NUAKHAI: a source of integration and state formation in western Odisha

September 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm 3 comments

Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat

Nuakhai (Nua+khai) denotes eating of nua. The literary meaning of nua is new. In this perspective, it is related to the new fruit of the season. Also, it stands for the first crop of the year. It is a ritual in nearly all the tribal societies found in eastern and middle India, where first fruit or crop of the season is at first presented to their deities. It has a most important weight on the life and culture of the tribal people in general. It is not a showy festivity. It is a festival of food worship. As a result, they celebrate Dhan-nua in Bhudo, Am-nua, Mahul-nua, Char-nua, Kendu-nua, and Kusum-nua in Phagun, Bean-nua, Gondli-nua, Ankakora-nua / Lau-nua in Pond / Margasira, Kandul-nua in Pousa / Magh, Simba-nua, Pani Kakharu-nua, Kakharu-nua in Pousa, Maka-nua, Kumuda-nua after Asadha and the like.1

For that reason, Nuakhai is a philosophy of tribal life. In other words, Nuakhai is not simply a term but a philosophy of life. Tribal people celebrate Nuakhai whenever a new fruit, whether mango, kandul, jahni etc. comes to their society. The main objective of this festival is to get social sanction to a new crop, and to invoke the deities to bless the land with abundant crops. But, a pertinent question arises here why paddy in Nuakhai in West Odisha? In this paper, we will try to examine the following three points. First, Nuakhai has played a significant role during the state formation in West Odisha. Secondly, Nuakhai has been the source of integration and unity between the tribal and non-tribal people in West Odisha. Thirdly, Nuakhai has justified and helped in perpetuation of the three pillars of traditional Indian society namely Joint Family, Caste System and Jajmani System in the self-sufficient village community.

Although, the foundation of this festival has got buried in darkness, oral tradition dates it back to the time of the first Chauhan Raja Ramai Dev of Patnagarh in West Odisha. During his efforts to build an independent rajya, Raja Ramai Dev and his successors recognized the importance of settled agriculture for the reason that, greater part of West Odisha was preponderance with jungle and the majority of the then West Odishan people were aborigines. Their socio-economic life was very simple. They were reliant on subsistence economy which was primarily based on hunting, food gathering and shifting cultivation. This type of survival economy almost certainly could not create adequate surplus2.

On the other hand, perhaps the king realized the fact that, enough surplus or additional resource was essentially required to maintain and sustain his rajya or state. During this period of state formation in West Odisha, Nuakhai as a ritual festival played a most important role3. The Chauhan rulers borrowed and adopted the tribal philosophy of Nuakhai and fused it with dhan (paddy). Rice was originally, not a tribal food. The rulers intervened in the food habit of the tribal people and introduced paddy cultivation. They opened up new areas for paddy cultivation not only by introducing plough-agriculture but also by peasantising the tribal people. Through the process of acculturation and integration, they indoctrinated the tribal people so as to ensure their subservience.

They developed this Nuakhai concept, popularized and spread it and adopted dhan-nua in different parts of their kingdom. As a way of compensation to the disorganized tribal socio-economic life the rulers upgraded their Nuakhai festival to levels of ritual elaboration. With the help of their priestly class, they improved it and raised it to the status of their national / state festival. In other words, they sanskritised it and converted it into a national festival of West Odisha. During this period, West Odisha witnessed an unprecedented agricultural as well as rural expansion which produced necessary surplus for the rise and growth of regional kingdoms.

The possibility of mass support for the rulers could be pre-empted when these rulers made it evident that they were willing to champion the local heritage like Nuakhai not only at home but also at the state level. It smoothed their progress of winning over the confidence of the local subjects. Obviously, the rulers could easily be painted as ‘ours’ if they appeared to be concerned, considerate and sympathetic to the religious traditions of the common people. It made the rulers easy to influence and persuade the tribal people in particular to become settled agriculturists and go for paddy cultivation. It also helped them to win over the confidence of the local subjects. There is no denying that, the rulers were not only dependent on the tribal people for the extension of peasant agriculture but also for military support.

As a consequence, it aided Chauhan rulers’ efforts to bring the natives under their control and authority. Accordingly, the Chauhan power could consolidate and strengthen their rajya in West Odisha. The tribal militia also came in handy for the expansion of their territorial limits. As a result, integration of tribal people was realized through their inclusion into Hindu fold. In course of ‘brahmanisation’ in the tribal dominated West Odisha, possibly, the local tribal people were transformed into jatis and their chiefs were absorbed as Kshatriyas in to the Hindu fold. Most probably, the aboriginal tribal people might have accepted their new Hindu social status without much reluctance.

At that time, the populations of West Odisha were divided and separated as found elsewhere. The rulers were attentive and caring to the fact that religious and cultural antagonism expressed along ethnic and caste lines could tear their rajya apart; communalism would weaken the state; primordial concepts would cause disharmony in social life and divert the attention of the common people from formation of a strong and healthy state. These problems could not be combated by force alone.

They knew that the crucial national identity factor should be emphasized at two levels, within the larger state in West Odisha and in the regional context or regional states like Patnagarh, Sambalpur, Sonepur and Khariar. So, it was essential for the rulers to integrate the tribal people and the non-tribal people. Nuakhai aided rulers’ efforts to bring them all on one platform. As a result of this, Nuakhai became the festival of all and stood for a larger society where both the tribal people and caste Hindus reside together. Nuakhai became the source of unity between them. It brought people, irrespective of their ethnic background, under the control and authority of the rulers so that they could consolidate and strengthen their rajya in West Odisha.

The most striking point about the contributions made by Nuakhai was that, it had been a key factor in the development of tribal dominated West Odishan society, in collapsing ethnic boundaries and in breaking up of other cultural identities towards the emergence of Patna State or Sambalpur State or Khariar state or Sonepur state or Kosala nation as we would understand today. But this was not enough. Regional cooperation among Sambalpur, Patnagarh, Sonepur, Khariar and the like in the peculiar conditions of West Odisha went deeper and embraced the potent attributes of nationhood. These princely states, proud of their common cultures, traditions and heritage were very likely to be interested in regional arrangements. Since all these princely states were Sambalpuri / Kosali speaking and have a common heritage, these links were made  into pillars of their unity and was given as much weight as moves towards a West Oriya zone or Kosala zone or Sambalpur zone. Assertion of religio-cultural roots was an essential part of acquiring a new national identity in West Odisha.

Due to food intervention, tribal people became peasants. Paddy became an important food item of tribal people in West Odisha. Even today, paddy is the staple crop of West Odisha, occupying about 85 per cent of the total cropped area. The cultivated plains yield numerous varieties of paddy some of which are the finest in India. Regarding varieties, there is a local saying “Munsar nam jete, dhanar nam gute una tete” which implies, “As many names as man has, has paddy only one less”.

It may be ascertained from the F. C. King’s Gazetteer of Sambalpur published in 1932 (pp. 132-3) that there were over 300 varieties of seed in use in Sambalpur area. The Inspector of Agriculture, who was in charge of the Agricultural Farm at Sambalpur, claimed to have collected 250 varieties from the villages of Attabira, Sason and Bargarh areas. These varieties were most simply classed by the position of the fields on which they grew successfully and effectively, viz., as bahal, berna, mal and at rice4.

For example, a bahal variety would fail on upper mal terraces. On the other hand, mal varieties would rot in the wet bahal. These main classes were further subdivided into several minor groups. It may be noted here that, most of the bahal and berna lands in West Odisha are traditionally occupied by the upper castes and dominant sections of the society whereas the lower castes and tribal people generally own the mal and at lands.

The low lands like bahal and berna are generally cultivated with rice and are skillfully embanked, manure and irrigated. The uplands like mal and at are much less carefully cultivated, are not manure, and grow miscellaneous crops, such as pulses, coarse rice and cotton. Usually, harvesting finishes by the end of November. Occasionally, in the case of low-lying bahal lands, it is not completed till December for the reason that long duration high yielding varieties of paddy are generally grown here. As soon as threshing is over, the cultivator plough up his bahal fields to turn in the subtle. But the mal terraces reaped early in October dry up and harden fast and cannot be touched, unless, as is often the case, heavy showers fall in January or February. The bulk of the work is left for the hot summer months, when heavy storms of thunder and rain usually break once a fortnight, and give the cultivator his chance to plough. It is then too that manures are spread and worked in.

Cutting begins early in the month of September for the coarse rice of the uplands, and on the mal terraces it is usually finished in the month of October. The heavier berna and bahal crops are reaped in November. In the case of low-lying bahal lands, harvesting sometimes does not take place till December. In view of this, celebration of Nuakhai in the month of Bhudo or Bhadrava (August-September) in West Odisha is, in fact, a festival intended mostly for the poor chasis who live from hand to mouth, who do not own best qualities of lands, who cannot grow high yielding varieties of paddy and wait for a longer time to reap the fruits of their labor and who leave themselves to the mercy of that almighty for good.

Nuakhai in West Odisha is the sanskritised or hinduised version of a tribal festival.5 It is evident from our discussion made so far and this point will be further corroborated in our subsequent discussion. Agriculture, as discussed above, is the main source of living of a bulk of the inhabitants of West Odisha. The major chunk of the West Oriya population receives its main income from agriculture. The great masses of tribal populations are also cultivators, farm servants and laborers. The important and main tribes of West Odisha like Binjhal, Bhumia, Gond, Kondh Mirdha, Saura / Savara, etc. are at the moment settled agriculturists. Despite the fact that, the festival is observed through out the tribal belt of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal, it has a major influence on the life and culture of the tribal dominated West Odisha. It is not a pretentious celebration, not just an exhibition of tradition, either. It is a festival of worship of food grain.

In tribal surroundings Nuakhai as an institution needed a Hindu social context to survive among the caste-Hindus. It nurtured a profound appreciation and admiration for the growth of rice, which is a symbolic manifestation of life itself. Worship of food grain was not at all new. It had been there since times immemorial. In this sense, Nuakhai was of ancient origin. From Hindu point of view, the fundamental idea of the celebration could be traced back to the Vedic times when rishis had talked of Pancha Yajna i.e. the five important activities in the annual calendar of an agrarian society. These five activities have been specified as Sita Yajna (the ploughing or cultivating of land), Pravapana Yajna (the plantation or sowing of seeds), Pralambana Yajna (the initial cutting of crops), Khala Yajna (the harvesting of grains) and Prayayana Yajna (the preservation and protection of the produce). In view of this, Nuakhai may be seen as having evolved out of the third activity, namely Pralambana Yajna. It involves cutting of the first crop and reverent offering of the same to the mother goddess6. Other activities are also very important. For example, preservation and protection of the produce is essentially important because a part of the surplus is given to the State for its maintenance and in turn the State performs its duty and responsibility towards its citizens.

In view of this, Nuakhai became the festival of both the tribal people as well as the caste Hindus and stands for a larger society where both the tribal people and caste Hindus reside together, Nuakhai became the source of unity between them. One of the most striking point about the contributions made by Nuakhai is that, it has been a key factor in the development of tribal dominated West Odishan society, in collapsing ethnic boundaries and in breaking up of other cultural identities towards the emergence of Patna State or Sambalpur State or Khariar State or Sonepur State or Kosala nation as we understand today.

As it has been mentioned earlier, in order to sustain and maintain a separate rajya and independent Chauhan kingdom, most probably, the Chauhan rulers had to depend on the bhogas and bhagas. They had to persuade the local tribal people to become settled agriculturists so that production would increase and surplus would be generated because, tribal economy based on hunting, food gathering and shifting cultivation could not generate surplus and sustain a rajya. In order to legitimize their status as rajas and to augment their share of the produce i.e. bhaga, the Chauhan rulers of Patnagarh extended their influence over the surrounding territories including Sambalpur and the adjoining states.

Thus, they successfully persuaded and convinced the aboriginals to adopt settled cultivation. They converted the jungles and improved the plains into agricultural lands. They invited Brahmins to spread the Vedic significance of anna or rice and thus justification of paddy cultivation. They settled Kultas and Agharias who were perfect chasis. Accordingly, they granted lands and villages to them for agricultural development of their rajyas. All these contributed to changing the agrarian situation, formation of a hierarchical social order and brahminisation / hinduisation / sanskritisation of society in West Odisha. Understandably, in the process of building a unified and separate rajya, indigenous communities were successfully absorbed under the umbrella of Nuakhai in the mainstream of the regional Hindu tradition in West Odisha.

Earlier, farmers were celebrating Nuakhai on a fixed tithi and lagna designed by the village headman and priest. Afterward, under the patronage of royal families, this simple festival was altered into a mass socio-religious event in the entire West Odisha. Nuakhai is a celebration that speaks of an intense ritual when people of West Odisha start their life afresh. It is an occasion of reconstruction of relationships. It gives a fresh lease of life to the tillers of the land on the assurance of fruits of their labour. It provides new lease of life to the cultivators of the land on the guarantee of anna. For prana without anna is absurd and unthinkable.

A visit to West Odisha in the Hindu month of Bhudo / Bhadraba (August-September) makes one well aware and alert of the ensuing thrust of Nuakhai. Performed soulfully and with a sacred mind, Nuakhai is the very corner stone of West Odisha’s agrarian institution, where the literary meaning of Nuakhai is ‘eating of new rice’. It is, obviously, the day of rejoicing and merry-making for the people as agriculture is their main livelihood. Since paddy is the staple food of the people in general, the rice crops sustain their hope and determine their fate. This is why; a non-agriculturist is also that much concerned about this ritual as a cultivator is. Customarily, each farmer offers the first grain of the harvest to the almighty and then partakes it. The paddy is given weight as the grain of rice is measured as a representation and symbol of manifestation of life itself. The significance and utility of Anna or rice in daily life of West Oriya people is understandable. The Hindu sacred texts identify paddy as a synonym of life itself.

Anna Brahmeti Hyajanat,

Annadeva Khalwani Bhutani Jayante, Annena Jatani,

Annam Prayantyabhisam Bishantiti.

Meaning: The other name of Anna is Brahma who is Iswara i.e. God. In this sense, Anna is Iswara or God. Each life is born out of Anna. It is the source of energy. After death, Jiba or anything having a life, transforms into Anna for others. So, the importance of Anna is appreciated in every stage of life. For this reason, it is the source of life, happiness and a part of soul.7

 Ahamanna Mahamanna Mahamannam,

Ahamannado Ahamannado Ahamannado,

Ahamanna Manna Madantama Drwi

 Meaning: God says that He is Anna. I am the only receiver of this Anna. Whoever takes Anna I accept that.8

Message of unity is spread through this event. It reminds every farmer that the crop they yield after great sweat and toil influences the entire life’s philosophy and struggle. In view of the above quotations, it may be understood that it is the economy that decides and determines the cultural life of the people. The economy of West Odisha is predominantly based on agriculture. It is the fruit of the toil round the year that fulfills the needs of the community at large. It is a matter of great joy and happiness for the peasant and farmers admiring the fruits of their efforts and pains. Upon getting the first crop of the year, it is accepted with great respect and celebration.

Even the collection of this new rice by the head of the family is an important affair. The head of the family proceeds to the field at the lagna or time reckoned most auspicious for him and his family. There, he invokes the Pancha Mahabhutas (the five primal forces of nature) namely earth, water, light, wind, space, and offers them his devout offerings of obeisance. Then, he plucks the new grain in grategul respect, returns home and hands it over to the woman of the house for worship. Rice and gur are mixed, prepared, and offered in honor of goddess Laxmi, who is believed to bless with life-sustaining anna. The celebration of Nuakhai by the tribal people may, therefore, be viewed as a tribalised version of a Hindu notion of Anna or paddy.9

The new rice is believed to be very sacred. Even in the age of science and technology, Nuakhai has not lost its significance with the rituals still being adhered to. Nobody eats the new cereal until Nuakhai rituals are performed for the reigning deity. According to the common people, the deity is the true master / mistress of their lands. As a part of the agrarian custom, the presiding deity is offered prasad prepared from the new rice. The household, perfectly cleaned and washed in all its details, is ready to invite the deity to partake of the first pristine produce of the new season. Considered as an expression of submission, the farmers attribute the good yield to the blessings of the deities. For this reason, the first fruit of the season is first offered to him / her as a token of reverence and veneration10.

Subsequently, the people take the Prasad made out of the new rice. Then, they start eating the new rice. This is the nua, which is offered to the deity at the auspicious tithi and lagna by the karta of the family. Then, the same is distributed amongst the members of his household or clan. Largely, people think that the ceremonial ritual is an acknowledgement of the deity’s lordship over the land and the crop. It may be understood that Nuakhai is a ritual after which the newly harvested rice gets the status of consumable item. No other festival in West Odisha is celebrated with such pomp and gaiety as Nuakhai.

Nuakhai is one of the most important annual social and religious festivals of West Odisha. It deeply influences the life of this area. It profoundly influences the culture of this area. Previously, there was no fixed or permanemt day for celebration of this festival in West Odisha. The festival was held sometimes during Bhadraba Sukla Paksha (the bright fortnight of Bhudo / Bhadraba). It was the time when the newly grown Kharif paddy started ripening. There are grounds for observing the festival in the month of Bhadrava even though the food grain is not ready for harvesting everywhere. The one and only thought is to present the grain to the presiding deity even before any bird or animal pecks at it and variety of grain is ripe for eating. Old people also say that there was no proper irrigation facility in the past. In absence of widespread irrigation network, poor and small landholders used to cultivate short duration paddy, which were ready for harvesting before the Nuakhai.

Today, a number of varieties of paddy getting extinct and many more vanishing from the scene, only a bunch of stalk is picked up and presented to the deity. Every year, the Tithi (day) and lagna (auspicious time) of observance was astrologically determined by the Hindu priests. In Sambalpur, Brahmin priests sat together at the Brahmapura Jagannath temple and calculated the tithi and lagna. What we want to point out here is that observances of the tithi and lagna were not common all over West Odisha. Tithi and lagna were calculated in the name of Pataneswari Devi in Bolangir-Patnagarh area and in the name of Sureswari Devi in Subarnapur area, and in the name of Manikeswari Devi in Kalahandi area. In Sundargarh, the royal family first offered puja to goddess Sekharbasini in the temple which is opened only for once on Nuakhai. In Sambalpur, at the stipulated lagna, the head priest of Samaleswari temple offers the nua-anna or nabanna to goddess Samaleswari, the presiding deity of Sambalpur. Thus, the tithi and lagna of Nuakhai tihar or festival was not common all over the West Odisha. In other words, a common day of observance of Nuakhai tihar was barely found in all the places of West Odisha.

During the stipulated time, the households offer nua to their respective presiding deities in their homes. In some places, the lagna of celebration was/is calculated in the name of the local Gauntia and Zamidar of the village, once the tithi was/is fixed in the name of the reigning deity of that area. It shows how efforts were/are made in the past to localize the Nuakhai ritual. It also reflects the traditional nature of a village society in West Odisha and the role as well as dominance of the village headmen like zamindar and gauntia over the people. Such feudal hangovers still survive in some villages of West Odisha. In course of time, though a particular tithi is fixed for Nuakhai, the celebrations are a fortnightly event. People in West Odisha initiate preparing for the event at least two weeks in advance.

Nuakhai, also called Nabanna is understood to have nine colours and consequently nine sets of rituals are followed as a prelude to the actual day of celebration. These nine colours include 1. Beheren (announcement for meeting to fix up a date), 2. lagna dekha (setting the exact date and time for partaking of new rice, 3. daka haka (invitation), 4. sapha sutura and lipa puchha (cleanliness), 5. ghina bika (purchasing), 6. nua dhan khuja (looking for new crop), 7. bali paka (final resolve for Nuakhai by taking Prasad i.e. pahur to deity), 8. Nuakhai (taking new crop as Prasad after offering to the deity followed by dancing and singing), 9. Juhar bhet (respect to elders).

Therefore, the preparations begin on the day when the elderly persons of the village sit together at a holy place after the beheren call. As per the tradition, the beheren moves around the village and calls the villagers by blowing trumpet. People get together and discuss with the priests about the tithi and lagna for Nuakhai. It is definitely a typical gesture of priest’s authority in the village. He consults panjika and announces the sacred muhurat as to when nua is to be taken. After an informal discussion, villagers arrive at a consensus. The incorporation of Hindu idea of consultation of Panjika and in the reckoning of tithi and lagna may be viewed as a later development. Most probably, when the caste-Hindus started migrating then the local tribal people adopted the idea of astrological calculation of tithi and lagna for the Nuakhai festival. In the same way, when the caste-Hindus adopted Nuakhai from the tribal people, they had to put some Sanskritik elements to make it convenient for the caste-Hindus to accept it.

Nevertheless, there was an attempt made during 1960s to fix up a common tithi for Nuakhai all over the West Odisha. This attempt was not workable. Again, an attempt was made in 1991 and Bhadraba Sukla Panchami Tithi was fixed for Nuakhai. This is successful. Since then, the festival has been celebrated on this day. For this, the State Government has declared one official holiday too. For the sake of convenience, a common tithi is set for Nuakhai. Yet the sanctity of the ritual of lagna suddhi in accordance with rasi and nakshtra has not lost its importance. It would not be out of place to mention that, the system of setting the tithi and lagna and calling elderly persons for a consensus is very different in urban areas like Cuttack, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Bangalore and the like where Nuakhai Bhet-Ghat is observed as a fashion and get together..

Nuakhai is celebrated both at community as well as at domestic level. After all preparations are over, there is sanctification ritual before a day of celebration, which gives credence to Nuakhai. This is known as bali paka. Pahur (Prasad) is offered to the grama devta or devti in a ritual. It calls for the formal ruling of the festival. Everybody comes to know that divine will now governs Nuakhai and no one can stop it from being observed. The ritual is offered first at the temple of the reigning deity of the area or to the village deity. Afterward, they worship in their respective home and offer rituals to the domestic deity along with Laksmi. In other words, during the stipulated time, the households also offer nua to their presiding deities in their homes. On this occasion, people wear new clothes.

It is a tradition that after offering the nua to the presiding deity, the eldest member of the family distributes nua to other members of the family. After taking the nua, all the junior members of the family offers their unfathomable regards to their elders. Thereafter, follows the nuakhai juhar i.e. exchange of greetings with friends, well-wishers and relatives as well. This symbolizes unity. This is the occasion when people lay their differences to rest and start relationships afresh. Towards the evening people meet one another exchanging greetings. All differences are discarded and elders are wished nuakhai juhar. On the other hand, the elders bless their juniors and wish them long life, happiness and prosperity. Even the partitioned brothers celebrate the festival under one roof. In the evening, folk dances and songs are organized in different parts of West Odisha. People dance their way to the foot tapping rasarkeli, dalkhai, maelajada, chutkuchuta, sajani, nachnia and bajnia beats and tunes.

Nuakhai has a rich and glorious tradition of its own. As found elsewhere, Joint Family, Jajmani system and Caste System were also the three pillars of traditional society in West Odisha. Our subsequent analysis of Nuakhai clearly reflects these social systems. It is really an occasion, which strongly approves and endorses the patrilineal nature of West Odishan society. It is an event when one finds filial affection and unity of the family when all from the patrilineal side participate in the festivity. The head of the family calls up all those staying outside and intimates the tithi and lagna of Nuakhai. Definitely, it is considered a festival, which brings all the members of an extended family together and unites people in a village and community and region.

Nuakhai is the home-coming time for persons who have left their native places in search of greener pasture. More than the celebrations, the feeling of reuniting with their families holds significance for them. Juhar bhet, which follows the Nuakhai at home, is the unique aspect of this event. It is evident for its contribution to social harmony and solidarity. Thus, Nuakhai is a cohesive force. It has the power to attract and unite people of West Odisha. Nuakhai fastens hopes and aspirations of people. Relationships are renewed and repaired. Estranged souls are rejoined and reconnected. Old rivalries and bitterness are consigned to the dustbin.

Of late, it is being observed on a single day through out West Odisha except in households whose members are working outside and are unable to come. Generally, such families observe Nuakhai during Dasra or Durga puja. It is also an occasion when all the family members come home. It means, wherever they are, all the family members must assemble on this big day to celebrate Nuakhai together. This is the instance of union of family members and annual get-together. So, long wait for near and dear ones culminate in a festive mood. All ice is broken when the young of the family rush to the feet of elder ones in gesture of respect and affection.

It is a festival of masses. It is the celebration of every one. All, starting from child to old in the entire West Odisha, enthusiastically await it. All, starting from poor to rich in the whole West Odisha, earnestly look forward to it. Enemies become friends. The entire village becomes one. Earlier, there were three important aspects of Nuakhai namely, Adhia, Bebhar and Bhar. Our ancestors had recognized these practices to ensure that everyone in the traditional self-sufficient village community had the barest means required to observe the day in gratefulness to the divine mother for her generosity. It was seen as an affront to her dignity even if one needy or poor household was to be left out of the celebrations because of its indigent circumstance.11

Adhia was a provision of basic things to those families of the village whose livelihoods were dependent, not on agriculture, but on their professions as village priests, barbers, washer men, blacksmiths, potters and the like in the traditional jajmani system. In fact, they were the traditional sevakas or servitors in the village community who were easily the most vulnerable. Consequently, they were provided with adhia for their seva or service to the village community. When all agricultural families of the village made this occasion by extending their goodwill in this manner, obviously, every family in the community was taken care of and nobody was left to feel sad for want of means. In this sense, this justifies the jajmani system in a traditional village community. This strengthens the relationship between a jajman and a kamin.

It may be mentioned here that mother worship is prevalent far and wide through out West Odisha. For instance, Sambalpur is the land of Maa Samlei or Maa Samaleswari, Patna – Bolangir is the land of Maa Pataneswari, Sonepur is the land of Maa Sureswari, Bhawanipatna is the land of Maa Manikeswari and the like. Nuakhai is a way to pay homage to these mother goddesses who validate and rationalize the traditional village economy based on Caste System and unequal distribution of resources. This is a way to include and involve everyone in the traditional hierarchical social structure. On this principle, when people sink their differences to start a new life on the promise of a new tomorrow consequent upon eating of nua, then it confirms and corroborates the same age-old tradition of exploitation.

Of course, this practice of Adhia which reflects unequal exchange of goods and services is on its last legs. The second kind of courtesy and kindness is extended in the form of Bebhar  which is sent to friends, equals and neighbours as a sign of goodwill, friendliness and reciprocity of sociability. Bhar, the third form of humanity is offered to the relatives living elsewhere after marriage or under other circumstances. Bebhar and Bhar except Adhia are real gesture of friendship and goodwill though these days; Bebhar and Bhar are also on the way out steadily.

Nuakhai has been observed more or less by the entire major tribes in central and eastern India, of course, with a minor difference in their nomenclature. In this context, instance can be given of Jeth Nawakhai among the Dudh Kharia and Pahari Kharia, Nawakhani amongst the Oraon and Birjia12, Jom Nawa among the Munda13 and Birjia, Janther or Baihar-Horo Nawai by the Santal14, Gondli Nawakhani by the Christian tribal people of Ranchi district, Nawa by the Birjia, Nawa-Jom by the Birhor15, Dhan Nawakhani by Korwa16 and so on. Russel and Hiralal17 have mentioned about the Nawakhani festival of the Paraja, a small tribe found in the Bastar region and Odisha.

Gautam18 has, in addition, mentioned about the new corn offering and eating rice of Santals in Santal Pargana which they term Jom Nawa. Das Gupta19 has noted the Nawa ceremony of the Birjia, a section of the Asura tribe of Chotanagpur. Bhaduri20 presents a short note on the celebration of this festival known as Kawajom among the Munda. Chatterjee21 has identified this festival of Tripura popularly as renowned as Mikatal where Mi stands for paddy and Katal refers to new. It is celebrated in the month of Aswina (September-October). In West Bengal and in the coastal districts of Odisha, this festival is named Nabanna by the caste-Hindus. Nonetheless, Nuakhai is not simply a term but a philosophy of life particularly among the tribal people in India. They celebrate Nuakhai whenever a new fruit, whether mango, kandul, or jahni comes to their society. The main objective of this festival is to get social sanction to a new crop, and to invoke the deities to bless the land with abundant crops.

Nuakhai can be studied through the concept of ‘spread’ given by Srinivas.22 The wide occurrence and popularity of the Nuakhai ritual among the caste-Hindus other than tribal people in Odisha, however, indicates that it is sanskritised. Considered as an agrarian matter, the Nuakhai has transcended caste, creed and religion with people rejoicing the festival with zeal and zest. The mode of its observance and the numerical dominance of the tribal people in the past in Odisha and west Odisha in particular maintain and support the argument that Nuakhai was a tribal festival and that the caste-Hindus gradually incorporated it in their fold when they came in wider contact with the aboriginals of west Odisha.

The fact of fixed time of observance determined astrologically by the Hindu priests also indicates strong influence of Hindu ideas in later stage to present it a Sanskritik color and image. It is commonly believed that the Hindus were originally celebrating the Nuakhai or Nuakhia festival. Over long period of interaction between the tribal and non-tribal peoples in Odisha, the tribal people have borrowed this cultural trait from the caste-Hindus.

Nevertheless, one point is clearly understandable that it is the tribal people other than the common Oriyas who are, at present, celebrating this festival. Secondly, as it is the case with all the aboriginal tribes, there was no fixed tithi for celebration until 1991. Thirdly, it appears that the word Nuakhai or Nuakhia has many similarities with the tribal names given for the same festival in and outside the state of Odisha, as discussed previously. Very likely, Sambalpuri / Koshali name Nuakhai has been borrowed from the tribal names of the similar ritual and given a regional content and flavors. Fourthly, during Nuakhai day, people celebrate their dinner at night with non-vegetarian food.

Eating of non-vegetarian food during a Hindu religious festival is generally not acceptable and permissible. In west Odisha, there is a saying that if a person does not eat meat on this day then he/she will be born as a Baka i.e. swan in the next life. Significantly, people irrespective of their caste background eat meat on this day. Even though, it is ethically undesirable on the part of a traditional Brahmin to have non-vegetarian food, he does not mind to accept it on this day. In these days, of course, meat eating has become a universal phenomenon among of all castes.23 Yet, basing on financial provisions various traditional dishes and cakes are prepared and offered to the presiding deity before it is consumed together by the family members.

Therefore, the occasion of Nuakhai is a renewal of mutual ties. It spreads love and affection, warmth and kindness all around. It binds the families in a spirit of solidarity. It unites the communities in strength of harmony. The sentimental aspect of the Nuakhai is most brilliantly reflected in the widely used nuakhai bhet ghat juhar. It is the festival of splendor and fun. It has a special significance for west Odishan people. In fact, it is a festival of thanksgiving for a good harvest. It is an agrarian festival and celebrated by taking rice from newly harvested crop after offering to the presiding deities and goddess Laxmi. Nua or new rice is offered to the deities as a mark of gratitude for a bumper harvest, good rain and a favorable farming weather.

The tribal people have easily absorbed the fundamental idea behind Nuakhai i.e. ritual ceremonies before eating new paddy, derived from a Hindu tradition because they have been also settled agriculturists. It appears that the tribal people started celebrating Nuakhai as usual in different names when they became settled agriculturists. This idea of ceremonial eating of new fruit has been applied in other areas also. For instance, in the Gundikhai festival held on the day of Phagun / Phalguna Purnima i.e. full-moon day of Phagun (February-March), the people of west Odisha first offer mango ritually to the deity and then takes it. In sum, efforts are made to tribalise the celebrations of a number of rituals and festivals, which might have been non-tribal in their origin and essence. On Nuakhai, caste-Hindus worship Goddess Laksmi along with their family deity. It is the household dimension of this festival.

An important characteristic and similarity of this ritual is the ‘mother worship’. Nuakhai is not confined to any particular ethnic group or community in west Odisha. It is a mass festival in terms of its collective nature and the sincere involvement of the tribal people and caste-Hindus in west Odisha, whereas outside this region, it is not a mass festival and it is confined to a place largely to the family and group only.24 Indeed, Nuakhai is a tradition that has cultivated noble virtues of tolerance, acceptance, sacrifice, trust, affection, understanding, and social responsibilities since a long time. It is gradually being celebrated in a big way in various parts of the country.

Housewives in general start preparing for the festival a week before by cleaning up the house and furniture, washing up utensils and clothes and collecting ingredients for special dishes to be served on the day of festivity. One finds hectic economic activity with peasants and artisans working overtime to earn some quick buck. It helps them spend something extra during Nuakhai. Besides whitewashing of houses, new clothes are worn on the festival day. Preparations pertaining to the celebration like cleaning of house and purchasing new clothes are taken up as usual. Poor clean their mud and thatched houses with cow dung. Rich do the arrangements as per their capacity.

Weavers churn out cheap handloom saris as part of tradition for these common people of west Odisha. With simple designs, the weavers roll out saris to make them affordable and ensure that these reach the users in time before Nuakhai. Keeping this in mind, the mahajans (moneylenders) are quick to lend money knowing the truthfully that the reimbursement is certain. The daily labourers stretch themselves for the festival as well. They are seen working until the dawn to earn some extra buck. With all households being cleaned for this annual festival, daily laborers are much in demand and have seized the opportunity to jack up their wages. Betras (bamboo basket makers), Luhuras (blacksmiths), Kumbhars (potters), and minor Badheis (carpenters) are also found working round the clock. While baskets made of bamboo are much in demand for use in the rituals and puja, the blacksmiths are found busy in making door latches, traditional vegetable cutters, and such other household implements. The carpenters are much in demand to take on repair work in households. While the men folk are seen toiling hard, women folk are found busy in making Khali (leaf plates) and Dana (cups).

Nevertheless, it is a festival, which brings friendship, equality, help, and cooperation and envisages the age-old tradition of this region. It helps to renew the social bonds. Thus, it strengthens the social solidarity. This indigenous culture ensures a separate identity for the natives of the whole region of west Odisha and binds them together.

Onslaught by audio video media, various cultures, tradition, modernization, and industrialization are unsuccessful to interfere and obstruct the rich tradition of Nuakhai in west Odisha. It is a symbol of friendship, love, and affection, which give foundation, and fosters to lead a peaceful life. People of west Odisha celebrate Nuakhai in much fashion and style, which off late has crossed international boundaries. In 1982, when the author was reading in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi the students of the region first organised to celebrate Nuakhai in the Jagannath Temple at Hauz Khas. In the present day,it is a cohesive and unified force not only among west Odias but also among Odias in Delhi when they come and unite on this occasion.

These days, not only in Delhi but also in other parts of India like Bangalore, Goa, Mumbai, Vishakapatnam and the like residents of west Odisha have been rejoicing Nuakhai for the past few decades. Nuakhai now being observed on the fifth day of the second fortnight of Bhadrava, was unquestionably given a new look of homogeneity and uniformity by the then Biju Pattnaik Government in 1991. On the other hand, it has lost its enormity and variousness with the passage of time. Of course, during the period of Garhjat kingship, the contours of this festival have also been reshaped and restructured by the ruling elites. At that time, it was a private function with a rather more political and public character. Looking ahead into the future, our new and young generations, groping to recognize rice and wheat apart, do not appear to be too much interested to transmit the tradition forward.

Particularly during past few decades, jungles and villages are vanished due to uncontrolled urbanization and industrialization in some parts of west Odisha. Agricultural lands are mercilessly converted into non-agricultural purposes like house sites and industries. It takes generations for chasis to prepare a piece of agriculture land. A chasi nurtures his land like a child. Today, however, it does not take even an hour to destroy the same piece of land. The way we are defiling land and defying nature is only indicative of how weak our connections with mother earth are. Uncertain about the ground beneath our feet, we are the linkage between a hoary past and frightening future. Now, a pertinent question arises whether Nuakhai will really remain as an agrarian custom or will just be celebrated as a symbol of our heritage. The admiration and respect for the land of our ancestors depends on us. Let this noble occasion of Nuakhai encourages and motivates people to give a new lease of life to their roots anew.


1 C. Pasayat, Rural-Urban Continuum and Folk Culture: An Examination of Persistence and Change in Sambalpur, Ph.D. Thesis, CSSS/SSS, JNU, New Delhi, 1991.

2.C. Pasayat, “The Nuakhai Tradition of West Odisha”, in The Eastern Anthropologist, Vol. 61, No. 2, April-June 2008, p.253.

3. Ibid., p. 253.

4. F. C. King, Bihar and Orissa District Gazetteers, Sambalpur, Patna, 1932, pp. 132-33; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti, Sambalpur District Gazetteer, Government Press, Cuttack, 1971, p. 149.

5. C. Pasayat, “Tribe – Caste Integration in Orissa: A Study of Nuakhai Festival”, Adivasi, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 26-29.

6. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 2008, p. 253.

7. C. Pasayat, Tribe, Caste and Folk Culture, Rawat Publications, Jaipur/New Delhi, 1998, pp. 124.

8.Ibid., p. 124.

9. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 2008, p. 255.

10. Ibid., p. 255.

11. Ibid., p. 257.

12. A. K. Singh, Tribal Festivals of Bihar: A Functional Analysis, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1982, p.24, 74.

13. Ibid., p. 74.

14. Ibid., p. 74.

15. Ibid., p. 75.

16. Ibid., p. 27.

17. R.V. Russel & Hiralal, “Oraon” in The Tribes and Castes of the Central Province of India, Vol. IV, Cosmo Publications, Delhi, 1975, p. 326.

18. M. K. Gautam, In Search of an Identity: A Case Study of the Santal of Northern India, Leiden, The Hague, 1977.

19. S. B. Das Gupta, Birjhia: A Section of the Asura of Chota Nagpur, K. P. Bagchi & Co., Calcutta, 1978.

20. M. B. Bhaduri, “Some Munda Religious Ceremonies and Their System of Reckoning Time”, Man in India, Vol.24, 1944, pp.149-50.

21. S. N. Chatterjee, Tripura: A Profile, Inter-India Publications, New Delhi, 1984, p. 48.

22. M. N. Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Asia Publishing House, Bombay umbai), 1952.

23. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 1993, p. 28.

24. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 1998, p. 128.


Postal Address
Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat
152, Vijaya Vihar, Nuagaon Road
PO – Sisupalgarh
Bhubaneswar – 751 002

Entry filed under: Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat, Kosli Culture, Nuankhai, Well known people.

Nuakhai thoughts Paharia tribals celebrate Nuankhai in a unique way

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