‘Menstruation’ is often considered a taboo word and discussions related to the subject are usually carried out in hushed tones or avoided altogether. Raja, a unique festival of Odisha however is a positive deviation from the prevalent thought process according to which this natural phenomena occurring in half the population is something to be embarrassed about. The festival is observed with much gaiety and fanfare especially in the eastern part of Odisha. Celebrated by unmarried girls, it is an apt dedication to the spirit of womanhood.
Raja is the short form of ‘Rajaswala’ which means a menstruating woman and is celebrated for three consecutive days. The first day is called Pahili Raja, the second day is the Mithuna Sankranti and the third day is known as Bhuin Dalana. It is a popular belief that Bhudevi or Mother Earth is Rajaswala or is menstruating during this period. Special care therefore is taken to not hurt the resting Mother earth in any manner. Agricultural activities are forbidden and the land is left untilled. Also women do not walk barefoot and keep their footwear on to avoid hurting mother earth. The women themselves do not indulge in any rigorous physical activity.
Preparation for Raja begins in advance. Women go for shopping and fetch new clothes and makeup paraphernalia. In those three days they put on new clothes, dress up beautifully and apply ‘alta’ on their feet, which is a sacred red dye that is considered auspicious and symbolizes fertility. Delicacies like pitha and podapitha are prepared and relished. The“Raja Paan” (or the Raja betel), specially assembled with a variety of aromatic and pleasing to the palate stuffings is a major attraction. The girls sit on the ‘Raja Masana’ (or the Raja carpet) and pass their time in fun-talk and indoor games like playing cards, ludo and kaudi (a game that uses cowrie shells as dice). A major attraction is the ‘Raja Doli’ or the swing usually tied with ropes from trees with strong branches. Girls take turns and swing back and forth, singing the signature folk Raja number – ‘Banaste Dakila Gaja’ . The girls also venture out on house hopping, visiting friends and relatives, enjoying their hosting and savories prepared. Due to the fun quotient attached with the festival the term ‘Raja’ is often followed by the word ‘Mauja’ which means fun.
Raja also marks the arrival of monsoon, which revitalizes and rejuvenates Mother Earth. The waters touching and running over the earth surface make it fertile and prepare her to bear fresh vegetation. This can be equated with the menstrual flow in a woman’s body that marks her physiological maturity and fertility which is essential for the continuation of race.
The spirit of Raja is somewhat similar with that of the Ambubachi Mela, held every year at the Kamakhya Devi temple in Assam where the goddess who is worshipped in the yoni form, is believed to be menstruating for three days. During this annual menstrual cycle of the goddess, the temple remains closed for the devotees. While in parts of India, rituals like Tuloni Biya (Assam) and RitukalaSamskara or Ritusuddhi (South India), are performed to celebrate the coming of age in girls at family or community level, Raja stands out for being a mass celebration of menstruation. It is a progressive festival that has managed to garner social acceptance for this natural phenomena and has made it sound more normal in this part of the country.
(Raja starts today and will continue for three consecutive days)