The Odia festival of Raja – What it means to a menstruating woman
It is that time of the year again. In the mid of June, the ripe crops of numerous fields dance in unison, Odia women and girls look radiant, the steaming cakes or pithas emerge from Odia kitchens and I realize that my much awaited festival, Raja the one that celebrates Mother Earth, girls and women is here.
Raja Parba, is a one-of-it’s-kind festival that celebrates women and the theme of menstruation, something which is still a hush hush topic in Indian households.
At a time when progressive women cite cold and cough as an excuse for period cramps while applying for sick leaves and Indian storekeepers wrap sanitary napkins in old newspapers, the festival of Raja addresses the earth as a woman and celebrates three days of her period by honoring the female population.
Like the color of blood, red is the main theme of Raja. My lips drip with little red streams oozing out of ‘Raja pana’ and my feet is lined with the scarlet red ‘Alata’, while my friends and I swing merrily and sing songs of Raja.
Raja is a celebration when the earth like the woman, is taking a break for her period. Thus agriculture is on a halt during raja. Just the way menstruation is an integral part of a woman’s fertility cycle, Raja is a phase that makes the earth fertile, making her capable of nourishing the billions of people who depend on her for their survival. During Raja every Odia girl and woman represents the earth herself. She puts on beautiful clothes, adorns her feet with Alata (Red dye), relishes delicacies including pithas and is pampered by her family.
The first day of Raja is called Pahili Raja, second day is Mithuna Sankranti and third is known as Basi Raja.
A lesser-known and interesting aspect of the festival is the ritual called ‘Basumati Snana’ which is performed on the fourth day, after the three day Raja celebration ends. Basumati translates to ‘the earth’ and snána to ‘bath’. Here a hand grinder made of stone (Silapua) represents ‘Bhumi’, or Mother Earth.
Before worshipping the grinding stone, Odia women bathe it with turmeric paste and deck it with flowers, sindoor and other ornaments. A variety of seasonal fruits are offered. Every year, during Raja, countless women pay their respect to the menstruating and life-giving Earth who sustains their families and fills their existence with nutritious meals. Basumati Snana is a perfect ritual that concludes the splendid festival of Raja.
Raja is a festival that makes each Odia woman, in fact all the women realize that they are beautiful, especially with streaks of scarlet red. It is a festival, which is celebrated without any prejudice or taboo, which started off as a tribal festival but eventually was celebrated in every Odia household around the world. It brings people together across the villages and cities of Odisha, varied socioeconomic backgrounds to honor their earth and their women, through delicious food topped with love and laughter.
As a woman, it makes me happy to be compared to the magnanimity of the earth and for being celebrated for who I am. As a woman who bleeds every month, all I want the world to know is that menstruation should be talked about and not be hidden under the veil of ignorance and prejudice.
Festivals like Raja, in which a parallel is drawn between a woman and Mother Earth, speaks volumes about how traditions can be used as an instrument to propagate progressive ideas on themes like menstruation. That’s why like numerous Odia girls and women, I always look forward to Raja every year as it helps me celebrate my existence and reminds me of my intimate connection with the ever so beautiful and resilient Mother Earth.
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