When the scorching heat of summer calms down by South-West monsoon through its tender drops, Odisha prepares itself with traditional jubilation and exhilaration to celebrate the three-day festival of womanhood Raja. Many outside Odisha are not aware of this elaborate cultural tradition that has existed for centuries. During this period, Women are worshiped in the proper sense of the term, and womanhood is celebrated. Young and married women are adorned with new clothes, Alta, and other traditional attires; they get an elaborate break from household work, and so begins the festival of womanhood and fertility.
The term Raja is derived from the Sanskrit word Rajas, which etymologically means menstruation. When a woman menstruates, she is called Rajaswala or a menstruating woman. It is stated that ancient men worshiped women since they bled without dying (menstruation), gave birth to new lives (childbirth), and produced food (breast milk) unlike their male counterparts. Anything that gave life gained significant value in civilization. Celebration of womanhood, in particular, women’s coming-of-age—has transgressed over the centuries for different geographical reasons. Various parts of southern India celebrate womanhood to this day. Raja is unique to the land and culture, and is a potential site for women’s Being and Becoming.
In medieval times, Raja was famous as an agricultural festive marking the worship of Bhudevi, who is the wife of Lord Jagannath. The last day of the month of Jyeshta (summer) is celebrated as the first day of Raja Parva and is popularly known as Pahili Raja. The first day of the month of Asadha (monsoon) is the second day of Raja Parva, which is also known as Raja Sankranti. The concluding day of Raja is marked as Bhuin Dahana, Sesha Raja, or Basi Raja. The following day Sesa Raja is also celebrated in few regions of Odisha as Basumati Gadhua/Puja (meaning, bathing and praying of Mother Earth).
What makes Raja distinct from other festivals of womanhood is women sing songs (Lok geet) which are composed in praise of Nature and suggest humans’ close relationship with Mother Nature. Significantly, a unique body of literature has emerged from this tradition. One of the most popular songs sung during this period is “Banaste dakila gaja / Barashake thare asichi Raja” (“Here calls the elephant from the forest / The season of Raja has arrived”). The songs that have emerged from the festival are often lyrical, are sung, and elaborately set the tone of the carnival. This body of literature has been passed on from one generation to another, has seen the change of times, and has appealed to the people of the region from past to present. Just as the tales from the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have come down to us in oral form, people in Odisha have kept this tradition alive for ages. That these songs have moved from the women’s quarters to village choks and thereafter became part of the significant Odia tradition is as distinct as a characteristic of the festival just as agriculture which was invented by women—who needed a break from their nomadic life during menstruation or childbirth—in very ancient times. Discussions surrounding this tradition have given rise to a unique culture of deliberation in families, and have contributed positively to create a bond between humans and nature. That these songs have moved from the women’s quarters to village choks and thereafter became part of the significant Odia tradition is as distinct as a characteristic of the festival just as agriculture which was invented by women—who needed a break from their nomadic life during menstruation or childbirth—in very ancient times. Discussions surrounding this tradition have given rise to a unique culture of deliberation in families, and have contributed positively to create a bond between humans and nature. That these songs have moved from the women’s quarters to village choks and thereafter became part of the significant Odia tradition is as distinct as a characteristic of the festival just as agriculture which was invented by women—who needed a break from their nomadic life during menstruation or childbirth—in very ancient times. Discussions surrounding this tradition have given rise to a unique culture of deliberation in families, and have contributed positively to create a bond between humans and nature.
Creativity and invention have often come from women who are hardly acknowledged in the contemporary colonial landscape; however, the unique faculty of literature and culture developed by women have had the potential to give rise to traditions unique to the land.
There are various pithas that Odia households prepare during every festival, but the Raja pithas are unique because Odisha has a rich cultural heritage. During this period, several pithas are prepared that can be consumed for over three days. Many organic preservatives are used in the making of the pithas. The food culture of the Raja Parva has inherited this tradition which could have been thousands of years of experimentation with food preparation. It involves the participation of over one person, which develops and strengthens family bonding and community involvement.
Raja brings together people from all sections of the Odia Hindu families and creates bondage among people. In addition, there are Raja special games (both for men and women). The customs entitle women to make amusements and play games. The Raja games for men include, but are not limited to, kabaddi and kho kho that require physical contact. Often kabaddi tournaments are organized in different villages, and they see the participation of people from different walks of life.
And for women, it is the unique doli (jhula). There are different dolis. The most challenging is the bamboo doli, where a 30/40-foot bamboo is tied to a sky height tree’s branch which is hung like a pendulum swing. One or more young girls standing or sitting on it according to arrangements swing with the momentum. The maximum height the bamboo swings can fly in the air is part of the credit for the youthful girls. Such games of dolis played by females (both married and unmarried) have come down to Odisha showcasing their strength and honor and Being and Becoming.
Paan has its inextricable value in Raja celebration. Chewing Paan and roaming in the villages are often seen as indecent behavior in a civilized society, and if a young girl were to do so, it would raise the eyebrows of many. However, Raja makes it an exception for all. It allows significant freedom for girls, and what is considered sad or even taboo for a girl during other times is treated as good or happy or merriment.
While there is no agricultural work during the three days of the Raja festival, it is quite a significant contributor to the rural economy. From the paan farmer to the coconut farmer, and from the grain farmer to the cloth vendor, all have their stakes in the Raja celebration.
The unique native tradition of our tribal populace and village folks has always remained close to Mother Nature and the primordial goddess. Raja helps seek its roots in its purity. Why do tribals and village folks idealize the female goddess for and? Why does Mother Earth remain a central figure in Hindu tradition? The false narrative that colonial landscape has brought to India that tribals are not Hindus find its funeral when we look at the heritage of proximity among Nature, Mother Goddess, and idealization of women during festivals such as Raja. Mensuration is implanted, and propagated as impure and ugly is the learning of those ‘feminists’ who have internalized the western gospels as the only truth and all other cultures as a blind spot. Enough of Macaulay’s children! But wait, this is no land of schizophrenia and paranoia.
It is a land of culture and tradition. Our academia, in particular, Gender and Women’s Studies, needs to bring these cultural texts of carnival to contextualize the rich cultural heritage of women’s Being and Becoming. There is an understanding of this with movies such as Pad Man (2018). But there is yet much to be done. Contextualizing festivals like Raja will surely give new directions to those that are castigated as taboo subjects. Come to Odisha, come during Raja, and you will see a thousand-odd-year carnival that humanizes the goddess and glorifies the female tradition of menstruation, which is potential enough to bring new foods, new lives, and by extension, a culture of powerful women unique to the land.
(The author is the State Organizing Secretary of ABVP, Odisha.)