DUSSEHRA is unique to Khurda in more ways than one. The autumn festival not only breathes in a new lease of life into the dying Paika Akhadas in the district, it also unites both Hindus and Muslims.
Khurda, which was witness to the Paika Rebellion in 1817, once had Paika Akhadas in almost all the villages. Today, only 20 to 25 active Akhadas survive. Every year during Durga Puja, these Paika Akhadas come alive. In fact, Paika Nrutya, a martial dance form with rhythmic movements where weapons are hit in synchronisation to the beats of drums, is an integral part of Dussehra celebrations in the district. Although the Paikas practice at their village akhadas every day, special demonstrations are organised during the festival. In every village, Akhada grounds are prepared where Paikas display traditional physical exercises and engage in Paika Nrutya.
Gopal Krushna Das, Odia lecturer of Prananath Autonomous College at Khurda who has been documenting Paika Rebellion for over two decades, says there are around 50 to 60 Paika active troupes in Khurda at present.
The dance revolves around acrobatic movements with swords, lathis (sticks), chakras (wheels) and dhalis (shields) to the accompaniment of ‘Chagi’, ‘Mahuri’, ‘Nagara’ and cymbals. In the ancient times, Paika Nrutya by the warriors was considered a rehearsal for the battle. “Durga Puja is one of the biggest festivals to be celebrated in Khurda and for Paikas, it is indeed a special occasion. This is also an annual event that has helped preserve the ancient martial art form,” Das says, adding that in villages like Manikagoda, Siko and Gada Banikilo, Paika Nrutya is organised on a large scale.
On Dussehra evening, the Paikas assemble at the temple of Goddess Manika Bhuyan and offer prayers. After the priest decorates the symbol representative of the Goddess with vermilion and flowers, Hindus and Muslims take out a procession round the village accompanied by beating of drums and Paika Nrutya by local Paikas. This is also the occasion when the Paikas worship their traditional weapons and place them in Akhadaghar till Dashami.
Siko witnesses Paika Nrutya by both Hindus and Muslims during Durga Puja. The village, which was one of the many erstwhile fortresses of Khurda district, has two Paika Akhadas comprising Paikas of Hindu and Muslim communities. “Here, Durga Puja is observed by both the communities and around 50 Paikas take part in the celebration by performing before the deity,” Das says.
Similarly in Gada Banikilo, the presiding deity Goddess Ramchandi is taken in a procession to the Dussehra ground on the Saptami day by both Hindus and Muslims. After elaborate rituals, the priest of the temple accompanied by Paikas goes in a procession to festival ground where various forms of Paika Nrutya are performed.
While Hindu and Muslim Paikas perform Paika Nrutya to appease the Mother Goddess, members of both the communities take part in organising the festival in the three villages. In fact in Manikagoda, its a Muslim Dalabehera (village headman) who performs the ‘yagna’ before the deity. Manikagoda houses the hamlets of Kumutisahi, Ramachandrapur Patna, Chandi Patna, Hat Sahi and Dalei Sahi, which have an equal number of Hindus and Muslims. As per the local folklore, the Khurda king was captivated by the beauty of a girl from the Bhuyan Community, when he was passing through the village. He wanted to marry her and settle in the village and thus ordered construction of a fort and a pond adjacent to it.
As construction was underway, the village deity ordained the King in his dreams to appease her with a human sacrifice and that too of Manika, which she gladly agreed. So moved was the King by the magnanimity of Manika that he left the village after handing over the administration to the Muslim headman of the village. The King also asked the Muslim headman to worship the deity with zeal and enthusiasm. Since then, the community had been participating in the Dussehra.
Today, Goddess Manika Bhuyan is housed in a wooden structure inside the ruins of the fort and a mosque stands next to it. The Muslim Dalabehera sits as the ‘karta’ in the ‘homa’ done for Goddess Durga during the festival at Manikagoda. Not only does he offer ‘ahuti’, but also bears the expenditure of the entire festival. “Hindus also take part in Muslim festivals and this communion during Dussehra has survived the test of times for several centuries at this village,” says Binay Jena, a villager.