Raja – Beyond the ‘period drama’

The invaluable lessons that Raja, Odisha’s iconic fertility (and harvest) festival can lend to the modern world – wellness included.

Thanks to the reams written and spoken about Raja (often pronounced as Ro-Jau in the state), this ancient Odia festival is a rather familiar term today. But how much do we really know about the festival, whose ancestry is as old as the Roman Lupercalia?

For starters, Raja is the second harvest celebration that marks not the harvesting of any crop but the resting phase of Earth before it is ploughed again for a second season of produce. It marks the time when the Earth, as the story goes, is on its menstruation cycle and needs the three-day rest before being ready to give birth again, which, in farmer’s parlance, refers to a great harvest; and, for the tribes, referred to the transformation phase when nature begins to go slow and then blooms again with bounty. This was the reason why in olden times, cooking was banned for three days as it needed wood and foraging, both of which could cause pain to the Earth, and hence avoided.

For the three days of the Raja festival, food that has at least a week’s shelf life is prepared beforehand. Such as the pitha.
Image courtesy CulinaryXpress

In fact, as a mark of respect to the Earth, womenfolk, who personified Earth on land, were asked to refrain from doing any chores that included cooking, walking, or even stepping on the ground. Men, instead, took over the task of carrying them from one place to another; looking after the children; and even cooking if the need arises.

On the culinary front, the festival thus became instrumental in creating an array of dishes that had the shelf life of a week and tasted good irrespective of the day it was eaten. In Odia cuisine, those innovations today are in the form of a series of pithas ranging from manda pitha, which looks like the brethren of the Maharastrian modak to chunchi patra pitha and poda pitha. Essentially, baked pancakes, these are fascinating examples of a homemaker’s ingenuity in using basic, local produce and clever techniques to create something that was delicious and nourishing and had the ability to stay “good” for long. After all, these pre-cooked meals were the only way to sustain for the three days with no real activity. Reasons for series of activities to be cultivated for both men and women to keep their minds occupied and foster a sense of community during the three days. After all, this was one of the few breaks that the farming community was blessed with, that they often used to meet neighbours and others around the village.

Among tribes though, Raja, which began as a pagan festival that celebrated periods – an indication of a woman’s fertility – meant four days of merry making, singing, feasting on food that was made (and collected) and rejuvenating old ties.

Thus, Raja had the semblance of a harvest festival just like Onam in the South and Baisakhi in the North; and of a menstruation festival just like Ameti celebrated in Kamakhya temple in Assam or the age-old period drama in Chengannur Mahadeva Kshetram (temple) in Alappuzha, where Goddess Parvathi menstruates’ once in two or three months since 300 AD. But that is just one part of the great Raja story, a festival that has its roots in the ancient practice of podu chaso (cultivation through slash and burn). Look beyond the festivity, and one would realise that Raja is a celebration (and acknowledgment) of the ancient world’s most prized concept: fertility. Back in the day, women, who were the reincarnation of the Earth on land, were not just valued but also preserved for their fertility. As that ensured the long-term existence of a tribe, a dynasty or a ‘gotra’ as it was referred to then.

Such was the importance of fertility that some of ancient world’s greatest minds and scholars were commissioned to find ways and means to ensure that a woman was taken proper care of both mentally and physically, not just by the family but the community itself. One way that society did so was by bringing in occasions that would help identify women who are of that age or nearing it, and then little celebrations that ensured that their wellbeing gets due importance. In ancient India, the festivals went by the name Ritushuddhi and Rajaswala. While the former marked the joyous occasion of a woman coming of age, the latter was this grand ritual which ensured the periods were on cycle and they received the kind of love and care needed to get through the monthly.

Ancient scriptures such as the Kamasutra and Sushruta Samhita, among others, went deep into the methodology that would help make this phase happy and calming for the lady on her periods – and this didn’t just include how the woman should spend her days, or the environment she should live in but also the food that should be given to her in order to calm down a state of the body that nutritionists (and nutritional anthropologists) today identify as that of “hormonal chaos”. A term that famous Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, also called Pliny the Elder, had referred to in his account where he deciphered how periods can lead to the constant breaking down of the balance of hormones, leading to erratic mood swings and a drastic change in the demeanour of a woman.

A phase that today is loosely referred to as PMS-ing. But, as per Ayurveda, it’s a rather complex realigning of the doshas, especially of the vatta that results in mild to severe change in mood, temper and appetite, in addition to the pain or feeling of discomfort that comes during the time. It is a time when the woman’s defences are down, and the senses are vulnerable to any kind of negativity. That perhaps explains why one tends to get irritated at the slightest of provocations and the innumerable odd food cravings that a woman has, which medicine today explains as the body’s search for additional energy and nutrients that it requires not just to get the balance of atta, pita and kapha but also to minimise the “hormonal tizzy” that the body goes into as the womb rebuilds itself. 

This was why the tradition of having a different room for those on their cycle existed in every household, as it ensured that they are kept away from the regular stresses of day-to-day life. A concern that also was shown in food, which usually was made for nourishment and indulgence since during the time, the palate partly loses its ability to taste, and the digestive system gets sluggish – and slowly recuperates over the next few days to its former self. In Egypt, special wine and honey cakes with dates and almonds were made for this period. In India, a slew of kashyam were created for this purpose, especially the drumstick rasam and pepper rasam which help ease the pain, and aid in the recovery process. Another fascinating dish was the kheer made of broken rice or rice powder that helped calm the mind; and a breakfast of jaggery, flattened rice and milk, seasoned with candied ginger and pepper to infuse warmth and comfort.

How effective these ancient practices were at not only aiding women during the time but also helping generations understand the significance of fertility, is what gives Raja not just its significance but relevance too as it embodies those little nuggets of traditional wellness that helps lead a better life. How does it do it? Consider the food that is made for Raja. The dishes are often made with unpolished rice, which is a known coolant, gluten free and comes with a healthy dose of anti-inflammatory properties, fibre, minerals and polyphenols that protect tissue against any kind of stress. In addition, fruits are a mainstay of the festival especially mangoes, litchis, banana, coconut, and ripened jackfruit – known to digest quickly resulting in the required burst of energy, happy hormones and also easing the stress and process of muscle contraction.

In fact, the first day of Raja is often celebrated with food such as budha chakuli, a sweet pancake that is had slathered with ghee or khiri (kheer) followed by a rather light meal of chakuli pitha with milk and fruits such as banana or mango or a roasted cumin-tempered dalma, which is good on the palate and light on the stomach. Anything that is rich such as podo pitha, which is baked and sweetened with jaggery, mango or any other fruit, is kept for the second day to help replenish the lost nutrients after a day of muscle contraction and physical strain. It is at this time when complex dishes such as biri pitha (which uses a filling of lentils in a pancake) or khakara pitha that is deep fried or even those that are made with fermented rice batter, are made a part of the meal that is rich in fruits and nuts, and help the body start the rejuvenating process gradually.

The reason for keeping the slightly heavier meal for the second day is that by now, the brain has calmed down and there is a flow cycle in process, which means that the body can now digest slightly complex food that is needed to get back in form. The third day, which as per the Kamasutra is referred to as “rejivika” or rebirth, a function that is marked with the return of the palate, is celebrated with a variety of podo pitha, and in a few cases, with the saptapuri (seven-layer puri), and meetha paan (which is made with herbs, crystal sugar, clove and herbs such as paan mahuri). In a few households, there is a special preparation of mutton curry or a vegetarian equivalent. The change of the meal back in the day not only signalled the completion of the cycle but also a benchmark of good health. After all, ancient scholars such as Pliny believed that only when you are primed in your physical and mental wellbeing can you enjoy the pleasures of life – food being one of them.

When it comes to mood, food and health, our ancestors sure knew how to use what we eat to transform how we feel.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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