Nuakhai, The Festival of Harvest

Nuakhai also called as Festival of Harvest is an agricultural festival mainly observed by people of Western Odisha in India.

Updated: June 16, 2022

Nuakhai  also called as Festival of Harvest is an agricultural festival mainly observed by people of Western Odisha in India.
Nuakhai is observed to welcome the new rice of the season on panchami tithi  that is the fifth day of the lunar fortnight of the month of Bhadrapada or Bhadraba. Usually it falls  between August and September, the day after the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. This is the most important social festival of Western Odisha.

About the festival:

Nuakhai is also called Nuakhai Parab or Nuakahi Bhetghat. The word nua means new and khai means food, so the name indicates possession of the newly harvested rice to be eaten on that day. The festival has a big significance for farmers and the agricultural community. The festival is celebrated at a particular time of day which is called lagan.
While the festival is celebrated throughout Odisha, but it is particularly important in the life and culture of Western Odisha. It is a festival for the worship of food grain. The celebration is grand in Kalahandi, Sambalpur, Balangir, Bargarh, Sundargarh, Jharsuguda, Sonepur, Boudh and Nuapada districts of Odisha.
There was no fixed day for celebration of the festival in early years. It was held sometime during Bhadraba Sukla Pakhya when the newly grown Kharif crop (autumn crop) of rice started ripening. Even though the food grain is not ready for harvesting, nuakhai is celebrated during this time to present the grain to the presiding deity before any bird or animal pecks at it and before it is ready for eating.
Farmers were celebrating Nuakhai on a day designated by the village headman and priest earlier. Afterwards, this simple festival was altered into a mass socio-religious event celebrated in the entire Western Odisha region under the sponsorship of royal families.

Ancient origin:

In vedic times the sages had talked of panchayajna, the five important activities in the annual calendar of an agrarian society. These five activities have been specified as 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 prayayana yajna (the preservation of the produce). Nuakhai is celebrated at the time of pralambana yajna, which involves cutting the first crop and reverently offering it to the mother goddess.

Origin of the current form:

Nuakhai festival was originated at the time of first Chauhan Raja Ramai Deo, who is also the founder of the princely state of Patna which is currently part of Balangir district in Western Odisha. That time the livelihood economy of the people in the area was primarily based on hunting and food gathering. He realised this form of economy could not generate the surpluses required to maintain and sustain a state. Raja Ramai Deo realized the significance  and importance of settled agriculture in build an independent kingdom.
Nuakhai as a ritual festival played a major role in promoting agriculture as a way of life during state formation in the Sambalpuri region. Raja Ramai Deo had made Nuakhai a symbol of Sambalpuri culture and heritage and so can be called as the founder of this festival.

Deities that are offered Nua:

Every year, the tithi (day) and samaya (time) of nuakhai is astrologically determined by the Hindu priests who sit together at the Brahmapura Jagannath temple in Sambalpur and calculate the day and time.
The tithi or date and lagna or auspicious moment are calculated in the name of Pataneswari Devi in the Balangir-Patnagarh area, in the name of Sureswari Devi in the Subarnapur area, and in the name of Manikeswari Devi in the Kalahandi area. The time may differ region to region. In Sundargarh, Puja is first offered by the royal family to the goddess Sekharbasini in the temple which is opened only for Nuakhai.
At the stipulated lagna, the nua-anna or nabanna is offered by the head priest of Samaleswari Temple to the goddess Samaleswari, the presiding deity of Sambalpur in Sambalpur.

Rituals of the nine colors of Nuakhai:

Nuakhai is understood to have nine colors and as a consequence nine sets of rituals are followed as a prelude to the actual day of celebration. The preparations for the event is initiated 15 days in advance by the people of western odisa.
These nine colors include:

  • Beheren (announcement of a meeting to set the date)
  • Lagna dekha (setting the exact date for partaking of new rice)
  • Daka haka (invitation)
  • Sapha sutura and lipa puchha (cleanliness)
  • Ghina bika (purchasing)
  • Nua dhan khuja (looking for the new crop)
  • Bali paka (final resolve for Nuakhai by taking the Prasad (the offering) to the deity)
  • Nuakhai (eating the new crop as Prasad after offering it to the deity, followed by dancing and singing)
  • Juhar bhet (respect to elders & gift transfers)

After the beheren calls the villagers by blowing a trumpet, the elderly persons of the village sit together at a holy place and discuss with the priests the tithi and lagna (auspicious day and time) for Nuakhai. Looking the panjika (astrological almanac), the priest announces the sacred muhurta when nua is to be taken. The muhurta is a period of time equal to about 48 minutes. This part of the preparations was included in both the original tribal festival and Hindu religion. When the caste-Hindus migrated into the area the local tribal people adopted the idea of an astrological calculation of the tithi and lagna for the Nuakhai festival. In the same way, when the caste-Hindus adopted Nuakhai from the tribal people, they introduced some Sanskritic elements so as to make it more readily accepted by the caste-Hindus. 
In 1960s, there was an attempt made to set a common tithi for the Nuakhai festival all over the western Odisha which didn't worked out. But the idea was reintroduced in 1991 to set the Bhadraba Sukla Panchami tithi for the Nuakhai festival. This became successful and since then, the festival has been celebrated on that day.The Odisha State Government has declared it an official holiday.

The Celebration:

Nuakhai is celebrated both at the community and domestic level. The rituals are first observed at the temple of the reigning deity of the area or to the village deity. Afterward, the people worship in their respective homes and offer rituals to their domestic deity and to Lakshmi, the deity of wealth in the Hindu tradition. People wear new clothes for the occasion. It is a tradition that after offering the nua to the presiding deity at home, 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 offer their regards to their elders. Thereafter follows the nuakhai juhar, which is the exchange of greetings with friends, well wishers, and relatives. This symbolizes unity.
This is an occasion for people to lay their differences to rest and start relationships afresh. All differences are discarded and elders are wished nuakhai juhar. 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 called Nuakhai Bhetghat. People dance to the foot tapping traditional Sambalpuri dance forms like Rasarkeli, Dalkhai, Maelajada, Chutkuchuta, Sajani, Nachnia, and Bajnia.
After offering Nabanna to Maa Samleshwari, people take it to their home and distribute it among family members nad celebrate the day with different types of sweets and other items including the most popular arisha pitha. On the auspicious day, people also pray for good harvest and prosperity. This festival of western region has the charm of its own as all the members of the family, irrespective of where they are, assemble on the day and celebrate the festival together.

Other forms of  Nuakhai:

Nuakhai festival been observed by nearly all the major tribes in central and eastern India, with a minor difference in nomenclature. Nuakhai is celebrated as Jeth Nawakhai among the Dudh Kharia and Pahari Kharia, Nawakhani amongst the Oraon and Birjia, Jom Nawa among the Munda and Birjia, Janther or Baihar-Horo Nawai by the Santal, Gondli Nawakhani by the tribal people of Ranchi district, Nawa by the Birjia, Nawa-Jom by the Birhor, Dhan Nawakhani by Korwa, and so on.
In 1977, Gautam had observed a new corn offering and rice eating festival of the Santals in Santal Pargana which they term Jom Nawa. In 1978, Das Gupta has noted the Nawa ceremony of the Birjia, a section of the Asura tribe of Chhotanagpur. Bhaduri in 1944:149-50  presents a short note on the celebration of a festival of the Tripura known as Mikatal where Mi stands for rice and Katal means new. It is celebrated in the month of Aswina that is between September and October. In West Bengal and in the coastal districts of Odisha, the festival is called Nabanna by the caste-Hindus.
Regardless of the name, the main objective of this festival is to get social sanction for the new crop, and to invoke the deities to bless the land with abundant crops.

Nuakhai celebrated throughout India:

Naukhai is celebrated between people of the Western Odisha living in Delhi, as they unite and celebrate together the occasion of Nuakhai. People from the Western Odisha now living in Bangalore, Bhopal, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, Surat and Visakhapatnam have been celebrating Nuakhai in their new cities for the past few decades.
The modern Nuakhai festival has given a new look of likeness and uniformity by various social organizations of Western Odisha, including the Odisha Government in 1991. It has lost some of its seriousness and variety with the passage of time, but Nuakhai is still an occasion which endorses the ancestral nature of the Sambalpuri culture and society. Nuakhai Bhetghat is the reap celebration of individuals of Western Odisha and has been praised since 17 years in Bangalore. Its a 10 to 12 hrs entire day occasion having dance, music, nourishment, insect showcase, expressions and crafts.
Nuakhai or Nuankhai is one of the most important festivals in Western Odisha, where it is celebrated with great dedication and joy.
The festival is often compared to Onam festival of Tamil Nadu which is also a celebration of fresh harvest and is understandably, of huge significance for the agricultural community.

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