Raja: An Odia festival to celebrate womanhood

Bhubaneswar: It is that time of the year again when Odia households bustle with preparations of a festival called ‘Raja’ that celebrates womanhood. This four-day event marks the period of fertility regeneration of the earth, equivalent to menstrual cycle which women undergo.

Raja is shorthand for the word Rajaswala (meaning a menstruating woman) and is celebrated across Odisha and Odias living outside. It signifies the menstrual cycle of the earth similar to that of a woman. Just like women go into a resting phase during “periods”, the earth is considered to be in a latent stage. This resting period of the earth is when all agricultural activities are forbidden.

It is an event of women, for women, in celebration of womanhood. The fairer sex is pampered with new clothes, accessories, delicacies and is prohibited from doing household chores. The first day is called Pahili Raja, the second day marks the advent of the month of Asadha and is commemorated by Mithuna Sankranti, the third day is known as Basi Raja and the fourth day of Basumati Gadhua signifies the end of menstruation of the earth.

Barred from domestic errands, the women folk indulge in dolling themselves up with their choicest apparel, aalta on the feet, kumkum on the forehead and in the recent times, even mehendi/henna on their palms and nail art for the adornment of their nails.

Raja is characterized by the traditional swing and the games associated with it. Swings are traditionally tied on mango or tamarind trees. Raja folk songs are sung in chorus as the swing goes to and fro. “Banaste daakila gaja…” is one of the quintessential Raja songs. Games such as Ludo, Taas (playing cards), BaagudiBohu ChoriPuchi, etc. (though not very common in urban areas), are played with friends well past midnight!

Every household emanates the aroma of delicacies such as poda pithaarisa pithaRaja paanchakuli pitha, etc. These delicacies are also distributed among neighbours and relatives. Raja is also the time when girls relish the mouth-watering paan. With many varieties of Raja paan now available, vendors do brisk business in keeping up with heavy demand.

However, this year’s Raja is an exception as congregation for celebration has been prohibited by the state government due to the COVID-19 situation.

Girls are advised not to walk barefoot and use footwear made up of areca nut shells and banana stalks. They are also asked to limit their stay to a single room, traditionally called the Raja Ghara where they make their bed on the floor and worship a block of clay with vermilion, flowers, incense sticks and delicacies. Men are barred from entering the Raja Ghara. However, many Raja customs are not strictly adhered to in many parts of the state.

While menstruating women are alienated and forbidden to enter temples in many parts of India, it is a matter of great pride for Odisha, that it celebrates this integral aspect of womanhood.

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