By Ranjan Panda*
Nuakhai, literally meaning ‘eating newly harvested rice’, is the most widely celebrated festival in western Odisha. This festival of a quintessentially agrarian society reflects the rich cultural heritage of respecting ecology as the mother who blesses us with food.
The festivities celebrate respect for family elders, village deities and most importantly for Mother Nature, besides unity and friendship in the society. Believed to have been adopted from the tribal communities of western Odisha, Nuakhai is now recognized as the festival for one and all in this region.
The belief underlying the celebration of Nuakhai is that you have to worship the harvest if you want Mother Earth to bless with you bountiful crops for all times to come. That is the reason the newly harvested paddy is offered to the mother deity first. While village deities are offered the new rice all across the region, the ritual has taken the shape of huge ceremonies in pithas of deities like Samaleswari, Pataneswari, Sureswari and Manikeswari.
The new harvest is not considered sacred until it is offered to the deities. A farmer, it is believed, gets God’s permission to use the harvest for both consumption and trade only after offering the first morsel to Mother Nature.
Nuakhai brings the family members back to their ancestral/parental home. After offering the cooked nua prasad made from the new rice, the family head distributes the same to each family member. He then blesses them all and visits the deity’s temple, meeting friends and fellow villagers and all others present on that day. It is popularly known as ‘nuakhai bhetghat’.
Tribal communities celebrate the festival with their folk dances. Nuakhai is an occasion when you normally see everybody wearing new clothes and each family cooking numerous traditional recipes such as pitha, manda and other delicacies.
For about three decades now, Nuakhai is being used as a festival for forging unity among all in the western region of Odisha. Before 1991, people of different areas of the region used to celebrate Nuakhai on different tithis (dates) in the Bhadrava month. However, after constant efforts by Hindu priest groups, Bhadrava Shukla Paksa Panchami Tithi was fixed for the Nuakhai festival. Since then, the festival’s rituals are performed on that day. In recognition of the universal nature of the festival, the Government of Odisha has also declared it a state-wide holiday.
For the people though, the celebration continues for two, three days. In rural areas, it stretches even longer. Millions of people, who migrate each year to distant places for work, try their best to return to the village to celebrate Nuakhai with their family and friends. Political and cultural groups also celebrate Nuakhai with great gusto.
Essentially an agrarian festival with its origins in ecological principles, Nuakhai has already taken the shape of a mass festival. However, agriculture in the belt is suffering from many woes. Drought is becoming more frequent in western Odisha. More and more farmers are shunning farming and shifting to other occupations. Government apathy and climate change are making the life of farmers miserable.
While there is no special effort to support farmers against frequent vagaries of nature and man-made calamities, the government is doing everything it can to marginalize them. The government’s blind promotion of extractive industries at the cost of farmers is a matter of big worry.
If the current approach to development continues, Nuakhai would soon become history or remain as just a ritual bereft of its socio economic context. For Nuakhai to stay and spread happiness, joy and unity, farmers have to survive and prosper.