A People’s Celebration in Odisha- The New Indian Express www.newindianexpress.com

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Express News Service

There is a lot that happens on the day of Prathamastami, which falls on the Astami tithi (eighth day) of Krushna Paksha in Odia month of Margashira (November-December).

The turmeric plants bloom in flourish; Lord Lingaraj emerges from his sanctorum in a palanquin to visit a tank called Papanasini on his way to Kapalimatha, his maternal uncle’s house.

The presiding deities of this matha Lord Baruneswar and Goddess Banadevi are the maternal uncle and aunt of Lord Lingaraj. And the firstborn gets honoured – in a second birthday style.

Says seasoned Odia blogger SwetapadmaSatpathy, “it is like a second birthday for the eldest sibling of the family in one year.” Satpathy, who incidentally was born on the day of Prathamstami grew up ruing the day that stole her thunder even today zestfully complaining, “thanks to the popular first-born celebration, I was always left with one dress!”

Artist Veejayant Dash concurs. “You had to be either the first born or the eighth to be celebrated on that day. I unfortunately was neither,” Dash says.

Folklore has it that on this day Krishna and Balaram visited maternal aunt Raja Kansa wearing new clothes and were honoured in a similar manner.

And since then it has become a ritual of visiting uncle’s place on this day. In fact, adds Dash “traditionally, the new clothes along with sweets and other delicacies arrive from the mamu’s (maternal uncle) home, who are called ‘astamibandhu’. A visit to the uncle’s place for a feast of mua, khiri, dalma and pitha is a must today.”

Interestingly, for a festival that is all for the first born today, and as Satpathy and Dash discovered during their curious dig into the past, never was about children but about harvest. Back in time, it was a month that saw the season’s first dhana (rice) and a small puja was organised to thank the goddess for the yield, Soubhagini Devi. Ritually, it was a ceremony performed by the farmer and his next help, usually his eldest son or daughter. It was a ritual that was performed to instil two values: hard work bears fruit and to be always be in gratitude of the gifts you are showered with (then usually a good harvest year) – and share. 

This explains why the festival offerings are also heavy on the freshest produce that includes different kind of curries, pithas, sweetmeat and other delicacies. But the most important of all – and the most significant – is Enduri Pitha. With a filling chenna, jaggery or sugarcane juice and grated coconut, Enduri Pitha is steamed inside the cocoon of fresh turmeric/saal leaves. In fact, it is this subtle aroma and that delicate turmeric colour, which makes it one of most remarkable offering of this festival. 

Says Chef Praveen Shetty, Executive Chef, Conrad, Bengaluru, “The fascinating part of the turmeric-wrapped, steamed pancake or pitha is not only its brilliant taste but also the traditional science behind the dish.”

It isn’t just the cheaper variety of rice,it is also the most local to the region – and hence pairs beautifully with traditional local ingredients. Agrees tradition expert Majula Das, who calls it the best slow food example.  

The structuring of pitha is steeped in our traditional wisdom of eating local and eating for season. It is during this season that turmeric leaves bloom. Leaves are in fact an easily-digestible form of natural curcumin that boosts up the system for the vagaries of the season. The use of jaggery is for warmth, and the use of coconut and sugar satiates the
natural craving of sweet that rises during winter.

She adds, “Whatever extra calorie comes in form of the sweetness is compensated by the fact that it is oil free.” While that little nugget has given Enduri Pitha – an artful composition – the shelf life and the importance as a treat, it has also ensured that the traditional sweetmeat can take on new addition, and innovation.

Like the Baripada – Bhadrak style cake where fresh sugar cane juice is used as a liquid in which the rice dough is prepared and then steamed as a cake.

The other, says Dash, “is with a chatpata potato filling.” The cake then is paired with Khiri, which is made with the season’s first rice. The interesting bit about this Khirsa is that the rice kernels are
toasted till they are fragrant – which gives the sweet-dish its rich, velvety, slightly nutty mouthfeel. Both the offering, says Majula, “are eaten with either the many versions of dalma, including one with palanga saga (spinach) or ghanta depending upon the region of Odisha you are in.

Which brings us to the pivotal question – how did a harvest festival transform into one that celebrates firstborn?

Little has been found on the real reason behind why Prathamastami was declared a people’s festival around the 14th century. But, given our history of using rituals to instil ethics, new beliefs and works into the society, there may be a possibility that the need to create a festival that could instil the virtues of being responsible and holding up the ethos of a family was felt.

And, who better than the firstborn to do so. After all, even epics like Mahabharata refer the Jhesth Bhrata (eldest brother) as Pita (father) – and thus the obvious scion to the family legacy, values and responsibilities.

(The writer is a senior food columnist, who has been on the panel of Masterchef India and curated chefs retreat)



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