Mid-June is a time of great merriment for young women in Odisha. Orchards, gardens, parks, village squares and virtually every street teem with girls beautifully decked up, playing all sorts of games, and singing folk songs as they fly back and forth on swings hung from trees especially for them.
This celebratory mood marks one of Odisha’s biggest festivals – Raja Parba – observed on the 15th of June, every year. For three days, the state erupts in a collective rapture as it celebrates the womanhood of Mother Earth, or Bhudevi, as the giver of life. The belief is that Bhudevi menstruates for three days before she is given a purification bath. It is only after this ritual is complete, and the first monsoon showers drench the parched soil, that the sowing season begins in the state.
The fertility festival of Raja Parba mirrors the menstruation process in women because all agricultural work stops, just as women stay away from cooking and working in the fields when they menstruate. In tandem with Bhudevi, unmarried women observe all the dos and don’ts that apply during menstruation, including being exempted from household chores.
They also wake up before dawn on the first day, comb their hair, anoint their bodies with turmeric paste and oil, and take a ritual bath to purify themselves. For three days, they are not allowed to tear anything apart or cook or cut anything. They are also not supposed to wear slippers, to avoid hurting the earth. They either go barefoot for three days or wear special, handmade covers for their feet fashioned out of banana bark.
Apart from the rituals they observe, all the young women are supposed to do is have a jolly good time. The festival celebrates femininity, which is why young girls are pampered and indulged for three whole days. They dress up in new clothes, paint delicate designs on their foreheads in sandalwood paste and kumkum, and smear a red liquid called alata on their feet.
Getting all decked up almost takes on a ritualistic dimension and, in villages, girls get ready in groups in an apartment called Raja Ghara. This tradition is so imprinted into the Odia psyche – and the festivities are so infectious! – that even girls from families of modest means participate.
Raja Parba starts with Sajabaja or a preparatory day during which the house, especially the kitchen, is cleaned. The first day of the actual festival is called Pahili Raja; the second day Raja Sankranti or Mithuna Sankranti, which is the first day of Asadha (June-July); and the third day is Bhumi Dahana, which is also known as Sesa Raja or Basi Raja.
The fourth day is called Basumati Gadhua, when Bhudevi or Mother Earth is given a ceremonial bath. On this day, women wash the grinding stone in their kitchen as a symbol of Bhumi, with turmeric paste, flowers and sindoor. In preparation for the upcoming sowing season, ceremonial ploughing also takes place.
The festivities are marked by community gatherings where people of all ages assemble. Together, they feast on ceremonial food, especially a variety of pithas or rice cakes, such as Podapitha (burnt cakes) and Raja Paana (beetle leaf). Everyone sings and dances, and entertains themselves in different ways.
Peals of laughter fill the air as youngsters compete in a variety of games and competitions. While the favourite outdoor games for young boys are Bagudi and Kabaddi, girls enjoy card games and games with dice. Puchi Khela, a game where girls squat and twist in a rhythmic manner is very popular in more rustic settings, as is Kaudi Khela, a game of cowrie shells. Also, competitions are organised where teams from neighbouring villages take part.
Interestingly, in the vicinity of the Bali Harchandi temple in Brahmagiri, Puri, hundreds of men gather from nearby villages and celebrate Raja Yatra for four days, from Pahili Raja to Basumati Gadhua, and worship Goddess Harchandi. They stay in makeshift camps or shelters, feast together and entertain themselves by playing various games.
Most importantly, whether in rural or urban settings, girls of all ages have a whale of a time on swings, which are gaily decorated with flowers and leaves especially for the festival. There are swings everywhere! The focus of attention is squarely on these swings or Raja Doli, of which there are four types – Ram Doli, Chakri Doli, Pata Doli and Dandi Doli.
Swinging symbolises Raja Kamei or ‘earned leisure and rest’. Also, swinging offers respite from the hot and humid weather, and who doesn’t want a bit of that! According to tradition, one of the girls is chosen as the Dolirani (queen of the swing), and when the ‘queen’ is seated on the swing, the other girls push her to and fro.
This is accompanied by the singing of folk songs composed especially for the festival. Initially composed extempore, these songs are sung in chorus without any accompanying instruments. Each one usually consists of three lines and refers to the festival, friendship, approaching monsoon and marriage prospects. Here are the most popular ones.
Banaste dakai gaja
Barasare thare asichi Raja go
Nua luga Sajabaja
(The elephant is blowing the trumpet in the jungle, that the much-awaited Raja festival is here
And it is time to wear new clothes and beautify ourselves)
Aha mo amba baula
Amara etiki mela go
Chhadina jauchhi sarba sakala
(Oh, my blossoming flowers of the mango tree
Our friendship and togetherness stays forever)
Kaniara gacha khira
Sabu jhiamane hoina thula go
Doli khelibare bhola
(The milk of the yellow kaner (yellow oleander) flower tree
Come, all girls, gather around and let’s swing till we go crazy)
Kein kala dolipatah
Raja dina na hue kata bata go
Shila Dhinki hue puja
(The wooden seat of the swing is cracking
Don’t you cut or grind things during the Raja festival as the grinding stone and lever husking paddy are worshipped)
Since Raja Parba coincides with the arrival of the monsoon, it is imbued with romanticism and rejuvenation. Seized by monsoon magic, young girls sing love songs while revelling in swinging sessions with friends.
Ja re mana doli udija
Ja re megha chuin pheri aa
Basumati maa saradha katha meghadese kahi aa
(Let go my heart and mind, fly to the sky
Come back after touching the kingdom of clouds
Conveying the love of Mother Earth)
Some of these folk songs express how young women will miss the special treatment they get during Raja Parba, after they get married.
Alu patara ki saru patara
Kebe ki hoiba paana?
Miliba ki aau Raja Paraba
Sarile kuanri dina?
Asa lo asa kuanri
Jhia hajijiba gita re.
(Not all leaves can be betel leaves
As we are past the maiden’s life, we will miss the Raja days of fun and frolic
Come on, friends, let’s enjoy these songs)
Raja Doli songs are not religious in nature but are simple, delightful songs meant purely to entertain. Like other folk songs, they have no embellishments and are not guided by the rules of grammar.
Hoon kala Hanumanta
Doli gita jaka manaru jata
Mane rakhithibu mita
(So agrees Lord Hanuman
Do not forget, my friends, that the swing songs are created by the girls themselves)
Women composing impromptu songs take the lead by adding their own lines to traditional ones. The difference between the next two stanzas reflects possibly a later addition to the second one.
Doli kala rata mata
Mo bhai mathare suna mukuta
Disuthai jhata jhata
(The wooden seat of the swing is cracking
My brother’s head is glittering with a crown of gold)
Doli pidha kata kata
Mo bhai mundare suna mukuta
To bhai mundare jata
(The wooden seat of the swing is cracking
My brother wears a golden crown on his head while your brother has matted hair)
Although the true essence of Raja Parba is most palpable in villages, people in urban areas hang a customary swing in their verandas or balconies. Singing, making merry, distributing gifts, feasting on delicacies and playing games are routine during these three days. Interestingly, although Raja Parba started with agricultural communities in Odisha’s coastal districts, it has transformed into a major festival, where every section of society participates with great enthusiasm across the state. With the passage of time, variations have crept in, in the way people celebrate the festival. Traditional games have given way to volleyball and cricket, while community singing has been replaced in part by pre-recorded music, especially Hindi and Odia film songs. Also, jatra, or traditional theatre, is being replaced with exclusive releases of Odia movies, in tune with entertainment today.
These are not the only changes. Climate change, which now means a delayed monsoon, and the fast-eroding agrarian way of life have cost Raja Parba of some of its traditional flavour. Change is inevitable but, for the people of Odisha, the essence of the festival remains sacrosanct.
Deeti Ray is currently working on the Oral Traditions of Odisha as a Senior Fellow under the Ministry of Culture.
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