Patna, Nov 12 (IANS) They make religious lines blur. Nazma Khatoon and Hasanzado Begum - both devout Muslims - don't think twice about observing a fast and performing other rituals of Chhath, the most popular festival of Bihar that is essentially celebrated by Hindus.
'I have celebrated Chhath for nearly two decades and will perform it till my last breath,' Nazma Khatoon, who is in her late 40s and a resident of Mohanpur Haat in Vaishali district, told IANS.
Muslim women in various parts of Bihar have been celebrating Chhath for years, sometimes ignoring criticism from hardliners in their community. As they pray to the sun and clean river banks and streets -- like their Hindu counterparts -- they say it is a simple matter of faith.
'I know that several Muslim women celebrate it in nearby villages in Vidupur and Lalganj blocks,' said Nazma Khatoon. This time the festival began Wednesday and will be on till Saturday.
Hasanzado Begum, a resident of Jamalki village in Saran district, said she had been celebrating Chhath for seven years. 'It has brought good luck to my family. I am happy to observe fasts and offer prayers to the sun god.'
She said her two-year-old son's recovery enthused her to perform Chhath puja. 'My son had not got well despite treatment by several doctors, his condition deteriorated and I lost all hope.
'But an elderly neighbour suggested I perform Chhath. It worked like a miracle. My son's health improved and gradually he recovered fully,' said Hasanzado Begum, a school dropout.
Her husband, Alamuddin Mian, helps her perform Chhath.
Hindus see in these Muslims a show of communal harmony.
'It is a rare show of brotherhood as it promotes tolerance and peace,' said Kishore Kunal, a former IPS officer who administers the Bihar Religious Trusts Board.
The popular four-day Chhath festival, symbolising purity, comes after Diwali. It began Wednesday when devotees across the state bathed in a ritual called 'Nahai Khai' followed by Kharna Thursday. The first Arghya - when prayers are offered to the setting sun - takes place Friday.
As per tradition, offerings of wheat, milk, sugarcane, bananas and coconuts were made to the sun god. The festival will conclude Saturday morning with another Arghya to the rising sun.
Mallika Bano, a resident of Shukla road in Muzaffarpur, said she was performing Chhath for 22 years and for good reason. 'My wish to have a son was fulfilled after I performed Chhath,' she said.
Hasan Imam, in his mid 40s, a theatre activist and a resident of Paraudha village in Begusarai district, said his family had been performing Chhath for decades.
'We are not alone, there are several Muslim families in Begusarai and neighbouring districts of Vaishali, Samastipur, Khagaria and Muzaffarpur, who observe the festival,' he said.
He said his family observes the rituals and worships the sun god for long life and good health.
Several Muslim families from Nalanda to Begusarai districts perform Chhath. 'We have done it for nearly five decades. It gives us immense happiness to observe the fasts and rituals,' Mohammad Hussain said.
'We are proud to be Muslim, we keep rozas (month-long fast during Ramzan) and celebrate Eid and wear the traditional Muslim skull cap too,' Hussain said.
Mohammad Nazir of the same village said his family also worships the sun god at a nearby pond. 'The sun is the same for all, so why should we not pay our respects to it?'
In Patna, Gaya, Bhagalpur, Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga, many Muslims have volunteered to clean up the banks of rivers, ponds and other water bodies and streets for the festival. Some have made special handmade earthen 'chulhas' or stoves for devotees.
Some Muslims have distributed fruits and new clothes to impoverished Hindu families.
In Patna, dozens of Muslim women swept clean the banks of Ganga at Danapur. Likewise, many Muslim men cleaned the streets in localities here.