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A Day like no other

In Sarala Mahabharata it is said that the last five days of the holy month of Kartika – called panchuka (the five days from ekadasi, the 11th day, to purnima, the full moon day, of the month of Kartika) in colloquial Odia – are so very holy that even the crane gives up eating fish. Many Odias give up eating non-vegetarian food in that holy month.

Those who cannot manage without meat and fish for a whole month give it up during panchuka or they at least say so to their neighbours and friends, if asked. Those who are far too fond of non-vegetarian food to live without it for full five days, give it up on just one day, Kartika purnima, which is the last day of the month. In rural Odisha, even today, it can be embarrassing for someone if his neighbours find out that he had not observed the restriction even for that one day.

People look forward to the following day. Most eagerly, in fact – both those who observed the restriction and those who did not. Because on that day, called chhadakhai, one is expected to eat some non-vegetarian food. The word chhadakhai roughly means something like this: “eat what you have not been eating” during the holy month. But for all practical purposes, it has come to mean “eat meat or fish”.

Sometimes the waiting for non-vegetarian food can become a bit longer, as it was in 2012. The day following Kartika purnima was the first Thursday of the month of Margasira, the day of manabasa, a puja dedicated to goddess Lakshmi. It is observed on every Thursday that month. Meat eating is expressly forbidden on this day.

Who would indulge in meat-eating on that day risking the displeasure of the goddess of prosperity!  The following day, a Friday, was the day dedicated to goddess Santoshi, again a day of fasting for women. On this day too meat or fish is not cooked at home. The male members of the family may eat out in case they are so keen on meat.

For many of them, it was technically – “technically”, because chhadakhai is a family observance, not a “part-of-the family” observance – their  chhada khai day that year but the family observed it only on the following day. Thus in 2012, chhada khai was observed by several families two days after Kartika purnima. The waiting was painful for many.

The price of meat, fish and eggs, their poor substitute, soars on the day of chhadakhai. So those who have the necessary storing facilities buy meat and fish, especially fish and sometimes live small fish, some two or three, even five, days in advance and store them.

Those who do not, especially the villagers, where bonds between people are generally stronger, choose a different option. Some of them buy a goat ahead of chhada khai and share its meat on that day. There are a few, city dwellers and villagers who think that keeping meat or fish at home during panchuka is ritualistically unclean; so, they desist from doing so.

But then they cannot afford to buy the required quantity of meat or fish for the family on the day of chhada khai. So they observe the ritual with eggs or some very small fish. Those who cannot afford these, eat a dish of dry fish, which is less expensive. Some merely put a few fried dry fish in the vegetable curry or dalma (a dish of lentils cooked with plenty of vegetables).

That serves the demands of the custom. Some clever ones do precisely this on the chhada khai day and after one or two days, when the price of meat and fish comes down to normal, they celebrate their real chhada khai.

Although chhadakhai is a family observance (to that extent it is quite unlike a “carnival”), these days some star hotels, mainly in Bhubaneswar, the State capital, provide the chhadakhai meal, which contains, in addition to meat and fish dishes, fish pickles, and preparations of dry fish, in fried or mashed form (chutney). The meal is quite expensive and naturally only those who can afford go to these restaurants.

The special occasion meal has become a prestige symbol too. Therefore, some city dwellers, who cannot really afford it, go there to show those who take note of such things that they have “arrived”. There are others with a religious bent of mind who would like to have non-vegetarian food as prasad (sacred food already offered to the deity) on this day.

They have the food cooked and offered to the deity in some particular temples. Many village goddesses in Odisha who have not been totally assimilated into the mainstream Hinduism in the form of, say, Durga, or have not been Vaishnavized or come under the Buddhist influence, are sometimes offered non-vegetarian food.

There are no bratas or oshas (roughly, ritualistic fasting dedicated to particular gods and goddesses, especially the latter) which do not have a katha, a story, associated with it – one that celebrates the goddess (or god) concerned. Chhadakhai, of course, is not a brata or an osha but a semi-ritual observance all the same. Is there, then, a story connected with it?

There is nothing in print. In any case, what could be the content of such a story? A typical osha or brata story, in which the offended goddess punishes the offender and forces him or her to worship her? Which goddess can such a story be dedicated to and who would she punish – a Vaishnavite or a poor man who has no money to buy meat?

Chhadakhai is a celebration of eating non-vegetarian food. Now, isn’t it that meat belongs to the rajasik or tamasik category of food (its precise categorization depending on its quality and its preparation, etc.), which is not what is traditionally believed to encourage the better part of one’s nature and virtuous living?

One story connected with chhada khai  I recently heard from Aditya Kumar Panda, a young linguist from Baragarh, who had heard it from his mother, which is roughly like this: when Sita returned to Ayodhya from Lanka, she expressed her thanks, in the form of a boon she granted her, to Trijata, Vibhishana’s sister, who had looked after her so well during her confinement there.

She told her that she would be offered worship on the day following Kartik purnima and that people would eat non-vegetarian food on that day, the food that she liked. On the day of chhada khai, my mother, from Niali near Cuttack, used to worship Jaya and Bijaya, the gatekeepers of Vaikuntha.

Jaya and Bijaya were born as asuras three times in the mortal world because of a curse and Lord Vishnu had to descend to this world to release them from their mortal existence and restore them to their position in his abode. In both the stories, chhada khai has some uncharacteristically benign asuric association.

In any case, the observance of kartika brata and of chhada khai on the following day on the completion of the brata suggests that the so-called spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual together make life complete; so, both must be celebrated.  

But the meaning of the occasion, whatever it was when it started – what is suggested above or something else – is completely forgotten after years and years of its observance, and what has remained today is the food part of it. Tasty meat and fish preparations are made and what surely makes them tastier is the fact that with the restrictions over, one could enjoy non-vegetarian food without any sense of guilt or embarrassment.

One gives up meat and fish but the thought of them agitates the mind throughout the holy month, and the stage comes where the body and the mind are completely separated – as the body observes the restrictions, the mind is filled with thoughts of meat and fish. Chhada khai releases one from this painful and ridiculous state of being.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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