In the coastal districts of Orissa, women break away from their routine during Raja festival.
For women in the eastern districts of Orissa, where the festival is the most enthusiastically celebrated, Raja means three days of rest, merrymaking and joyful swinging. Breaking away from the daily chores that constitute their routine, women dress up, sing songs dedicated to the occasion, visit each other, and feast on homemade confectioneries.
Spread across three days, Raja occurs in the last days of the Hindu month of Jyestha or in the first days of Ashada, which usually falls around June or July. Its meanings and symbolism are manifold, all revolving around ideas of fertility and productivity. The festival is dedicated to the earth and to women, believed to be similar in their condition of nurturers. Raja gives a particular importance to young, virginal girls, potentially fertile, seeing in them future mothers. Similarly, drawing a parallel to nature, the Earth, in this period prior to the monsoon, holds promises of a future crop.
In the festival’s symbolic imagery, Raja is the menstruation period of the Earth, a time during which Earth should not be cultivated but left untouched, in preparation for future agricultural work. Similarly, women are not to perform any of the chores that usually make up their daily routine. They do not sweep, do not cook and do not fetch water. They are also not supposed to scratch the earth, or walk with bare feet, or cut or tear anything apart. This is a way for the women to be at rest, breaking away from their tiresome routines.
Also part of the festival is the making of pitha, a pancake made of fermented rice batter. As an ornamental tradition, women and young girls paint the countours of their feet with alta, a red dye. Alta is traditionally applied at weddings in north India, and its use evokes concepts of fertility and unions. Uttamaa, a woman from Kochillana village in Cuttack district, where the festival is celebrated with fervor, describes the festive spirit: “We apply alta on our feet, adorn ourselves in new saris and eat pitha. We sing and play”.
Raja usually ends with a land ritual (bhoomi puja), performed by women. Shailabala, an elderly woman explains: “There is a small mountain where, on the last day of Raja, we women perform the rituals for the land”. Through these rituals, female farmers pay respect to the land, which will soon bear new fruits and feed them.
While the festival is particularly appreciated by women, its importance is equally acknowledged by men. A male villager states, “Women observe Raja because they toil all year round and face so much stress. That is why they need a break for a few days”. In a twist reminder of antique carnival, gender roles are suspended during three days, power relations transformed, and positions swapped. While women swing, men take up their chores, from cooking to washing the dishes. And according to the former, “it feels great”, “good, very good”.
Sarita Biswal, our Community Correspondent in Orissa, shot this video in her village, Kochillana, in Cuttack district. Born and brought up there, she has been celebrating this festival for years, gradually understanding its complex symbolism. She was keen on documenting the event because she is aware that the festival is slowly fading away in urban areas. But above all, she enjoys these days of relief for women. Shooting among women of her community, in this time of lighthearted celebration, was a pleasant experience. “Women were delighted when I was shooting. In particular, they appreciated the fact that I was showing this festival from their own angle”. Indeed, Sarita’s video succeeds in capturing the playfulness and joy of the women around her.