In a country where taboos relating to menstruating women still persist, the state of Odisha stands out by challenging regressive mindsets, and celebrates womanhood in a grand way every year. Considering the menstrual blood as impure, menstruating women are still shunned and forced to lead an isolated life during the period of menstruation every month in many parts of our country. Apart from prohibiting them from worshiping or cooking, there are some villages where even more orthodox and stricter norms are practiced for women during their monthly cycle. There are several instances from different villages across the country where menstruating women are not even allowed to enter the house and have to spend days in some isolation sheds made solely for this purpose. It has even been reported many times in the past that menstruating women have been bitten by snakes and even other dangerous creatures during their period of isolation in dilapidated huts, and many times leading to them losing their lives. Thus, these regressive, orthodox practices not only jeopardize their safety but also greatly hamper the hygiene and care they should have been receiving during the period of menstruation. This raises serious concerns about the health issues of women which have been completely ignored since ages in a majority of Indian states.
When India is fighting against the age old regressive customs that affect women, women empowerment has been an agenda of government policies, and voices are being raised for women rights. In this scenario, the festival of Raja that celebrates menstruating women is definitely a ray of hope that emanates from the state of Odisha.
The word ‘Raja’ which is locally pronounced as ‘raw-jaw’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Rajaswala’ meaning a menstruating woman. This festival is basically a celebration of the earth’s womanhood that spans over a period of 4 days and is usually celebrated in the month of June. According to religious beliefs, during the first three days, ‘Bhudevi’ or the Mother Earth who is considered as the wife of ‘Lord Jagannath’ undergoes menstruation cycle. On the fourth day, she is given a ceremonial bath which is called ‘Basumati Snana’.
Each day of the festival has its own name and significance. The first day of the festival is called as ‘Pahili Raja’, the second day is ‘Mithuna Sankranti’, which signifies the start of the solar month of ‘Mithuna’ i.e., the rainy season that dampens the dry soil with shower of rain making it ready for agriculture, the third day is called as ‘Bhu Daaha’ or ‘Basi Raja’ and the fourth day of the festival is called ‘Basumati Snana’.
During the first three days of the festival, no agricultural activity like ploughing, sowing or any such activity is allowed that might result in hurting the mother earth, as a mark of respect towards, ‘Bhudevi’ during her menstruating days. While it started as a tribal festival mainly to pay respect to the mother earth, this festival has gone through its own metamorphosis over the years. It is now a primary festival for the young women of Odisha to celebrate their womanhood.
Decked up in new attire, usually the traditional Odia Saree, bejeweled with customary ornaments and applying, ‘Alata’ (a red, pigmented liquid) on their feet, young women in the state enjoys this festival to the fullest. Usually the young women are exempted from doing any household chores during the three days of the festival. This festival is completely for them, and they are showered with all attention, love and care. Young women and children swinging on decorated rope swings, ‘Raja Doli’ as they are called, sings various folk songs like,
“Banaste dakila gaja,
barasake thare asichhi raja,
ani kete sajabaja”.
This folk song expresses the enthusiasm of young women that this festival brings for them by describing how the elephants are calling in the forest and the Raja festival has come once in a year, bringing much pomp and show with it”.
‘Raja Doli’ or the swings which are the major attraction of this festival are ornately decorated with flowers and mango leaves. At some places these swings are just made up by ropes tied to a strong branch of a tree while at some other places, tall bamboos are tied up together to form the swings, and are called as, ‘Baunsa Doli’. However, it is always taken care to complete the preparation of these swings of bamboos a day before the festival, in order not to hurt the mother earth in any way as it requires big holes to be dug in the soil for the fixing of the bamboos. These swings are usually fixed at some common place in villages and cities such as orchards, fields or parks where everyone can flock to during the festival. Not just swings, girls also enjoy playing various indoor games like Ludo and playing cards. Raja festival does not leave the male folk idle either. Kabbadi tournaments are organised specifically for them. Amidst the deafening drum beats, swarm of spectators cheering, water getting sprinkled over them, men play the intense game of Kabbadi in the muddy soil. The festival evenings usually witness community feasts.
‘Poda Pitha’ or the burnt cake and the ‘sweet paan’ are staple items for everyone during Raja. One can hardly find a single person whose lips are not adorned with the redness of the paan throughout the entire three days. ‘Poda Pitha’ is one of the many sweet delicacies unique to Odisha and it is considered to be the favorite delicacy of Lord Jagannath. Apart from this, many other traditional delicacies are also prepared. One of them is ‘Chakuli Pitha and Mutton curry’. The most gratifying thing about Raja is that the young women adorned with new attire visit the neighbouring households to distribute the various delicacies prepared at their house and seek blessing from the elders, which is a beautiful tradition indeed.
Raja is a celebration of fertility and womanhood. By celebrating the three menstruating days of mother earth, this festival hails the earth’s fertility and pays respect to the sacred feminine. In a deeper context, this festival signifies how menstruation and fertility are more a cause of celebration and not a disgrace in our culture. This festival sends a clear message that it is the menstruation which equips the women with the ability to bring forth the next generation, thus maintaining the cycle of life on earth.
When our tradition asks us to celebrate a festival that pays respect to the menstruating mother earth and allows her to rest during that time, there are many contemporary implications of this age-old tradition that should make us sit up and think. For instance, the pertinent question, ‘Should women be granted leave from work for menstruation?’ arises again, and is subject to debate, discussion, and implementation.