The Raja Festival: Odisha's way of embracing & celebrating menstruation!

This vibrant festival binds the rich tapestry of Odia culture, the joy of communities, agricultural practises and feminism all together while paying ode to the menstrual cycle and womanhood.

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Aradhana Biswal is happy. Her friends, who live away from Odisha, are back in the state and towns, while the coastal regions of Odisha are gearing up with numerous fairs, exhibitions, and multiple swings. Biswal, a Bhubaneshwar native, has four new outfits ready to wear and, like every year, is looking forward to eating lots of Poda Pitha throughout the days dedicated to celebrating womanhood and menstruation.

The land of tribals and endless traditions, Odisha has also been home to various agriculture-based festivals. But the Raja Festival is different. It correlates agriculture with menstruation and fertility. The beliefs regarding the festival suggest that the earth is symbolised as a woman who undergoes a period of menstruation during this time and requires rest and a rejuvenating break from all activities. As a result, all agricultural and farming activities, such as digging the soil and ploughing the fields, are stopped during this festival.


Girls like to swing in the Raja festival as swings form a major part of it. Image Courtesy: OHAH

Another belief attached to the festival is that the erstwhile kings and queens of Odisha would also celebrate the festival aiming to revitalise the land that they ruled over. The Raja festival is also associated with worshipping the Hindu goddess Devi Durga as people pay homage to her. However, Biswal, the 26-year-old content creator has noticed that the goddesses in temples are not made to bathe during these days.

Going by mythological beliefs, it is considered that Bhudevi, the wife of Lord Jagannath (Vishnu) undergoes her menstrual cycle during this period before the onset of rains. While the word ‘Raja’ is derived from a Sanskrit word, 'Rajaswala' means a menstruating woman. 

For women to dress up and rest!


Aradhana Biswal from a Raja Festival celebrations.

On the other hand, the women in households in Odisha are also provided with comfort during these days as men take over the kitchen and other work. "These are the days for us to just sit back and relax while dressing up and enjoying," Biswal says. Her household has already begun making pithas, and her area is decking up in the hues of the festival with a giant fair nearby. Even homes are adorned with intricate floral patterns.

As part of the rituals, the women wake up before dawn, anoint their bodies with turmeric paste and oil, and wash their hair on the first day. Traditionally, bathing for the next two days is prohibited. There are also various other rituals that women follow, such as not walking barefoot, not scratching the earth, not grinding, not tearing anything apart, not cutting, and not cooking. "We also wear alta along with the new clothes and jewellery," Biswal says. However, one of the most exciting parts of the festival remains the meet-and-greet sessions. "We visit our neighbors, friends, and relatives, play cards, and eat together," Biswal chuckles as she talks about the festival.

Another Bhubaneshwar resident, Dr. Upassana Mohanty, reminisces about her memories of visiting her grandmother's house during this festival. "I would play on Raja Doli (rope swings) with my cousins and play cards while we had various competitions as well," the dental surgeon, cosmetologist, and food content creator says, adding that she would also watch her granny's favorite Odia movies with the family. Last year, Dr. Mohanty, along with a few food bloggers, organized a 'Raja Parba' that included various competitions, dance, music, and more.

An extravagant culinary affair


The making of Pithas. Courtesy: Aradhana Biswal 
Like Aradhana Biswal, even Dr. Upassana Mohanty speaks fondly of the food culture for the festival. She calls it a festival full of delicacies. Talking about the highlight of the festival, she says. Raja Pitha or Poda Pitha is prepared in the state. "There are various types of Poda Pita and every household prepares as per their choices," she says. Dishes like Pakhala (a fermented rice dish) and Dahibara (fried lentil dumplings in yogurt) also take center stage in the food.
Dr. Mohanty counts Janta choula poda pitha, Biri Choula poda pitha, khira poda pitha, suji Poda Pitha as the few types while stating that her favourite is Janta choula poda pitha, hence, becomes common during these festivals. She also says that Raja Pana (special meetha paan), sweets like choula kheeri and non-veg dishes like Aloo mutton curry are very common in the households.
Dr. Upassana Mohanty from Raja Festival celebration.
Talking about mutton, however, Biswal says that it is customary for the men of the family to cook mutton due to these days of the Raja festival. "Mutton is considered very important to the Odiya households as no festivities are complete without it," she says. Biswal also adds that other than festivals, Sundays are always about relishing mutton as a mandate!

Digital age decoding the true meaning of the old celebration 

While Biswal has always seen this celebration in her family where she would notice how women were relieved of their duties during this festival, she could not understand the significance or the reason behind it. "Kids were not informed about the true significance of the festival and we would just find our happiness in wearing new clothes and eating food," she says as she adds that she got to understand the reason for celebrating the festival through social media when she passed her school.

However, as Biswal mentioned, the events and exhibitions organised in this festival promote its significance. "Nowadays, even kids know why we celebrate the Raja festival because society is moving from the prejudices related to menstruation," she says while talking about her observations. Working as a food content creator, Aradhana Biswal also gets a lot of collaborations during this time of the festival. "In a year, I get the majority of the work these days and so is the case with other creators as well," she says. 

For Biswal, the winds of change have got people to stay out of the state owing to work or other reasons. For Dr. Mohanty, who believes that the celebrations for this unique festival of womanhood are still the same, says that people now enjoy the Raja Doli even in malls, along with public places! What might have changed, as per her, is that the traditional way of making Pitha, losing its originality due to microwave-prepared Pitha, whereas a few people choose to order it online.

But to maintain the essence of this unique festival even among the coming generations, Dr. Mohanty says, "It is our duty to make them understand the importance and vibe of the celebration!" And, Odia people have a well-valid reason to say that as they believe that they accepted, embraced, and celebrated menstruation when it was a hush subject for the world.



Raja festival traditions Raja Festival