of Chhath in Nepal.

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