A few grains of rice bran, a lonely girl praying for the return of her brothers out at sea, an ancient port bustling with trade – these are the elements that came together to create a unique festival still celebrated from August to September in Odisha – a time of year when ships traditionally returned from their voyages around the continent.
The maritime history of the region, known as Kalinga in ancient India, goes as far back as 400 BCE. Settlements developed along the Mahanadi River, which became a hub of trade and commerce. The coastline extended over 400 km and acted as a link to neighbouring regions. Merchants from Kalinga traded with the kingdoms of South and South East Asia. It was to gain access to Kalinga’s rich ports that Emperor Ashoka invaded in 261 BCE.
The maritime adventures of the Odia people are evident in the archaeological finds at sites such as Manikapatna, Radhanagar, Sisupalgarh and Khalatakapatna. Findings from the excavation in 1884-85 and 1994-95 at Khalkatapatna include Chinese ware, celadon ware, egg white glazed and glazed chocolate wares of Arabian origin. Excavation at Manikapatna includes material from several South and South-East Asian countries. Roman contact was evident from the Rouletted ware. The representations of a royal barge on the outer wall of Bhogamandapa in Jagannath temple at Puri and representation of a giraffe in a panel at Konark symbolises trade with Africa. Sculptural evidence found in the temples of Odisha testifies to the importance of boats in everyday life.
Early sailors and merchants harnessed the power of the seasonal southwest winds that blow from June to September, from Sri Lanka towards Odisha, and the retreating monsoon winds, which blow in the reverse direction from December to early March. These sailing seasons inspired new festivals, celebrated to mark the departure and arrival of the maritime fleets. These festivals are celebrated even today, chief among them being the Bali Yatra fair, Kartik Purnima festival and Khudurukuni Osa.
Local traditions attribute Bali Yatra to the 3rd century BCE when two thousand Kalinga families were believed to have migrated and settled in Bali. It is believed to be the commemoration of the journey to Bali. Bali Yatra, much-awaited event at Cuttack, starts with Kartik Purnima and continues for a week. In the morning of the auspicious day of Kartik Purnima, people gather before sunrise at rivers or ponds and float miniature boats made out of banana stem symbolising the departure of trading expeditions.
Khudurukuni Osa was observed to pray for the safe return of voyagers. The young girls of a coastal community would fast to appease the wish-fulfilling Goddess Mangala and beseech her to bring the men back home safely, from voyages that were then full of danger – from storms, disease, pirates and shipwreck, among other possible pitfalls.
This festival became so enmeshed in the culture of coastal Odisha that it was celebrated long after the galleons had ceased to sail and the dangers had been defused by technology, navigation and the relative blandness of commercial trade.
But over the past few decades, modernisation and urbanisation have seen the number of women fasting on Khudurukuni Osa drop. Even in the villages, the ritual celebrations have faded. Accounts from before remain, as part of Odia folk literature, now in print as well as in popular memory. Tales describing the glory of the goddess and the rituals performed to appease her were recited by devotees each year, and are still remembered.
Khudurukuni Osa is a ritual meant to be practised by unmarried girls and women every Sunday of the month of Bhadrava (August-September), for the health, happiness and prosperity of their brethren. It is a simple ritual that can be performed at home.
On the first of these Sundays, the girls wake up before sunrise and head out in groups to pluck flowers. After a bath in a nearby river, they install a Balunka (a small image made of wet sand from the river bed) representing the goddess Mangala. The Balunka is decorated with leaves and flowers and bathed with turmeric water, following which a prayer is offered.
The girls then prepare for the installation of the goddess by sanctifying the Osa Kothi (prayer room) with cow dung and making garlands of the flowers collected in the morning. They decorate the prayer room with jhoti, traditional paintings made with rice paste on the walls and floor. Besides floral designs, images of boats and merchants and sea voyage scenes are drawn.
The evening ritual starts with a prayer offered to goddess Mangala, followed by a recitation of the Bruhat Ta’poi, a text written by Gopinath Das in the 16th or 17th century. The book consists of five chapters that recount the maritime activities of the ancient Odia people. The central character in the book, Ta’poi, is a young girl who was the pampered only daughter among seven brothers in a prosperous merchant family. She lost her parents as a child and, soon after, her brothers left on a sea voyage for trade, leaving her to the care of their wives and requesting them:
Boite jauchu ambhe ghara sambhali thiba tumbhe
(As we initiate our sea voyage it is your responsibility to look after the house)
Ta’poi was very well looked after by the wives until they came under the influence of an evil woman who convinced them that Ta’poi would be the reason for future misery. This changed their attitude towards Ta’poi and they began to torture her. She was barely given enough food.
One day, afraid to go home because she had lost one of the goats in a flock she had been told to mind, she came upon a group of girls worshipping the goddess Mangala. If you pray with devotion to the goddess, the girls told her, she fulfils your wishes. Ta’poi prayed that she would find the goat, and she did. This made her belief in the goddess stronger, and she decided to pray for her brothers too.
Osa kothi re jai basi bhai ka subha se manasi
Boila mangala uddhara maha sankatu pari kara
(Invoking goddess Mangala in the prayer room she prayed for the safe return of her brothers to save her from her state of distress).
Ta’poi had nothing to offer to goddess except a few grains of khuda (raw rice bran), but those grains were all she had been given to eat. So when she offered them to the goddess, her sacrifice was made even more significant.
After she made her offering and her plea, her brothers returned. They heard of the plight of their only sister, and the wives were punished for their misdeeds. Ever after, the festival of pleas for the safe return of voyagers came to be known as Khudurukuni, named after the few grains of khuda offered by a desperate girl.
Emphasising the power and grace of the goddess Mangala, the text ends with:
Even today, during Khudurukuni Osa, the primary offering to the goddess is khuda bhaja (paddy husk) and khuda tandula (a rice bran cake). Other offerings include liya (fried paddy), ukhuda (flattened paddy sweetened with molasses) and fruit.
Flowers are an integral part of Khudurukuni Osa too. The garlands made by the girls are strung not on a thread but on strips of dried bark from the plantain tree. This ritual entered folklore as the following ditty:
Phoola singhasana karanti
Phoolare asana paranti
Phoolara chauni sundara
Mala gonthithanti phoolara
Phoolare kacha ti bahu ti
Phoolare mandile dehati
(A throne for goddess made of flowers and carpeted with flowers, beautiful covering of garlands strung with flowers, bangles and armlets covered in flowers, flowers covering throughout).
A unique aspect of this worship is that, instead of priests, girls worship the idol.
Khudurukuni Osa, also known as Bhalukuni Osa, continues until the last Sunday of Bhadrava, when the girls form groups and take their idols for immersion in a nearby water body. They argue with each other over whose idol is best. These arguments happen in the form of traditional songs that go something like this.
Ama bhalukuni khae nadia, tuma bhalukuni lo khae phadia
(Our goddess eats coconut while yours gets only the shell)
Ama bhalukuni khae muan, tuma bhalukuni muhare nia
(Our goddess eats sweet balls while yours has fireballs)
Ama bhalukuni mundare beni , tuma bhalukuni munda ukuni
(Our goddess has plaited hair while yours is infested with lice)
Ama bhalukuni mundare mani, tuma bhalukuni akhita kani
(Our goddess has a jewel on her forehead while yours has a squint in her eye)
It is interesting to note that the goddess concerned is the same, but the competition has seen the separate groups of girls personify their rendering of the goddess until it has come to represent themselves. With month-long worship, they also develop a particular attachment to their idol. Most of these songs, and indeed this entire part of the ritual, was forgotten and ceased about three decades ago.
Typically, somewhere between the drawing on the walls of the prayer room and the immersion of the idols of the goddess, the sailors would return from their voyages. Their ships would be worshipped, the men greeted and celebrated, the goddess thanked, and then the likeness gratefully immersed in a river or pond.
As the girls, usually 20 to 25 per group, came together each year to celebrate the ritual and create their idol, community camaraderie was formed. Now, this has changed to either individual observance of the Osa or observance in much smaller groups. The belief among girls and women that goddess Mangala will help them, whatever the cause of their distress, keeps the ritual alive all these centuries later.
Brothers, instead of boats, now travel by other means for their livelihood, but the worries of the sisterhood remain the same.
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