Kathmandu (AsiaNews) - This morning, thousands of Nepalis, mostly Hindus with a handful of Muslims, immersed themselves in often polluted rivers or stagnant bodies of water in Kathmandu and the rest of the country, to celebrate Chhath, the festival of the sun god.
The Hindu celebration dedicated to Surya, a god known as Helium in the Greco-Roman world, is set to end at sunrise on Sunday, 10 November, to coincide with the appearance of the rising sun.
For the Madhesi, who lives mostly in southern Nepal on the border with India, Chhath is the most important celebration. It includes three days of non-stop prayers to the sun.
During the event, at both dawn and dusk, the faithful pay tribute to water in all its forms - like rivers and lakes - offering all kinds of goods from the earth to the sun god.
Observant believers fast, giving up food and water for all three days of celebration. On the shores of waterways, they leave as gifts for the deity dairy products, foods made from grains, fruits like bananas and papaya, desserts and more.
According to experts in Nepali culture, the festival began among members of the Madhesi, a Hindu minority, who were persecuted and victimised by majority Hindus who primarily tended to celebrate Dashain and Tihar festival, Nepal's main Hindu festivities.
"As a result of protests against repression, major Hindu festivals were gradually abandoned in favour of Chhath," said Sashinanda Sah, a scholar. In fact, the festival's typical symbols - paying homage to the sun and asking for "strength and power" - came to symbolise the struggle against majority oppression.
However, the Hindu festival comes with serious health risks. Dipping in the stagnant or polluted waters of rivers or lakes promotes the spread of diseases like scabies that affect the skin.
Yet, water "must" be included in the festival's various ritual, Sah said, because believers must "see the sun's reflection in the water". The problem is that "we do not have clean water, so we are forced to immerse ourselves in filthy water".
Although closely associated with the country's Hindu Madhesi minority, Chhath's appeal has expanded over time to communities settled in other parts of the country, like the Himalaya and the hill region. And, like Christmas and the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, it is a national holiday.
Although state and religion are separated in the Republic of Nepal, most Nepalis (over 80 per cent) are Hindu, whilst Buddhists are 10 per cent. Catholics are around 0.5 per cent, but their numbers are rising.