By Priyamvada Singh
As a Rajasthani woman married to an Odia man, one of the first things I learnt about the socio-cultural milieu of Odisha was that this state loves its celebrations. Yet, if I had to pick the one that truly has my heart, it would undoubtedly be the ‘Raja Parba’ or the Raja Festival, which symbolises and celebrates menstruation.
“We observe 13 festivals in 12 months,” boasts my husband Vijayendra Chandra Deb each time he meets a new member from my side of the family.
The implication of this proud declaration is that Odisha celebrates endless festivals throughout the year. Each festival brings with it a vibrant bouquet of traditions and interesting cultural practices.
Most of these festivals are exclusive to this region and I was not acquainted with them till a few years ago; but with the relentless efforts of an enthusiastic spouse, I have not just learned all about them, I have also learned to love them.
Pronounced as ‘raw-jaw’ in the vernacular dialect, Raja Parba is a three-day festival that falls in mid-June each year and gets celebrated with incredible gusto and galore across the state. Odias believe that Mother Earth goes through her menstruation cycle during the Raja Parba and she needs time to regenerate, in order to prepare herself for the agricultural activities with the soon-to-arrive monsoon.
With this belief, all farming activities like tilling, ploughing, sowing and even construction work are suspended during this time so as to avoid any discomfort to Mother Earth.
Since this festival derives its name from the Odia word ‘rajas‘ meaning menstruation, it is natural that ‘rajaswalas’ or menstruating women take centre-stage during the festivities.
Taking a break from all their daily chores like cooking, cleaning or working on the fields, women use this time to relax and rejuvenate themselves just like mother earth. Girls across diverse age groups also participate in this fiesta with equal festive fervour.
Women rise before dawn on the first day, beautify themselves with turmeric paste and indulge in extravagant beauty baths. They adorn new clothes, apply alta (red dye) on their feet, and saunter around town catching up with friends and attending local fairs.
One of the most distinguishing features of Raja Parba are the rope-swings, hung on trees at various locations and decorated with fresh flowers to reflect the celebratory spirit.
As the girls eagerly await their turn on the swings, they break into lyrical folk-songs to express the joy of being born as women and binge on delicious local pancakes called poda-pithas.
I distinctly remember the first time I witnessed Raja Parba several years ago. The idea of vivaciously celebrating the menstrual cycle of Mother Earth and unapologetically endorsing it as a symbol of fertility filled me with such a sense of pride.
Yet, each year as the ‘Raja Parba’ approaches, I am constantly reminded of the fact that we still live in a world where menstrual stigma is being battled by millions of girls and women at home as well as in the society at large. So here is some wishful thinking:
What if Raja Parba becomes a national celebration? Could it possibly work as an effective awareness campaign to normalise the idea of periods?
Lead photo credit: Krishna Jenamoni
A former TV professional, Priyamvada Singh is now pursuing her vision of restoring her family’s 150-year-old ancestral fort in Rajasthan. She won the Nari Shakti Puruskar in 2019 for this endeavour that blends heritage restoration and socio-cultural resurrection.