Surya - the Sun god with consorts Saranyu and Chhaya
|Also called||Surya Jayanti, Magha Saptami|
|Begins||Maagha Shukla Saptami|
|2012 date||January 30|
|2013 date||17 February |
|Related to||Worship of Sun god Surya|
Ratha Saptami or Rathasapthami (Sanskrit: रथसप्तमी or Magha Saptami) is a Hindu festival that falls on the seventh day (Saptami) in the bright half (Shukla Paksha) of the Hindu month Maagha. It marks the seventh day following the Sun’s northerly movement (Uttarayana) of vernal equinox starting from Capricorn (Makara). It is symbolically represented in the form of the Sun God Surya turning his Ratha (Chariot) drawn by seven horses (representing seven colours) towards the northern hemisphere, in a north-easterly direction. It also marks the birth of Surya and hence celebrated as Surya Jayanti (the Sun-god’s birthday).
Ratha Saptami is symbolic of the change of season to spring and the start of the harvesting season. For most Indian farmers, it is an auspicious beginning of the New Year. The festival is observed by all Hindus in their houses and in innumerable temples dedicated to Surya, across India. 
Sun worship is deep rooted in the Vedas of the Hindu religion and its antiquity also relates to several mythologies of the world such as that of China, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Gayatri Mantra jap – the sacred Vedic chants to Savitr (Sun god) – is recited by the Hindus every day with great reverence. As the puranic Hinduism evolved around the early Christian era, the worship of Sun, linked to the equinoxes, was established.
The relevant verses (translated from Sanskrit by Ralph Griffith) are as follows:
10. Her spirit was the bridal car; the covering thereof was heaven: Bright were both Steeds that drew it when Surya approached her husband's, home.
11. Thy Steeds were steady, kept in place by holy verse and Sama-hymn: All cars were thy two chariot wheels: thy path was tremulous in the sky,
12. Clean, as thou wentest, were thy wheels wind, was the axle fastened there. Surya, proceeding to his Lord, mounted a spirit-fashionied car.
Ratha Saptami marks the seventh day following the Sun’s northerly movement (Uttarayana) of vernal equinox starting from Capricorn (Makara). It is symbolically represented in the form of the Sun God Surya turning his Ratha (Chariot) drawn by seven horses, with Aruna as the charioteer, towards the northern hemisphere, in a north-easterly direction. The symbolic significance of the ratha and the seven horses reigned to it is that it represents the seven colours of the rainbow. The seven horses are also said to represent the seven days of a week starting with Sunday, the day of Sun god Surya. The chariot has 12 wheels, which represents the 12 signs (each of 30 degrees) of the Zodiac (360 degrees) and constituting a full year, named Samvatsara. The Sun’s own house is Leo (Simha) and he moves from one house to the next every month and the total cycle takes 365 days to complete. The Ratha Saptami festival seeks the benevolent cosmic spread of energy and light from the Sun God.
Ratha Saptami also marks the gradual increase in temperature across South India and awaits the arrival of spring, which is later heralded by the festival of Ugadi or the Hindu lunar New Year day in the month of Chaitra.
Ratha Saptami also marks the birth of Surya to sage Kashyapa and his wife Aditi and hence celebrated as Surya Jayanti (the Sun-god’s birthday). A legend is narrated by the Kamboj empire’s King Yashovarma, a noble king who had no heir to rule his kingdom. On his special prayers to God, he was blessed with a son. The king’s vows did not end with this, as his son was terminally ill. A saint who visited the king advised that his son should perform the Ratha Saptami pooja (worship) with reverence to rid of his past sins. Once the King’s son performed this, his health was restored and he ruled his kingdom well. It is also said that sage Bhisma breathed his last breath fourth day after the Rathasaptahmi day on ekaadashi
|Surya idol at Konarak temple||Sun Temple, Modhera|
There are Surya temples all across India where Ratha Sapthami is fervently celebrated. However, the most famous one is the World Heritage Site of the Konarak Sun Temple, in Konark, Orissa. Besides Konark, there is another sun temple in Orissa, the Biranchi Narayan Temple (Biranchi khetra) in Buguda, Ganjam District. There are sun temples in Modhera, Gujarat, created by king Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty, in Arasavalli, Andhra Pradesh and in clusters of Navagraha temples in Tamil Nadu and Assam. The Sun Temple at Martand (Jammu and Kashmir) and Sun Temple of Multan are temples, which were destroyed during Muslim conflicts in the past. Details of few temples are elaborated.
The Konark Sun Temple is a World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of India, as compiled by the Times of India in 2007. It takes the form of the chariot of Surya (Arka), the Sun god, and is heavily decorated with stone carving. The entire complex was designed in the form of a huge chariot drawn by seven spirited horses on twelve pairs of exquisitely decorated wheels. It was constructed from oxidizing and weathered ferruginous sandstone by King Narasimhadeva I (1236–1264) of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. At the entrance of the temple is the Nata mandir, where the temple dancers used to perform dances in homage to the Sun god. All around the temple, there are various floral and geometric patterns and human, divine and semi-divine figures in sensual poses.
Ratha Saptami is celebrated with a holy dip on Chandrabhaga beach at Konark, though this rite has nothing to do with the temple, which is abandoned and has no religious significance in present-day Hinduism.
This Sun Temple was built by Raja Bhimdev I of Solanki Dynasty in 1026 and is dedicated to Lord Surya, the Sun God of Hinduism. This was the time when Somnath and the adjoining area was plundered by Mahmud Ghazni and reeled under the effects of his invasion. The Solankis, however, regained much of their lost power and splendour. Anahilvad Patan, the Solanki capital, was restored to glory. Royalty and traders jointly contributed to build grand temples.
Solankis were considered to be Suryavanshis, or descendants of Sun god and they ruled as Rajputs of Marwar. The temple was so designed that the first rays of the Sun fell on the image of Surya, the Sun God, at the time of equinoxes.
This temple in Tamil Nadu, called the Suryanar koil, is located 22 kilometres from Kumbakonam. This temple pre-dates even the great Sun God temple in Konarak. It was built by Kulottungan I. The temple has a fifty feet gopuram (tower) and at the entrance the image of horses and the chariot of Surya appear. Around the Sun’s main sanctum, which is central to the temple, there are shrines for all the other planets in the galaxy of nine planets. It is noted for its Navagraha kshetra (Nine plants place). People visit this temple daily in large numbers to propitiate the Sun God (considered as the chief of the planets in Indian astrology). Ratha Sapthami is celebrated as a festival day here. It is stated in one of the inscriptions found in the temple that it was built in the reign of Kulottunga Choladeva (AD 1060-1118) and was then called Kulottungachola-Marttandalaya.
God Vishnu in his form as Surya (the Sun-God) is usually worshipped on this day. Usually, Rathasapthami begins in households with a purification bath (bathing is also done in a river or sea) by holding several Ekka (Calotropis Gigantea) leaves on their head while bathing and chanting a verse which is supposed to invoke the benevolence of the Lord in all that one indulges in during the rest of the year. Argyam or (Tharpanam) (water held in the palms) is offered to the Sun God on this day while chanting hymns are performed to the Sun God. It also involves doing a puja with the ritual Naivedhya (food offering to God), and offering of flowers and fruits. Important prayers offered to the Sun god on this occasion are the Adityahridayam, Gayathri, Suryashtakam, Surya Sahasram namam. The preferred time for the pooja is within one hour after sunrise. In places like Mysore and Melkote, ceremonial processions carry the Surya Mandala - the icon of Surya. 
Ekka leaves (in Kannada), are also known as Arka (in Sanskrit, meaning a ray or flash of lightning) leaves, Jilledu in Telugu, Erukku in Tamil and Calotropis Gigantea (bowstring hemp) in English. Arka is also a synonym for Surya or Sun. Its significance to Sun God could be compared to the significance of Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) leaves to Vishnu. Arka leaves are also used for worship of god Ganesha known by the name Arka Ganesha and also for Hanuman worship. Its stems, called samidha (sacrificial offerings of wood) are used for the Yagna ritual as a sacrificial offering to a ritual fire. Its shape is said to represent the shoulders and chariot of Sun God. Its use during the ritualistic ceremonious bath involves placement of seven leaves - one on the head, two on the shoulders, two on the knees and two on the feet. On this day, in South India, Rangoli is drawn with coloured rice powder depicting a chariot and seven horses as symbolic of the Ratha Saptami. Cowdung cake is also burnt at the centre of this depiction and milk boiled on the fire is offered to the Sun God. In some of the important Vaishnavite temples such as the Tirumala, Srirangam and Melukote, Ratha Saptami is one of the important festivals of the year.
On Ratha sapthami a one-day Brahmotsavam is held in Tirumala.On this day, the presiding deity of Lord Malayappa Swamy along with his divine consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi are taken to a procession in Thiru Mada streets in Tirumala. The deities carried out in a jubilant procession around the Thiru mada streets encircling the holy Shrine of Balaji on seven different vahanams(sapthami=seven) .Due to this reason the day of RathaSapthami is called as "Mini-Brahmotsavam" in Tirumala.The day starts with 'Surya prabha vahanam' at early morning followed by Sesha, Garuda, Hanumantha, Kalpavriksha, sarvabhoopala vahanams respectively.The day is ended with the Chandra prabha vahanam.
Other Sun festivals
There are other festivals dedicated to Sun God Surya in India. Makara Sankaranti is the most widely celebrated Hindu festival dedicated to the Sun God. It is celebrated as Makara Sankranti throughout India and as Pongal also known as Thai Pongal by Tamils all over the world. People thank the Sun God for ensuring a good harvest and dedicate the first grain to him. Chhath is another Hindu Festival dedicated to Surya. It is believed to have been started by Karna, the son of Surya, who became a great warrior and fought against the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra War. Chhath is unique to Bihar, Jharkhand and the some parts of Uttar Pradesh.
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