Today is Nuakhai, the most important festival in Odisha’s western region. It is a festival to welcome the year’s first harvest, pray to the gods, ancestors and express gratitude to mother nature for its blessings.
Celebrated initially in the western districts, nowadays this festival has found wide acceptance across Odisha and is celebrated with much fanfare all around the state.
Prime Minister Modi wished the people of Odisha on the occasion.
Observed every year on the tithi of Shukla Panchami in the Bhadrapada month, the day after Ganesh Chaturthi, Nuakhai celebrates agriculture and the people’s connection with their ancestors, villages and farmlands. ‘Nua’ means new and ‘Kha’i means eating/food. So this is the occasion to celebrate the year’s first harvest with family and friends.
The people of western Odisha, wherever they might be living and working, come back to their ancestral villages and towns to celebrate the occasion with the extended family.
The preparations of the festival are ushered in with collecting the newly harvested grains, purchasing new clothes for every member in a family and adorning homes and local temples with mango leaves, bunches of freshly harvested paddy-stalks and flowers of the season.
On the day before the festival, local families send new clothes, food grains, sweets and adornments for the local village goddess. In the Devi temples around western Odisha, this ritual is called ‘Pahur’.
In the temple of Maa Samaleswari, the reigning deity of Sambalpur, the ritual of ‘Pahura’ is marked with processions of gifts and adornments sent for the goddess.
On the day of Nuakhai, the festivities begin with landowners and farmers praying to Goddess Laxmi and mother earth in their respective fields, homes and local temples. Earthen pots, handloom clothes and local delicacies like Pitha, Kheeri, Puri and a wide assortment of dishes made with vegetables and pulses are the highlight of the festival. Pumpkin flowers, pumpkin leaves and bamboo shoot (Karadi in Odia) are enjoyed widely as a part of various traditional dishes.
‘Nabanna Lagi’ is the ritual where the ‘Nua Chuda’, a sweet dish made with the rice of the first harvest, milk, coconut, ghee, jaggery, honey and curd is offered first to the gods, and then is eaten by the entire family sitting together. The Samaleswari Temple, the epicentre of the culture and traditions in Western Odisha, plays the central role in the festival.
The Western Odisha region has many prominent Shakti temples and Devotees throng the Samaleswari Temple in Sambalpur and other major goddess temples in the region, namely the Patneswari temple in Patnagarh, the Manikeswari temple in Bhawanipatna, the Sureswari temple in Sonepur and many others as these temples play the role of cultural centres for the farming communities here. The Nuakhai celebrations begin at the temples and the timings of the festivals are determined as per the respective temple rituals.
The evening of the Nuakhai festival is marked with ‘Nuakhai Bhet Ghat’, extended families meeting each other and younger family members touching the feet of elders in a greeting called ‘Nuakhai Juhar’. Traditional Sambalpuri dance, Sambalpuri music and songs are the main highlights of these Bhet Ghat events.
Nuakhai is one of the most ancient festivals celebrated in Odisha. Its oral traditions date back to 1200 AD. Like many harvest festivals celebrated in the rest of India, Nuakhai is the celebration of cultural and traditional worship of mother earth and mother nature. It is a festival of gratefulness and gratitude, thanking mother nature for a bountiful harvest, thanking the goddess for her blessings of health, happiness and prosperity and thanking the ancestors for watching over us, that is the essence of Nuakhai.