Paya Amavasya: A Celebration Of the lives (and death) of those gone away

… and the many pithas that are offered as part of the feast including the all-loved Kakara Pitha

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy -

Legendary Jiggs Kalra had once said, “The brilliance of deepavali or diwali is that it isn’t just one festival as it is perceived to be, but a fascinating cauldron of many little rituals rolled into one. And to appreciate it one needs to know and understand those little celebrations. That is when we would comprehend the bonanza called Diwali, and what gives it that unparallel grandeur and popularity pan India.”

A closer look at the celebrations across India does bring in fascinating range of lesser know traditions that showcase our vibrant legacy. Take for instance the celebration in Odisha.

Technically, Diwali is Kali Puja in Odisha and celebrated as one. But the day itself does have not one but many little rituals going through the different phases of time. While at homes in central Odisha's it marks the end of the first week of Kartik Puja, when we worship Lord Jagannath in the avatar of Kartik; for the farming community it is the second harvest season with an added bonus of seasonal vegetables and produce like gourds, pumpkins and naturally sweet wood apple; for the town of Baripada, the modern capital of erstwhile Mayurbhanj Kingdom, it is the age-old Kali Puja where the two iconic Kali idols in the town are worshipped. But there is one ritual that is celebrated across Odisha is the Paya Amāvásyā . Also known as the Bada Badua Daka, it is Odisha’s equivalent to the Mexican Día de los Muertos where we remember our ancestors – and all that they have done for our happy lives. By Odia ritualistic calendar, this is the day when we give pind to the women of our past generation – the men are paid homage to in the shraad that happens during Mahalaaya, which comes around Durga Puja.

The tradition stems from the long held believe that while our ancestors continue to look upon and bless us every single day, it is on the day of Mahalaya (also known as Priti Paksha) that we call them to planet earth to celebrate with us, on the Paya Amāvásyā, we wish them farewell with a feast, lighting and some music. The visiting party on this day comprises not just our parents or grandparents but nine generations beyond of uncles, aunts, great grand parents and even those who we wouldn’t remember. Since, it is hard to recollect names after the third generation, it has become customary for people to gather around the Jagannath Temple to pay homage to their ancestors as the temple is known to have the panchang that can connect us to our root forefathers and mothers.

The celebration begins with creating a muruja next to the Tulsi (holy basil) plant in the house. Legend has it that this is where our ancestors gather around, though one can also give it next to a pond or any part of the house. A diya made of dough is lit on the muruja, next to which are seven plates filled with treats made of some of the iconic dishes of Odisha, fruits like banana and coconut, sweet pithas made with the sap of palm harvested fresh the day earlier like arisa pitha, and the highlight of the feast, the Kakra Pitha.

Traditionally made with rice powder cooked into a dough, sweetened with sugar or jaggery before it is flattened on a banana leaf and then deep fried into puffed sweetness, Kakra Pitha is one of the few pithas that play the dual role of a popular breakfast food and a sweetmeat. “Its pairing with dalma for breakfast is a meal that many visit Puri to experience,” says culinary custodian Alka Jena, who considers Kakara Pitha as a deceivingly simple yet culinary complex dish made by our ancestors. Just the process of making it is about harvesting the goodness of rice, not only the nutrient goodness but sweetness to. And that is what one tastes in the final product.” And even though the flour-based Kakra Pitha, a recent innovation, is more popular these days, nothing quite replaces that balmy gooeyness of a rice based pitha.

What makes it highlight of the ritual is that very soulful taste of a Kakra Pitha, easily the tastiest of the baskets. In fact, Kakra thanks to the process of frying, says culinary archiver Manju Das, “attains a texture and taste layers that almost feels like a feast in the mouth – plays which are perceived as signs of happiness and prosperity.”

Fascinatingly, the rituals beauty isn’t just the food but also the customs that are followed like the fact that the Puja is conducted by the elderly women in the family, since it is matro paksha (for mothers); the ritual has to be done by all the family members together – and this includes the visiting friends, relatives and cousins as well. Then comes the welcome song that invites them to a feast, and finally the burning of an old jute bark called Kaunriya Kathis that would show them the path to go back to haven. In fact, every home makes an extra feast thali for even those who have lost their path during this “home coming celebration.” It is believed that a tradition like this doesn’t only connect us to our roots but also gives us a sense of how to live a life – and death.