Nuakhai or Nuankhai is an agricultural festival mainly observed by the people of Odisha. Nuakhai is observed to welcome the new rice of the season. According to the calendar, it is observed on Panchami tithi (the fifth day) of the lunar fortnight of the month of Bhadrapada or Bhadraba (August-September), the day after the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. This is the most important social festival of Western Odisha and adjoining areas of Simdegain Jharkhand, where Odia culture is predominant.
Where is Nuakhai Celebrated?
Though celebrated throughout the state, the districts of Kalahandi, Sambalpur, Balangir, Bargarh, Sundargarh, Jharsuguda, Sonepur, Boudh, and Nuapada are the best places to experience Nuakhai in Odisha. These places of rich history have a sizeable high tribal population, and hence, a great destination to experience the cultures.
About the festival
Nuakhai is also called ‘Nuakhai Parab’ or ‘Nuakahi Bhetghat’. The word ‘nua’ means ‘new,’ and ‘khai’ means ‘food’, so the name means the farmers have the newly harvested rice. The festival is seen as a new ray of hope. It has an enormous significance for farmers and the agricultural community. The festival is celebrated at a particular time of the day, which is called lagan. Arsaa pithaa is prepared to celebrate this festival. When the lagan comes, the people first remember their village god or goddess and then have their nua.
Traditions of Nuakhai
This is an agricultural festival of the people of Odisha. The festival is observed across the state, but it is essential in the life and culture of Western Odisha. It is also celebrated in the neighboring area of Simdega in Jharkhand, where Odia culture is predominant.
Nuakhai is also called Nuakhai Parab or Nuakhai Bhetghat. The word ‘nua’ means ‘new’, and khai means food, so this is a harvest festival to celebrate the gathering of the rice crop. In the eastern coastal area, the Nabanna festival is observed instead of Nuakhai. Nabanna also means ‘new rice,’ but this time in Bengali.
The festival is celebrated at a particular time of day, called ‘Lagna’ (auspicious moment). A traditional rice cake called Arsaa pithaa is prepared to celebrate this festival. At the Lagna time, the new rice is offered to the Goddess Samaleswari.
Nuakhai is thought to date back to Vedic times, about 3,000 years ago, when the sages recorded panchayajna, the five essential activities in the annual calendar of an agrarian society. These activities are sitayajna (the tilling of the land), pravapana yajna (the sowing of seeds), pralambana yajna (the initial cutting of crops), khala yajna (the harvesting of grains), and pranayama yajna (the preservation of the produce). Nuakhai evolved out of khala yajna, which involves cutting the first crop and reverently offering it to the mother goddess.
Celebrations of the Festival
The festival date was not fixed in old times. Still, nowadays date of the festival is decided in advance by the prominent priest of the community according to the Hindu calendar. Therefore, people celebrate the festival on a previously set date whether crops are ripened or not.
The date of Nuakhai has been fixed since 1991 on Bhadraba Sukla Panchami Thithi. Currently, people worship Goddess Laxmi on the day of Nuakhai. People wear new and traditional attires. Elders of the family first offer Nua to the deity and distribute it among the family members. Then, all family members take blessings from the elders for happiness and prosperity in their life. Finally, people greet their relatives and friends in the afternoon. They sing and perform their traditional Sambalpuri dances like Rasakeli, Dalkhai, Maelajada, Sajani and more. People who migrated to other states of India also celebrate Nuakhai with the same traditional values and fascination. Nuakhai festival is a symbol of Sambalpuri culture, and it reminds people of Odisha of the importance of agriculture in one’s life.
Nuakhai - Activities, and Highlights of the Festival
Nuakhai is a festival with quintessentially rural roots – the underlying belief behind the celebration is that to receive the blessings of mother earth, one has to worship the harvest. Preparations for the day begin 15 days in advance – in villages, elderly persons meet at holy places and blow a trumpet to mark the onset. On the day of the Nuakhai, the family head collects paddy from the field after offering milk and flowers to the crop and mother earth. It is then offered to the deity revered by the family or the village.
The preparations reveal elements of both tribal origins and the Hindu rituals – it is believed to have been adopted from the tribal communities of western Odisha but is now recognized as the festival for one and all in the state.
The festive spirits are high in the districts of Kalahandi, Sambalpur, Balangir, Bargarh, Sundargarh, Jharsuguda, Sonepur, Boudh, and Nuapada in Odisha. Huge ceremonies occur in the ‘pithas’ (temples) of Samaleswari, Pataneswari, Sureswari, and Manikeswari deities.
Community functions called “Nuakhai Bhetghat” are organized at various public places throughout the state. One can immerse in the local culture of Odisha and witness traditional Sambalpuri dance forms like Rasarkeli, Dalkhai, Maelajada, Chutku Chuta, Sajani, Nachnia, and Bajnia. Traditional delicacies add a unique flavor to the season.
Traveling during the festival is a perfect time to experience Odisha’s festive mood and rustic culture. It is celebrated on both domestic and community levels – while the festival brings people to their natives for customary greetings and meals in the urban places, the season in the rural counterparts runs through the entire month. It is marked by prayers, community dances, and feasts.
‘Nuakhai,’ is a beautiful festival – an amalgamation of religious practices, cultural extravaganza, community bonding, and culinary experiences. Being a part of the celebration will surely be an enriching and meaningful experience connecting a traveler to India’s rich culture and diversity.