Hundreds of thousands of devotees thronged to rivers and sea in India to celebrate the Chhat Puja festival. The annual festival is dedicated to worshipping the Hindu Sun God. The devotees thank the Sun God for sustaining life on Earth and seek his blessings for the year ahead. Chhat Puja falls on the sixth day of the month of Kartika in the Hindu calendar and although it is usually observed by women it is not uncommon to see men participate in this ancient tradition.

Chhat Puja is primarily celebrated in the eastern and central Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. However, since large numbers of people from these states have migrated across the country, in search of jobs and employment, the practice of observing Chhat has spread across India.

The four-day event, which concluded on 20 November, saw worshippers following rituals that involved fasting and bathing in rivers. During the Chhat Puja festivities, the worshipper abstains from worldly pleasures, including extravagant food and water, sleeps on floors, dresses simply and eats very simple food, usually towards the end of the day.

The third and fourth day of Chhat Puja celebrations are meant for offering prayers to the Sun God. On the third day, for example, a prayer is offered to the setting sun before which the worshipper bathes, either in river or sea water. The same ritual is followed the next day, for the rising sun. The act of prayer happens while the devotee is still standing in the water (which is often very cold) and can take a very long time.

Chhat Puja is considered a true test of a would-be devotee's piety, since the rituals often call for great physical and mental strength. In fact, some worshippers, as a measure of their fortitude, travel to riverbanks by repeatedly prostrating themselves on the ground (as a means of saluting the Sun God).

The religious and ritual aspects aside, Chhat is also a vibrant social and cultural event, with friends and family members of worshippers turning out to help devotees. And, to further add to the celebratory mood, some people even burst fire-crackers; readily available because of the proximity of the event to Diwali.

Finally, at the site of worship, either on the banks of a river or the seashore, home-made confectioneries and sweets are offered on traditional bamboo trays. And, among these offerings, is sugarcane, which is an important part of the festival since it is the crop of choice offered to the Sun God during Chhat Puja.

Check out photographs of devotees from across India observing Chhat Puja