The key lesson that we can take from this ancient festival of Raja Praba – Odisha’s (and India’s) oldest surviving period celebration.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture: Alka Jena  

What Onam is to Kerala, Raja is to Odisha.  

If you ask any Odia friend about Raja Parba, this is how they would explain about the much-awaited annual festival. And in a manner of speaking, it is the correct too. Much like Onam, Raja too is a harvest, in parts of course. Traditionally, the festival falls in between the time when a land is prepared for farming and the actual tilling, an act that in colloquial lingo is referred to as Pauda Chasa (burnt foilage). And refers to the early system of farming when a tribe, after a few years of using a patch, would search for another suitable swathe, burn the growth to ground, and prepare it for the next few seasons of tilling. Modern agriculturist referred this to as cyclical farming where one uses in a cycle and was seen as one of the best practices of ethical, sustainable farming – that is until commercial farming became the order of the day. Incidentally, part of this ancient practice is still followed in the business of tea where a land once has been in production for a few years, is left for some time to regenerate. In case of Raja, however, the period of resting for Mother Nature was about three to five days – precisely the time of woman’s menstruation.  

IT WAS BELIEVED that during the five days Mother Nature is having her periods and should be accorded enough room for rest. So for those given days, there would be no farming, no plucking of flowers, or felling of trees or any kind of foraging and hunting. In fact, traditionally, cooking too was banned for the time being as it would garner the happening of other activities. Instead, food was cooked and stowed in advance, and if the need ever arises a rare exception was made with the men – and not the women, especially ones that were in their childbearing age and were seen as the living avatar of earth – would be doing the cooking.  

Incidentally, it took that precise time for the fire to die down, the ambers to cool, and the rain to make the soil supple enough to be cleaned and ploughed. A pattern that the menstruation cycle followed too.  

GIVEN THAT SOCIETY THROUGH history has (and continues to) prioritised fertility as it guaranteed continuity of human race, the issue of periods, even though led to some bizarre practices, did garner enough attention to be documented and worked on. And the “work” included not just practices that went from drinking menstrual blood (Bauls Of Bengal) to distributing the stained cloth of the goddess and the infamous practice of Chaupadi or isolating the women while deeming her ‘untouchable’ for the time, to celebrating the first month by slaughtering a goat. However, not all rituals were questionably outrageous, few concepts proved to be shining examples of our ancestor’s understanding of nature and ingenuity.  Take Raja’s famous ritual of allowing women to rest in entirety, to the extend that they were traditionally not allowed to step on the earth, lest it causes pain to Mother Nature.  

ANOTHER, OF COURSE, is the tradition of song, dance, dressing up and swings that work like antidote to low mood that often the precursor of the periods, a phase that today is loosely defined as ‘PMS’. And the most significant of all, the food.  

Incidentally, it is here that our ancestor’s understanding of our biology and nature is most reflected, and that of using food as healer. While Rome, Greece, Egypt and even China had their own special concoction that were designed to take care of the woman during her difficult week; in India, SAMHITA’S CREATED A WHOLE  NEW RAJASWALA PARICHARYA – a kind of rule book to care for women during their periods – to ensure a complete welfare. This Pariachrya, some elements of which made it to the famous book of Kamasutra as well, included everything from the first day practices to the last day ritual post which the girl/women were allowed into the house. And in doing so, did create its own set of myths that has attained quite an effectiveness over the years. One favourite is when in periods do not touch the pickle. This rule fascinatingly is said to be implemented to prevent women in their periods from having extra spicy, heavy on oil delicacies.  

Instead, to appeal to the palate, a string of interesting dishes was created that were easy to digest, could uplift the mood, and could gradually help get through the process that Pliny The Elder defined as “regenerating.”

IN ASSAM TO CULL the first day destress and pain, there is a huge array of sweet things including rice ladoos that are part of the food, which usually consists of a light meal – usually rice, dal and saag or in many cases a vegetable-based stew and pitha.  

In Karnataka, the rice ladoo changes to Mane Aduge, a sweet made with ragi, which is known for its healing properties.

IN ODISHA HOWEVER, THERE IS A LIST OF PITHAS and their accompaniments that do the needful. In fact, the interesting bit is that each of the staple food – which is often loosely explained as a pancake because of fluffiness, a result of fermentation; cake, crepe for its wafer=like thinness, or in some cases a tortilla as well, thanks to its sturdy suppleness that can take a filling or two and still retain shape – is that it is made-to-mood. From Budha Chakuli to Kakara, enduri pitha to podo pitha and sija monda pitha that much like dim sum can take many shapes, including a roulade or be turned into a modak shaped moneybag, each pitha is a filling dish on its own and can even become a complete meal when combined rightly in a sequence of dosa, sambar, chutney.  

BUT WHY WAS PITHA CHOSEN – after all, even in tribal India of the yore, the food choices were aplenty? The reason for choosing pitha are twofold: first, we were a rice growing kingdom, and in the list of pure food, rice, a kernel of goodness and health, topped the list. Two, the awareness of how the shelf life of food changes with fermentation and when paired with the right technique.  

FASCINATINGLY MOST PITHAS in the Eastern state of India – including Bangladesh as well – are all adept at matching the two with tasteful perfection. Think Poda Pitha for instance. This cake-like take made with rice flour or rice batter can be seasoned, filled even adorned with everything from coconut to lentil fill, jaggery and iced with jackfruit pulp; likewise, for gointa pitha, also popularly called gointa gudi because of the pebble kind of shape, is a fascinating sweet globus like take on the kheer, which can be transformed into a savoury as one. Another fine example is the chunchi patra pitha which is like a well-designed crepe that takes just the right kind of filling to make for a fantastic, light, instantly mood uplifting grub – and can range from the classic jaggery-coconut stuffing to a ritzy pulled meat or lobster filling.  

However, the most interesting of all is the saru chakuli or chakuli pitha. Underestimated often for its simple style of preparation, this Kanchipuram dosa- peer, is a wonder-kid that can go from the lightest, sweetest meal when paired with milk and banana to a feast when paired with rich meat or fish curry; and balmy when paired with santula or dalma. Another pitha that does this trick is the khakara. Made today with semolina for that crispness or wheat for easiness, this semi-sweet fried treat works like a spa for the palate, and rejigs it back to health. Often such fried pitha, which includes the bhaja manda as well, is offered towards the end of the periods when the stomach settles down even more and needs the extra energy to help rebuild the womb for next month.  

AS FOR NUTRITIONAL THERAPIST SHVETA BHASSIN, “the reason such classic creations have lasted so many years is their real-time effectiveness. During periods, a woman’s body experiences what we call as a hormonal commotion as the main epicentre of wellness is in disarray. And while the body is coming to terms with the upheaval, the demand for energy increases.  Given the stomach’s precarious state, a meal that mostly digests on its own is the need of the hour. And that exactly what pithas do. While they improve the gut health and are the first to flush the energy to different parts of the body – just enough to keep it going, the paired dish gives the rest of the nutrition to deal with the pain, the low mood and such.”

This is the reason that in Raja, the first day is often given to lighter, sweeter, subtly flavoured food, which moves towards more bolder flavours and techniques like fried as the day progresses, with the last day given to a feast. That is also the mark of the fact that the recovery has been as Pliny The Elder puts it, “as expected.”