By Upagupt Mohanty
Hey there, princesses! It’s that time of the year when young unmarried girls in Odisha are not allowed to cut, grind or cook for 3 days. Instead, they can be seen flocking to the market to buy new outfits in rich colours, with matching accessories. Thoroughly pampered during this period by family and relatives alike, these damsels wear designer ‘bindis’ or ‘kumkum’ on their forehead, apply ‘alata’ on their feet and refrain from walking barefoot. What a transformation? And why not?…It’s ‘Raja’ (pronounced as raw-jaw) time! ‘Raja’ celebrates the agrarian spirit, the monsoon magic and above all, womanhood. Each year, the month of June announces the onset of monsoon, as the festival of Raja festival is celebrated in Odisha with much zeal and zest. Originally confined to the coastal districts of the state, today, Raja is celebrated in almost all the districts of Odisha.
But why aren’t the girls allowed to walk barefoot? ‘Raja’ is believed to have been derived from ‘Rajoswala’ or menstruation. Menstruation may be a subject that is discussed in a hush-hush voice, but it has a lot of significance with the festival of ‘Raja’ since it is believed that during the first three days of the festival, ‘Bhu-devi’ or Mother Earth is menstruating. Hence, while girls are not allowed to walk bare feet during the festival, the farmers are not allowed to plough their fields. “During Raja, in villages, we used to wear Kadali Pataa(outer cover of banana stem) as we were not allowed to walk barefeet. With time, slippers and chappals were allowed, now its designer footwear. People have customized the festival as per their convenience, as a result of which the original festive spirit is fading away.” says Saraswati Mohanty, a home maker from Cuttack.
T h e four-day festival envelopes the state with its vibrant spirit as people indulge in varied activities like playing games, decorating their houses, savouring delicacies and attending ‘melas’ or fairs etc . “I’m a ‘khanti Cuttackia’. The ‘Sahi bhai’ culture turns Raja into an incredible event at Cuttack. Now, I’m married and settled in Bhubaneswar, but I miss those childhood days”, recalls Sonali Mohanty (professional trainer) . A day before Raja, the house, the kitchen and especially the ‘Sila-Pua’ (grinding stone) is washed and kept clean. Spices and ‘masala’ are ground and stocked since the ‘Sila-Pua’is also not used for 3 days. Traditionally, the ‘Sila-Pua’ symbolizes the ‘Bhudevi’ and is thus kept as an object of worship in Odia homes. ‘Poda Pithas’ (smoked cake) are also prepared in view of the festival and unmarried girls apply turmeric paste on their bodies before taking a bath.
The first day of Raja is called ‘Pahili Raja’ which is observed for ‘Saja Baja’ or beautification. On this day, the damsels take a bath before dawn and deck themselves up as princesses and eat ‘Poda Pitha’ as ‘Prasad’. That’s when the fun begins for these young girls and this fun and frolic is called ‘Raja Mauja’. The second day, is known as ‘Raja Sankranti’ while the third day is called ‘Bhumi Dalana/ Bhumi Dah’. Once adorned as princesses on the first day, the girls donot take a bath until the third day, to keep their makeover intact, as they revel in the attention. Only after sunset, on the third day, they are allowed to touch their bare feet on the ground.
Well, this three day funpackage is not just confined to the women, as even the men can be seen having a good time playing kabaddi, cards etc. The girls enjoy playing games like ‘Kaudi’, ‘Ludo’ etc. while humming the traditional Raja song “Banaste daakilaa Gaja, Barasa ke thare asichi Raja, Aasichi Raja lo gheni nua Saja baaja”.
A very prominent aspect of Raja is the ‘Raja doli’ or swings, hung from low tree branches and beautifully decorated with flowers. Sadly, traditional swings like the ‘Ram Doli’, ‘Charki Doli’, ‘Pata Doli’ and ‘Dandi Doli’ are going out of vogue as they make way for colourful readymade hammocks. It is roaring business for about 200 artisans, skilled in making swings, who travel from the adjoining state of Andhra Pradesh during Raja to leverage the spike in demand. “There are no trees in the city as such, to tie the traditional swing. Even in our apartments there is a dearth of space. Hence, even though I enjoy being on the swings during Raja, I buy these readymade and pocket friendly plastic swings each year. Moreover, they are easy to fix and store”, shares Snehalata, a college student.
The ‘Raja Parba’ is also synonymous with good food comprising of ‘Poda Pitha’, ‘Arisa Pitha’, ‘Chakuli Pitha’, ‘Kakras’, ‘Dalma’ and ‘Mutton curry’ which is an absolute ‘must-eat’ during the festive feast. Another musthave after a sumptuous meal is the ‘Raja Meetha Paana’ with its flavoured ‘suparis’ and peppermint to leave you with that feeling of completeness, while also acting as a digestive.
The ‘Raja Mauja’ or fervour comes to an end on the fourth day, known as the ‘Basumati Gadhua/ Vasumati Snana’ or bathing of the ‘Bhu-devi’ wherein the girls finally let go of their makeover and take a bath. Interestingly, even the ‘Sila-Pua’ is bathed with turmeric paste before it is decorated with a sandalwood and ‘sindoor teeka’. Other rituals like offering the ‘dhoopa’, ‘deepa’, ‘naividya’ etc. to the ‘Bhu-devi’, are also followed. Eventually, the farmers seek the Almighty’s blessings for a good harvest and return to their fields. One can’t help but admire the underlying concept of this ever popular festival – to provide some rest to the multitasking woman, who is the fulcrum of our society and also to the eternal feeder, our mother earth!