It is that time of the year again. The ripe crops of numerous fields dance in union, the swings sway carelessly, the steaming pithas with coconut and jaggery filling emerge from smoky kitchens and the moist winds whisper into my ears that Raja (pronounced Ra-jo) is finally here.
Raja, the festival is symbolic to my own self, as a girl for many reasons. It is that time of the year when the earth, goes through a periodic phase experienced by each woman. It is a phase that makes her fertile, making her capable of nourishing the billions who depend on her for their survival. Raja is a celebration when the earth like a woman, is menstruating. It is one of the few festivals that celebrate womanhood and fertility, and in particular menstruation as a process in a country which still treats periods as a taboo.
Amidst the steaming pithas and banter of the young girls who playfully indulge in the celebrations, the earth too quietly takes a break from her duties of bearing crop for the next three days. All agricultural activities are suspended as it is believed that the Earth, like a woman undergoes her menstrual cycle for the next three days, and hence is worshiped and given time to rest around this time.
Women adorn themselves with beautiful attires and are forbidden from doing any household chores because deep within, all of them are symbolic of the earth and to celebrate a process, that though painful, makes them similar.
It is a time when the entire family comes together and celebrate with folk music, swings and decorating homes with flowers. Delicious sweets and food items are prepared. Raja Paan is also one of the highlights of the festival!
Young girls take a break from household work and play games. Walking barefoot is a strict no-no and the swings are a common sight across all households!
However in the modern times, when women have started taking giant strides in all professions and education, can an age-long tradition be kept alive? Amidst hectic office schedules and college assignments, Raja for many Odia women who have settled outside and are away from homes is a fond reminisce of growing up.
I belong to a quaint little town called ‘Jenapur’ – a part of Jajpur district, now settled in Germany, away from home. After pursuing my PhD from a German University, I chose to live here for better career opportunities. It has been quite a change due to the stark cultural differences. However I have always attempted to keep the essence of our customs and traditions alive, specially festivals like Raja, which are a reminder of my humble roots. Here are a few thoughts which I would like to share on the day of this auspicious festival:
1. Nostalgia and the changing customs in modern times:
Raja was a time when my entire family gathered at my ancestral home to celebrate the festivities every summer. In today’s times, it is getting tougher to bring everyone together due to busy work schedules and commitments. Most of my distant cousins have also left the village for a better future. According to my observation of the celebrations in the city, I do miss rassi-doli (rope swings) in the neighborhood, that were a common sight while growing up. One clearly sees the spirit of the festival is more in the direction of shopping. However, few traditions and rituals are still strongly intact in our village. To name a few, women still gather together and prepare poda and other pithas, a definite break from the monotonous cooking routine. People still share paan and apply alta as a mark of ‘saaja-baajo’ (dressing-up).
The number of swings in households have rather increased and many such many beautiful examples still remain in practice. Despite the changing times, I am sure every Odia still tries to enjoy the festival in the best possible manner.
2. Small ways in which we can keep Odia customs alive if we are away from home:
Raja is an important festival in my family and I did try to celebrate in my own small way, in Germany. Since it is a normal workday and one gets busy with the to-do list, I make sure that the first thing I do is call home to hear the whole excitement and to get a feel of the atmosphere back at home. I also ensure wearing new clothes for the three consecutive days of celebration (which is my personal favourite Raja tradition) and go to the children’s play area to enjoy the swing for a few minutes. I live in a small town and have found very nice German friends who love our Indian food, chakuli pitha, sweets etc. So I invite them for dinner and they show great interest in understanding our festivals, the culture, our traditions etc. Interestingly, it is hard for them to believe that such traditions of honoring women and womanhood exist in the same chauvinistic India they read or hear about.
3. Significance of Raja in the modern times and how can we ensure that the message of ‘celebration of womanhood’ which is such an important topic right now is not lost amidst the noise:
I strongly think that we need to understand the reason and concept behind this festival than taking it as any other free day. Personally, I don’t think we need a festival to remind us of the essence of being a woman. Just take a look around at your own mothers, sisters and every woman around you, that in itself is empowering enough. Although festivals are a nice way to remind us of our traditions and roots, it shows that respect towards woman always existed in our Society and it is a good way to impart the learning to our younger generations.
It is surely challenging to follow all traditions, especially when you live in cities and need to work. I too hardly know anything about the real traditions, like it was only yesterday that I learnt that traditionally girls were not even allowed to walk on the ground and rather had to walk on banana stalks. And like I mentioned previously, when you are busy on a normal working week, the celebration doesn’t carry the same charm. But we definitely can put in a little effort. My aunt who works in Bangalore always makes sure to go to our village during Raja with my young cousin. Despite insufficient holidays, they always make sure to visit during this season and celebrate to their fullest, which is inspiring, specially at times when we keep complaining about the lack of time.
I am very proud that such festivals are celebrated in our Odisha, something that is pretty uncommon in most parts of the world. Raja is a welcome change from the period stigma and taboo, that exists in our culture, religion, and tradition.
In contemporary times, Raja has become more of a commercial affair. With malls announcing the latest discounts for women and movies looking for an exclusive ‘Raja’ release, let us not, amidst the cacophony of celebrations, forget to impart the real essence of Raja to our younger generations. Let us come together and make the young and adolescent women feel revered, respected, and celebrated.
Never before has a country needed a festival as beautiful and meaningful as Odisha’s Raja.
[Story by: Preseela Satpathy and inputs from Sarba Roy]