Odisha is famed as a land of magnificent temples that is deeply rooted in culture and traditions. Despite modern advancements in the way of life, its people still adhere to their ancient customs and rituals that celebrate life. With majority of its population comprising Hindus, people in Odisha celebrate all the festivals and customs as per the Hindu calendar. Yet in all of these, the influence of Jagannath culture imparts uniqueness to the rich culture. It is said that according to it, Odias celebrate ‘Bara masa, tera parba,” (thirteen festivals in twelve months) indicating the abundance of festivals in Odia culture.
Each of the twelve months in a Hindu calendar has its own significance according to the holy scriptures but the four months of Baisakh, Asadha, Kartika and Margasira are deemed auspicious. Kartika maasa (month) well-regarded as the sin-destroying month amongst them, holds utmost religious significance for all devotees during which both Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva are worshipped.
Kartika maasa starts from the next day of the Kumara Purnima festival that marks the end of Ashwini maasa, while it culminates with the festival of Kartika Purnima. There are, of course, many rituals associated with this month. During this entire month, the pious abstain from the intake of non-vegetarian diet. Taking bath at the pre-dawn time of the day and paying regular visits to the temple are few of the inscribed rituals to be observed during this month. Those who observe the special rituals associated with this month, called Habisa or Kartika Brata, renounce a number of items in their diet. Throughout this month, they fast and take food once during the day, which is during the afternoon. As per tradition, those undertaking the brata can only take a specific diet prepared from few items like coconut, sweet potatoes and few other pulses.
The age old tradition also finds many elderly, especially women and widows swarming the cities of Puri and Bhubaneswar to serve their beloved Lord Jagannath and Lord Shiva. 70-year-old Shantilata Sahoo from Bhubaneswar who is staying at Puri for the month says, “This is the fourth time I have come to Puri to carry out the rituals of this month. Waking up at twilight to perform the ‘baluka puja,’ drawing patterns of coloured powder in front of the Tulsi plant and reading the chapters from Kartika Purana and chanting verses of Kartika Mahatmya give a sense of connect with the Divine.”
She further adds, “Notwithstanding the austerities behind the rules, the sense of liberation you get after following all of them is overwhelming.”
The whole month of Kartika is not only auspicious but it heralds a bevy of festivities in a series thereafter. The last five days of the month however are the most sanctified and are collectively known as ‘Panchuka.’ The very last day of these five days is celebrated as Kartika Purnima. As per practice, the devout must refrain from partaking non-vegetarian food and food without onion and garlic during Kartika maasa but those who fail to follow these strict regulations for the entire moth can opt to observe the same during these last five days of the month. As per a popular saying, even a crane, a fish-hunting bird, forsakes eating fish during Panchuka!
Early in the morning married women draw beautiful designs with ‘muruja’ (natural coloured powder) around the ‘chaura’ (a small elevated structure with a ‘Tulsi’ or basil plant overhead) during Panchuka.
The month long Brata ends with the festival of Kartika Purnima that also marks the victory of Lord Shiva over the Tripuri demons. The day after Kartika Purnima is called Chadakhai, when the people break their month-long abstinence from non-vegetarian food. On this day, it is not uncommon to see local markets, particularly fish and mutton shops, crowded with people, who leave no stone unturned to enjoy a rich non-vegetarian feast after the long hiatus. Goes without saying, the prices of meat and fish soar up during this period.
Kartika Purnima marks the birthday of Lord Kartika and another festival that is held in the morning of this day is the ‘Boita Bandana.’ It is a vibrant celebration in the memory of the maritme glory of our sea-faring ancestors. In the kingdom of Kalinga (now Odisha), ‘Sadhabas’ (sea traders) embarked on trans-oceanic voyages to foreign shores like Bali, other South East Asia islands as well as other parts of the world for trade and cultural expansion, on this day of the year. The women of the community would send them off by singing “aa ka ma boi, pana gua thoi, pana gua tora, masaka dharama mora” signifying the three Odia months of Ashwini, Kartika and Margasira. This day is celebrated all across Odisha though its prominence is best seen in Cuttack.
“It is a proud feeling to relive the glorious past we had in whatever small way we can. We come to the banks of river Mahanadi or Kathajodi early in the morning to celebrate Boito Bandana. It is still lot of fun to float miniature boats made out of ‘kadali patua’ (banana plant bark), thermocol , cork and paper, all decked with fruits, betel leaves, betel nut, coins, ghee diyas and crackers too, into the river,” says 43 year-old Rashmita Prusty from Cuttack.
For those in the capital, they celebrate this day by sailing boats in the Bindusagar lake. “We have been following this tradition for generations in the family now. Settling in a metro city does not stop us from celebrating our customs that give us the unique identity of being Odia,” adds Biseswar Swain from Old Town, Bhubaneswar.
During this month, idols of Lord Kartikeswar are constructed and worshipped and later taken out in processions and immersed in the rivers. Lord Kartika, known to be the most handsome and eligible among the Gods, is widely worshipped by Odias specially on Kumar Purnima by maidens who pray to have a husband like Him. For the Odias, He is also the God of maritime travel. Hence, He is revered during this time.
It is from this day the famous trade festival of ‘Bali Jatra’ starts in Cuttack on the banks of Mahanadi in Cuttack and continues for 7 to 8 days. The festival is the grandest testimony to the rich maritime legacy of ancient Odisha and people from all over the state and outside throng the Millennium City to witness the fair. Bali Jatra is also celebrated with great fanfare in the port town of Paradeep and many other places.
Auspicious and austere though, the continuity of celebrations and rituals is a way of making us realise our inter-connectedness with everybody and everything around us. As Cuttack-based professor in Anthropology, Minakshi Panda concludes, “These traditions are but another way of bringing within us the consciousness of what we revere and why, what and how much we eat, who we interact with or don’t and so on. Our traditions teach us in a good way to stir our preconceived notions and fill our lives with joy and spiritual realisation.”