Danda Jatra – The Festival of Punishment

ହେ ଋଷିପୁତ୍ରେ!
ଆଇଲେ ହର, ଦେଇଗଲେ ବର,
ଅନ୍ୟ ସେବା ଛାଡି ଏ ସେବା କର।

ଏ ସେବା କଲେ କି ଫଳ ପାଏ,
ଉଷୁନା ଧାନ ଗଜା ହୁଏ,
ଶୁଖିଲା କାଠ କଞ୍ଚା ହୁଏ,
ଭଜାମୁଗ ଗଜା ହୁଏ,
ଅପୁତ୍ରିକ ପୁତ୍ର ଦାନ ପାଏ,
ଅନ୍ଧ ଚକ୍ଷୁଦାନ ପାଏ,
ଜରାରୋଗ ଭଲ ହୁଏ।

“Dear Sons of the Sages! Lord Shiva has come and granted you boons. Give up everything else and do this service. If you do this service, you can make the impossible possible, parboiled rice and fried green gram will sprout, dried wood becomes a living tree, childless mothers bear children, blinds get vision and old people become young again.”

It was the Hindu month of Chaitra and I was driving by a village in southern Odisha. While passing, by I heard the sound of the drums and the grave tune was potent enough to teleport you into another dimension. It had to be, for it was meant to please the fiercest forms of Shakti and Shiva – Goddess Dandakaali and Lord Rudra, respectively. As I grew curious and stopped the car, my father told me it was Danda Jatra, pronounced as thuh (as in “the”)-wn-daw zaat-ra, literally meaning the festival of punishment.

Drummers beating a very grave tone, announcing the arrival of Danduas to villages from far off.

Danda Jatra traces back its origins to more than a millennium ago, when it found importance in the Tantrik practices of a predominantly Shakta (worshippers of Shakti) Kalinga of 10th century AD, or thereabouts. Danda Jatra is by the farming community and for the farming community, cutting across all castes, and revolves around the daily life of a farmer. In simple words, the practice revolves around the age old tradition of “barter”, wherein in this case the Dandua (as the people who take part in this festival are called) asks for a few wishes to be fulfilled by Goddess Dandakaali and Lord Rudra and in return promises to spend 13, 18 or 21 days in penance and abstinence (the punishment), spreading the message of Shiva and Shakti.

Danda Jatra
Danduas walking past a village in a procession holding these flags, to the beat of drums, and spreading the message of Shiva and Shakti.

Every team comprises of 13 Danduas and there are more than 300 teams in existence today. From the start, for 21 days the Danduas abstain from any kind of indulgence like meat (of all kinds), liqour and physical intimacy with their partners. On the strike of midnight of the first day, they take bath in the village pond, wear saffron colored clothes and congregate near the village temple. After a few rituals Hara-Gouri (basically Shiva and Shakti) are consecrated as two holy sticks (also called Danda in Odia). Then they light the holy fire by (you guessed it right!) rubbing two bamboo sticks against each other, and this holy fire remains lit till the end of the festival. I saw them roaming around in villages with the holy fire and the consecrated sticks, and blessing households and shops as the walked along.

Danda Jatra
A Dandua carrying the holy fire around the village, to bless the households and shops. The holy fire is kept lit for whole 21 days.

They go around giving performances in villages upon invitation, and through the use of comedy and light-heartedness (sometimes vulgar), they spread serious messages from the scriptures, about ways of life and righeousness. When they perform on the dirt, it is called Dhuli Danda (Dhuli in Odia means dust), and when it is in the water, it is called Pani Danda (Pani in Odia means water). And then there is something known as Danda Suanga, which usually starts around midnight and continues well into the morning next day.

I had heard about it as a kid and had seen it a couple of times when I went to the villages with my father. I had the opportunity of watching Dhuli Danda this time. The Danduas had made square shaped farmlands on the ground, by lying down on the dirt, and one of them acted as a farmer, who used two of them as oxen to cultivate the farmland and then planted seeds. And so the daily life of a farmer continued.

Dhuli Danda
The Danduas on the dirt are mimicking farmlands, and two running towards the camera are acting like oxen cultivating the farmlands. The Dandua behind them acting as the farmer.

Danda Jatra is one of the toughest festivals to take part in for the Danduas, high summer temperatures, lack of sleep, off-schedule and mainly midnight rituals, and just one full meal take a toll even on the most seasoned of them. The meal that is prepared is neither grinded nor boiled, and is offered to Goddess Dandakaali and Lord Rudra first. The Danduas have the food after that in the dead of the night, outside the village and amidst the deafening sound of the drums. They are not supposed to hear any sound while eating, not even that of a bird chirping. If they hear any such sound, or find any impurity in their food, they won’t take that food and stay hungry that night.

A Dandua sitting on the road exhausted. High summer temperatures, lack of sleep, off-schedule and mainly midnight rituals, and just one full meal take a toll even on the most seasoned of them.

On the day of Vishubh Sankrati (the day when Sun crosses the equator and moves into the northern hemisphere), also the last day of the Danda Jatra, the Pata (Paa-taw) Dandua, the leader of the team who wears only black, plays an important role. It is said that Goddess Dandakaali herself possesses him, and then he is tied upside down with holy fire lit right below his head. Sal tree resin (locally called Jhuna) is thrown into the fire repeatedly and it creates a lot of smoke. Amidst loud chantings, it is repeated till the Pata Dandua bleeds from the nose and exactly three drops of blood fall in the holy fire right below. This signifies Goddess Dandakaali having accepted the offerings, and the Danda Jatra culminates.

Pata Dandua
The Pata Dandua plays a very important role in the Danda Jatra, and acts as the medium of communication between Goddess Dandakaali, the Danduas and the villagers.

Danda Jatra is a religio-spiritual practice, and is held with reverence and much fanfare in rural southern Odisha, even after a millennium since it started. Modernity has influenced it in many ways. And, my quest for knowing the practices around Danda Jatra more intimately, and bringing them out to the larger audience, remains a medium-term project.

Jai Dandakaali!

VERY IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Yes, you can share this work with proper attribution. But, please seek permission before using this work (not including the photo), partially or fully. YOU CAN NOT USE THE PHOTO. Believe me, asking is better than ending up in court or facing public shaming on social media. Thanks for understanding.

© Amrit Panigrahy. All rights reserved.

Published by

Amrit Panigrahy

Amrit is a freelance photographer and a storyteller.

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