In Sarala Mahabharata it is said that the last five days of the holy month of Kartik – called panchuka (the five days from ekadasi, the 11th day, to purnima, the full moon day, of the month of Kartik) in colloquial Odia – are so very holy that even the crane gives up eating fish. Many Odias, who do not observe the kartika brata (ritual fasting in the month of kartik), 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 the need arises. 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, Kartik purnima, which is the last day of the month. In many villages even today it can be embarrassing for one to be found out that one had not observed the restriction even for 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 means “eat meat”. Sometimes the waiting for meat can become a bit longer, as in 2012. The day following Kartika purnima was the first Thursday of the month of Margasira, the day of manabasa, which is a puja dedicated to goddess Lakshmi. It is observed on every Thursday in the month of Margasira. Meat eating is expressly forbidden on this day. Those who do not observe manabasa could have their chhadakhai on that day, but every single household in Odisha observes this ritual. Who would not want to please the goddess of prosperity! In 2012 the following day was the day dedicated to goddess Santoshi, again a day of fasting for women. On this day 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, it was technically – “technically”, because chhadakhai is a family observance, not a “part-of-the family” observance - their chhadakhai day last year but the family observed it only on the following day. Thus last year, chhadakhai was observed by many two days after Kartik purnima.
The price of meat and fish 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, sometimes 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 chhadakhai and share its meat on that day. There are a few, city dwellers and villagers both, who do not approve of such a practice; they think that even keeping meat or fish at home during panchuka is ritualistically unclean, but at the same time they cannot afford to buy the required quantity of meat or fish for the family on the day of chhadakhai. 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 in 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 chhadakhai day and after one or two days, when the price of meat and fish comes down to normal, they have their real chhadakhai.
Although chhadakhai is a family observance (to that extent it is very much 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 those who can afford go to these restaurants. The special occasion meal has become a prestige symbol too. So 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 in particular temples and offered to the deity. Many minor 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 offered non-vegetarian food, not just on some particular days or during some very special worship. Thus the chhadakhai food is ritualized, in a manner of speaking.
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 – a story that celebrates the concerned goddess (or god). So is there a story connected with chhadakhai? There is nothing in print. Significant studies on bratas and oshas do not even mention this very popular festival. In any case, what can one presume to be the nature of such a story? Can it be like a typical osha or brata story where the offended goddess punishes the offender and forces him or her to worship her? Which goddess can such a story be dedicated to? It is a celebration of eating; it is about withdrawal of prohibition about food and about eating meat, and isn’t it that meat belongs to the rajasik or tamasik category (its precise categorization depending on its quality and its cooking, etc.) of food, which is not what is traditionally believed to encourage the better part of one’s nature and virtuous living?
One story connected with chhadakhai I recently heard from a friend from western Odisha who had heard it from his mother, and it is more or less like this: when Sita returned to Ayodhya, she expressed her thanks, in the form of a boon she granted her, to Trijata, Vibhishan’s sister, who had looked after her so well during her confinement in Lanka. 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 the asuras (anti-gods, roughly, demons) are supposed to be very fond of. On the day of chhadakhai, my mother – we are from coastal Odisha - used to worship Jaya and Bijoya, the gatekeepers of Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu. Jaya and Bijoya were born as asuras three times in the mortal world because of a curse and Vishnu had to descend to this world to kill them and thereby release them from their asuric births and eventually restore them to their position in his abode. In both the stories, chhadakhai has some asuric connection. Thus after a month’s worship of the gods comes a day when one must worship the anti-god, never mind and more importantly, note that the anti-god in question is connected in some way to the Supreme Lord. The observance of kartika brata and of chhadakhai on the day after the completion of the brata suggests that the spiritual and the non-spiritual together make life complete, so both are to be celebrated.
But the meaning of the occasion, whatever it was when it began – 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 meat and fish agitates the mind, 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. Chhadakhai releases one from this painful state of being.