It is that great time of the year again! 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 a woman undergoes.
Raja is shorthand for the word Rajaswala (meaning a menstruating woman) and is celebrated across Odisha and by 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. The four-day 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 and 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 Sankaranti; 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 womenfolk indulges in dolling themselves up with their choicest apparels, aalta on the feet, kumkum on the forehead and, in the recent times, even mehendi/henna on their palms and nail art for adornment of their nails.
Raja is also characterised by the traditional swings and the games associated with it. Swings are normalyy tied on mango or tamarind trees. Raja folksongs are sung in chorus as the swing goes to and fro. “Banaste daakila gaja…” is one of the quintessential Raja numbers. Games such as Ludo, Taas (playing cards), Baagudi, Bohu Chori, Puchi, etc. (though not very common in urban areas), are played with friends well past midnight!
Besides, every household emanates the aroma of delicacies such as poda pitha, arisa pitha, Raja paan, chakuli pitha, etc.
These delicacies are also distributed among neighbours and relatives. Raja is also the time when girls relish the mouthwatering paan. With many varieties of Raja paan now available, vendors do brisk business in keeping up with the heavy demand.
Girls are advised not to walk barefoot but 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 Ghar 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 Ghar. However, many such 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 inherent aspect of womanhood.