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Danda Ritual

Five Elements


Ileana Citaristi

The two seasons during which two new rasas flow on earth are spring (March-April) and the autumn (September-October). Both these periods mark the transition between different and opposite activities at the social and agricultural level. During the monsoons all kinds of collective works are interrupted and substituted by indoor and introverted ones; it is only after the rains that the military and trade expeditions as well as the harvesting operations will start. Similarly, after the winter months spent in social and collective gatherings, spring paves the way to a new awakening of nature and to all the fears and expectations linked to a new agricultural year.

Among the rural communities of the coastal and central Orissa, both these periods are marked by rituals related to the Shiva-Shakti cult, in which the deities are worshipped in their benevolent and terrific aspects.

Differently from the orthodox Hindu section of the population, among these communities, Durga or Devi is never represented by an iconographical image but by various symbols such as a pole, a pitcher, a sword, a dagger, and so on.

In the performances of these rituals, traces of ancient cults belonging to the Tantric Buddhist, Tantric Saiva and Shakti traditions as well as tribal and indigenous features can be observed, making it a fascinating example of a cultural synthesis achieved along the centuries.

Both the Sola Puja (sixteen-days-puja) culminating in Vijaya dasami performed in the month of Aswina and the Danda yatra (called also Jhamu Nata, Patua Yatra, Uda Parva) performed in the month of Chaitra, have in common, among other things, the embodiment of the power of Devi in the form of a pitcher of clay filled with water.

The kalasha worship is usually associated with a psychological state where the fulfilment of a vow or desire is involved; it can be interpreted as a womb containing generative lymph (symbol of fertility) or as a symbol of the human structure where the pot is the trunk of the body, the coconut placed on the top is the head, the five mango leaves are the five senses, the water contained in it is a symbol of the mind, the turmeric spread on it is the soul and the germinated paddy placed in front of it is the main nourishment.1

While in the last four days of the Sola Puja the kalasha is worshipped with sacrifices of animals (especially goats which are associated with kama or desire as one of the six ripu or enemies), during the danda rituals it is the human body which undergoes a series of punitive tests, once again in relation to a vow undertaken or a desire to be fulfilled.

According to the dictionary, the word danda, besides signifying staff, club, stick, rod, has also the meaning of corporeal punishment, chastisement, subjection, control, restrain. Self-control is exercised by the danduas (devotees) not only by the way of fasting for a number of days which varies between 18 and 21 (starting from the full moon of the month of Chaitra up to the beginning of the solar month of Baisakh), but also by performing physical exertions of different kind.

Although all sections of population can take part in the rituals, we find that in most villages where danda is performed, the majority of the danduas are from the paik or martial communities2 and the pata dandua himself is the leader of the paik akhada of the same village.

It is certainly difficult to trace the historical reasons for this connection, but elements of self-discipline, physical fitness and vigorous dance involved in the performance of danda together with the fact that both forms of physical expressions placed in the background of the Shiva-Shakti cult can be brought to explain at least in part the cultural link.

Another reason can be due to the fact that geographically the Danda rituals, besides being performed in some coastal areas of Orissa, are specially found in the garjats or fortified ex-feudatory states of central Orissa, like Talcher, Angul, Denkanal, Hindol, Daspalla and Nayagarh, where the population is mainly composed by the military caste. The fact that the paiks, besides being warriors, were all along also involved in agricultural works in times of peace is another important aspect to be considered in this regard.

An interesting variant to the Danda rituals of central Orissa can be found in the Bhokta cult of Baripada, the capital of the northern district of Mayurbhanj.

Here the main Bhoktas who undertook fasting and performing of some of the physical penances during the same part of the year, still hold their titles in a hereditary way and they were allotted special gifts and privileges by the royal dynasty of the state to undergo penances for the welfare not only of the family members of the Maharaja but for the whole community as well.

Among the danda (self-punishments) performed are, bhumi or dhuli danda, group pantomimes enacted on the ground (literally, in the dust), pani danda, acrobatics in the water, agni danda (which includes, jhuna khela, play with resin, nia pata, walking on burning coals, ugra pata, swinging upside down on burning ashes) and swanga (folk plays) which are enacted in different places every night for 13 days culminating in Pana Sankranti or the first day of the month of Baisakha.

Although there are variations in the performance of the various phases between one area and the other, and although now-a-days some part of the rituals may not be performed regularly everyday, the physical interaction of the devotees with dust, water, fire and air is a common feature whenever danda is performed.

Under the hot sun of April, in the middle of the day when the earth is most burning, the danduas gather around the kamana ghara in the village and under instruction by the pata dandua perform dhuli danda or short sequences which represent the art of ploughing, cultivating and harvesting. Goddess Kamana herself, represented by the permanent kalasha kept in the kamana ghara, gives them orders through the words of the pata dandua. In the enactment of the different agricultural operations, the dhuli is used in the most imaginative ways — at times it represents the black grams which are sown in the ground, at times the paddy which is ventilated after thrashing and at times the weeds to be extirpated.

The bodies of the dandua become at times the plough, at times the boundary between the fields and again the cart over which the harvest is carried or the bullocks which trample over the new paddy during the thrashing operations.

According to a principle which seems to be universally applicable, wherever we find that the faith in the magical chain of events still predominates over the cause-effect relation of the scientific outlook, the enactment of certain action in a ritualistic set-up is bound to influence the course of similar events at the time of their accomplishment.

In the same way the physical enactment of all these agricultural operations performed as ritualistic acts of offering and penance is believed to assure the success of these operations when they will take place during the new agricultural year. After the last act which simulates the smearing of oil and haldi over the body is time now to proceed towards the nearest tank for the ritual bath and pani danda.

The procession moves along with the pata dandua carrying the Gauri beto, which is composed by two cane sticks covered with red bangles, black strips of cloth and a sari and the bundle of straw containing the sacred fire.

The first immersion is done along with the Gouri beto; all the danduas stand around her and after a full immersion they pour water over her again and again and wash her with leaves of mango tree while chanting invocations to the goddess.

They then wash themselves in the same way and perform acrobatic feats in the water.

Now-a-days, in many places this feature is omitted, but dandua belonging to the village of Manikagoda in the Khurda sub-division of Puri district, confirmed to me that it used to be performed up to one generation ago. The aerial somersaults which are part of the pani danda are the same which are part of the paik training even today. According to the paik terminology they are called suna and include backward somersaults from different heights as well as pyramidal formations of various kinds.

After the bath and pani danda follows a very important ritual — the danda jia (re-lighting of the sacred fire).

It is interesting to note that here the word danda assumes yet another meaning — it relates to the handles which support the torches which are re-lit everyday at this time and are carried in procession along the village together with the Gauri beto.

As a phallic symbol, the handle like the stick can be regarded as symbol of Shiva, to whom agni or teja as creative power has always been mythologically connected.

The Danda are four in number and every year two new ones are made while the old ones are stored in the kamana ghara at the side of the permanent kalasha. They are constituted of two parts — the handle made of clay supports a cup made of straw; when the jhuna, (hard oily substance derived from the sal tree) is thrown into it, it creates a coat by melting which prevents the straw from burning fully.

The fire which had been carried from the kamana ghara stored in a bundle of straw is revived by rubbing it vigorously against the ground.

The four danda placed on the ground in a cross-shaped way with the four cups facing each other are first lit with the bundle of straw and repeatedly made to blaze by pouring resin. With each blaze, invocations to Agni, Durga, Kali and various terrific aspects of Shiva Bhairava rise to the sky.

A procession around the village is taken at a very fast pace; each sahi and corner is passed through and outside each house bhogo is offered to the deity. One of the dandua blesses each offering along the way and collect a portion of it. Each shrine is circumambulated and outside certain houses designs made of coloured powders are drawn on the ground and bhogo of different types are placed on it.

These are the outer spaces where the nata will take place at night; the ordinary space, sacralized and circumscribed on the four sides by the ritualistic power of the square and circular designs is a medium of transaction between the secular and the sacred. The evening performance is not just for entertainment but a continuation of the process of expiation in which the whole community participates through the physical enactment by the dandua.3

The procession finally return to the kamana ghara when the evening sets in; the deity is deposited inside, the fire switched off and the dandua takes the only meal of the day — a liquid preparation, called pana, made out of milk, fruits, black pepper, green gram and fried rice.

The fire is re-lit in the night and some more physical exercises called danda bhanga take place. These are performed by one of the danduas who, while holding the lit danda in his hands, perform some ground acrobatics.

The pata dandua goes around the kamana ghara in a special chali called jhaleri, while the blazing flames activated by the jhuna rise to the sky, breaking into the darkness of the night.

The scene is now set for the apparition of parva, the terrific aspect of Goddess Kali. This character always opens the night performances and it is taken out only during the period of the danda nata.

The dandua which interpretes this role is dressed with a red and black sari, wears female ornaments and has an arch-like structure of bamboo strips covered with cloths tied at the back. The latter is the parva (radiance) and it is kept all through the year inside the kamana ghara together with kamana and the danda or handles for the fire.

The themes of the nata performed in front of different houses for thirteen consecutive nights are drawn from ordinary events and relations of the tribal people. The steps of the dances are quite vigorous and performed at a fast tempo. They are accompanied by dialogues with the main player, songs directed to the audience and interludes of pure dances. A lot of stamina is required on the part of the dancers who have to talk, sing and dance without pausing.

The items can be performed in a shorter version accompanied only by the dhol or in a longer one called swanga (in Sanskrit, meaning graceful acting) accompanied by an ensemble of instruments, such as pakhawaj, dholak, jodinagara, (played with sticks), jhumka (metallic balls with pieces of iron inside), harmonium, gini (cymbals), mahuri and kahali (wind instruments).

Among the most popular characters are chadeya (bird hunter), babaji (sanyasi), hata khata (mendicants), kandha kandhuni (tribal couple), pattara saura (nomads), sabara (tribals), vinakar (who holds the vina).

In certain villages nachwa (the dancers) are different from the dandua who perform the rituals, but in this case the nachua are equally under a vow, don’t observe full fasting like the dandua but are strictly vegetarian throughout the period of the danda nata.

The houses in front of which the nata are performed usually belong to well-to-do families who, themselves under a vow, choose to fulfil it and manifest their devotion towards Shiva by inviting the party and sponsoring one of their performances.

The invitation is done by cleaning up the frontage of their houses with cow dung and water, drawing decorative floor designs with coloured powders and placing over it offerings of food and a jugful of water.

The money collected after each performance is used for the puja and the deity; the entire community acts under a vow and for a common goal and thus all participate, in their own way towards the successful fulfilment of their expectations.

The rituals reach a climax in the last two days when the dandua subject themselves to the trial of ugra and nia pata.

At midday of the Meru day, under the hot sun, in front of the kamana ghara, each of the dandua swings, for a few seconds, in an upside down position over burning coals and the day after, on Sankranti, they walk on a bed of burning charcoal spread to about 25 feet.

The last act, performed at 2 a.m. in the night after Sankranti, is the emptying of the kalasha into the tank from which water had been taken and consecrated at the beginning of the rituals.

The circle is thus complete and the entire process is ready to start once again; macro and microcosm have attuned to each other’s wave-length through the medium of the physical performance by the dandua.


  1. This anthropomorphic interpretation of the symbol of the kalasha has been given to me by a tantric pujari whose forefathers had performed rituals for the Royal dynasty of Seraikhella in Bihar.

  2. From the Sanskrit word padatik; they were the infantry soldiers of the rulers of the feudatory States in Orissa. In exchange for the military service rendered, they received free jagir (land), which they cultivated in times of peace.

  3. This link between the ritualistic penances enacted by the devotees in the daytime and the evening performance by the dancers is not so evident in the Bhokta cult of Baripada in Mayurbhanj. Although the sacralization of the performance-space is carried out by the Chhau dancers before the dances begin on the first night by spreading, on the arena, some earth brought in procession from the akhada, it is only when the dance performance is quite advanced that the Bhokta visits the arena with the sacred pitcher of water on the head. The whole procedure gives the impression more of a juxtaposition of events than of an originally integrated process.


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