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Raja Festival in America: A Celebration of Menstruation and Womanhood in Odisha Tradition

Raja Festival in America: A Celebration of Menstruation and Womanhood in Odisha Tradition

  • A look into how Odia women in North America have reformulated the tradition in many shapes and forms.

Odia women across the globe recently celebrated Raja, a three-day festival, native to coastal Odisha, that celebrates womanhood and pays tribute to the menstruation cycle. It signifies the starting of the rainy season after the sun’s scorching heat Mother Earth; parched and eagerly waiting for the first drops of rain to quench her thirst. This ritual is not that common in western and southern Odisha.

The term Raja comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Rajas’ which means menstruation. When a woman menstruates, she is called ‘Rajaswala.’ In medieval times, Raja became more popular as an agricultural holiday, marking the worship of Bhudevi, the wife of Lord Jagannath.

A few days ago, during my frequent calls with my mother in Cuttack, she reminded me that this year, the Raja festival began on June 14. “Do wear a new dress and eat good food,” she said. Although it’s been 32 years since I moved from my home state to make a home in California, old memories come flooding back about this beautiful festival celebrating womanhood, freedom, and mobility.

It used to be three days of nonstop fun — the anticipation and experience of mouth-watering Odia delicacies; freedom to visit relatives and friends; playing the fun games of ludo, hopscotch, and non-stop swing tied to the branch of a mango or a jackfruit tree; a rare luxury of eating a meetha paan (sweet betel leaves stuffed with fragrant pastes and confections); and being treated like a princess, much to the chagrin of my brothers, remains fresh in my mind.

Earth Rests, and Nothing Moves

The first day of Raja is known as pahili Raja (the beginning). The mother earth menstruates and rests. The night before the first day, my mother would comb my long pitch-black hair into two tight plaits, fold each one and tie it with colorful ribbons that would sit on my head like the hen’s crest. She would warn me not to mess it up while sleeping. On Pahili Raja, all the saja baja (the decorative adornments and preparations for the day) is done the night before, not to disturb the mother earth. On the day, in honor of the Earth Goddess, who is not tilled, weavers do not weave, giving rest to their spinning wheel. Similarly, carpenters, potters, and cobblers stop their work. Trees are revered and women are celebrated.

The second day is called Raja Sankranti. I looked forward to wearing new clothes and standing in line to collect my tailor-made dress from the seamstress a day earlier. My mother would apply alta (red dye) on my feet, kumkum (red powder), and chandan (a paste made from ground sandalwood) on my forehead. My mother told me to keep my feet off the ground by taking swings. Young unmarried women become the divine.

The third day is known as Basi Raja. The pithas (homemade rice cakes) are made to last at least three days. Long-lasting fun for the women continues.

Raja in North America

Odia women in North America have adapted ways to celebrate the festival and keep the tradition. Some remember celebrations back home while growing up, but are unable to have elaborate festivities due to busy schedules and lack of access to a large Odia community. I spoke with a few Odia women here, about what the festival means to them, its significance, and how they celebrate.

A friend who has lived in a small town in Michigan for the last 38 years remembers the Rajafestival while growing up in Cuttack. “I remember everyone wearing new clothes, playing on swings, and eating all kinds of pithas.” As a dancer, she used to dance and sing along with many famous artists together for the general public to celebrate Raja. However, she hasn’t celebrated Raja in Michigan. “When there was a group of Odia families here we used to have a potluck. But they all moved out,” she says, adding that she misses “community get-togethers.”

Maryland-based Bigyani Das, a scientist, and mother of three young women is very familiar with the Raja festival. She moved to the U.S. in 1990, but vividly remembers celebrating it as a child in Jajpur, Odisha. She notes how girls feel like princesses and are free to do what they like’ that they get to wear new clothes and visit friends and relatives’ houses. “We would take a leisurely bath in the nearby river, used to walk miles to nearby villages to visit our relatives just like going from Maryland to Virginia,” she says. She remembers herself, along with five or six of the girls going to her maternal uncle’s house, and staying there for days. Much to contrast from here, where “you have to call and come over,” she says. “The hosts may not be prepared and would be nervous to see so many people. Those days, the relatives knew guests would come and were always ready to welcome us.”

Recalling an incident she says: “My father was adopted. I used to go to my father’s native village, crossing the river. Then we would go to a family member’s relative’s house without even knowing them. We had complete freedom to stay in each other’s houses. There were no special arrangements to welcome the guests.”

“Here in Maryland, there is not much celebration. Except for Poda pitha (a delicious steamed cake with a combination of powdered rice, jaggery, and spicy condiments, and chopped or shredded coconut ) and, paana (the summer yogurt or drink in place of Indian bael), a new dress, we don’t celebrate much.”

Das, who doesn’t celebrate Raja here, laments the fact that her daughters sadly do not know much about it. Being a working woman, she could not afford to take three days off during the week to celebrate the occasion. She had to selectively choose a few rituals she could practice along with other community members. Additionally, the festival coincides with the children’s final exams.

Leena Mishra, a mother of a high schooler girl, misses Raja as well. While growing up in Cuttack, she looked forward to family gatherings and the excitement of visiting relatives and friends. She reminisces the fun of shopping for a new dress, matching bangles, bindi, swing tied to the tree branches, and touring the village. Her mother would dress her up, apply the sandalwood and kumkum dots on her forehead, alta on the feet, cook scrumptious cakes, and she would have fun with friends. “Here in Maryland, there is not much celebration. Except for Poda pitha (a delicious steamed cake with a combination of powdered rice, jaggery, and spicy condiments, and chopped or shredded coconut ) and, paana (the summer yogurt or drink in place of Indian bael), a new dress, we don’t celebrate much,” she says. 

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Similarly, Niharika Mohanty was born and raised in Canada and is now settled in the San Francisco area and never had the opportunity to celebrate Raja. “And as a result, my daughter Maya hasn’t either.”

In Maryland, the Odias organize a picnic in the nearby park where food is the focus. Along with an all-American barbecue, Podapitha is served as a reminder of Raja. The park play structure swings serve as dolis (traditional rope swings), and people have fun catching up with each other. Instead of traditional attire, women and men wear their leisurely summer clothes – shorts, tee-shirts, or skirts and show off their colorful hats for a day out. 

Satya Das, a resident of Edmonton, Canada said this year, the Odia community organized a virtual celebration on zoom. She noted that it’s hard for her daughter to celebrate Raja in Maryland. “She has school and I work full time,” Mishra says, adding that because of the length of the festival, “there is lack of excitement among peers.”

Alisa Das, a recent graduate from the University of Washington, Seattle did not grow up celebrating the festival. However, recently, the Odia community in Seattle have been celebrating Raja wearing colorful traditional clothes and making poda pitha. During the pandemic, last year, Das says they thought of observing the festival with a “Raja video for some celebration and cheer.” She says she and other second-generation Odia American kids are “trying to learn more about Odia festivals in the recent years.” She shared a video the community made last year to celebrate Raja during Covid time. 

Sibani Das, a medical student in Seattle sums up the essence of Raja. “[It is a] time to celebrate womanhood, and is a metaphor for the changing environment and a start to a new season. It is when we take time to respect, acknowledge and celebrate the power of femininity and women, and the biggest symbol, Mother Earth.”

Although Odias have moved away from their home state, they have reformulated the tradition of Raja festival in many shapes and forms. I do miss the festival from my childhood.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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