danda nacha- a religiocultural celebration since time immemorial

It is one of those few memories of my early childhood. Or it could be the first series of events of my life that I am still able to recall in bits and pieces.

I am attending the famous Danda Nacha closing ceremony at a village named Gallery with my mother and my grandmother. The wide street is full of people wearing yellow or orange clothes. The sounds of dhol, cymbals and shouts fill the air. We are standing with a dozen others on someone’s veranda. Someone from the centre of the festivities is throwing raw mangoes all around. People are clamoring to catch one. I learn that this is Devi’s prasada. Someone from our group catches one. After touching her forehead with the mango she breaks it to small pieces and distributes it.  I put one in my mouth and spit it out immediately. My mother is about to slap me when my grandma stops her.

It is only logical that after a post on music, the subject of dance should come up. Had there been no lock down, the villages and towns of my native district Ganjam would be abuzz with the celebrations of Danda Nacha, or Danda Nata or Danda Jatra. Coinciding with my fourth article on this AtoZchallenge series, today would have been the fourth day of the celebrations that  would have ended coinciding with the last day of the lock down.

Danda Nacha literally means punishment dance. Those who think ‘my religions is like no other’ should remember well that as for as the religious rituals are concerned there are lots of similarities across different religions.

We should also remember that the concept of inflicting self punishment cannot predate religion because it is religion that gave us our concepts of sin. It is again the same religion that came up with the concept of repentance. For repentance various rituals were prescribed – self-inflicted punishment being one of them.

But Danda Nacha is not about repentance. It is more about penance. We can say that Danda Nacha is a type of tapascharya. Here the volunteer participants are those whose wishes has been fulfilled due to the grace of Goddess Kali. It is a way of thanks giving for them. Some participate in the rituals with the hope of getting their wishes fulfilled. There are also many who participate year after year just for the sake of gaining or maintaining their physical and mental toughness.

Danda Nacha rituals are less physically severe compared to the types of self punishments practised in some religions and tribal groups where they mutilate their bodies or inflict wounds upon themselves. I used to think that those volunteer participants  must be coming from different planets till I did my military training.

The Jatra formats vary from region to region. But based on my first hand experience I will talk about how it is practised in Ganjam District of Odisha.

There are hundreds of Danda Nacha groups in Ganjam District. Each group has a particular village base. Volunteer performers called danduas are the backbone of Danda Nacha. To direct them there is a chief dandua. One of the most important persons is the one who carries the decorated portrait of Goddess Kali. Then there are singers, musicians, folk artists and actors that accompany the group.

The groups assemble on the first of April at their respective base villages. Elaborate puja rituals are held for Goddess Kali and also to Lord Shiva. In this Jatra Kali is the chief deity and Lord Shiva is happy to follow the Goddess and play a side role.

Then the danda groups travel from place to place to perform till the 13th of April. On Meru Sankranti, which usually falls on 14th of April, the closing ceremony takes place at the same place in the base village. There after the danda group is dismantled. All those associated with the Jatra come from different professions of the locality, most of them being farmers.

It is either a whole village / street or a household that plays host to the travelling danda group. The danduas follow a strict regimen of diet and other restrictions. However long the distance to the next village maybe, they have to travel on foot, that to on barefoot. They eat only once a day.

Usually before noon they enter the host village in a grand procession with their flags and banners and to the accompaniment of dhol, cymbals and other musical instruments. If it is a family that is hosting the Jatra, they go in front of the family house and perform purifying and other preliminary rituals. Subsequently, they are escorted to the place where they will spend the night.

They come back around noon or just after noon to perform what is called dhuli danda. Dhuli literally means dust. Remember, it is midway between the end of fall and the peak of summer. Their stage is the bare earth full of dust. Clad only in loin clothes, orchestrated by the chief dandua and with accompaniment to the music they roll on the bare earth, climb atop one another and perform different types of formations and gestures to portray the daily life of a farmer. There are lots of satirical elements even in this part of their performance to regale the audience.

After Dhuli danda the group heads towards the village pond to perform certain rituals in water. This is  known as Pani danda. Then they retire for the day.

Past midnight the host village wakes up to the tumultuous sounds of dhol, mahura and cymbals. It is time for the group’s night time performance. Even though the danduas accompany the night time procession, now they take a back seat. The performances are take over by persons who play with fire using traditional lakh powder, the singers, the folk artists and the actors. Almost all the groups have their respective traveling theater groups. Subsequently they take over and continue entertaining the audience for some time even after the core danda group has left for the next host village just before sunset.

The largest and the most revered among all groups is that of the village Gallery. Sometimes there may be a thousand danduas in this group. Even though the annual car festival of Lord Jagannath is held these days all over the world, the Rath Jatra of Puri has as special place. Same is the position of of Gallery in relation to Danda Nacha in our region.

Nobody is certain about the period of origin of the Jatra. I am happy to note that in spite of the advent of Cinema, Television, Internet and the IPL there is no decline in enthusiasm from any of the stake holders – the participants, the sponsors or the audience.

Well in case you would like to have some glimpses of the Jatra, here are some short videos. Even those who missed it due to this year’s restrictions (which must have happened for the first time since its inception) can refresh their memories with these videos and pray that the world comes out of its existential crisis as soon as possible.

My grandfather Ranganatha Dash was closely associated with the Danda Jatra of Gallery. As a teacher he was posted in Gallery. He was also an author and lived almost like an ascetic. He did not remarry even though his wife died when his children were young. (I am talking of the 1930s). I have not seen my grandfather. Father used to say that grandpa had composed many of the songs sung during the rituals of Danda Nacha. I have no way to confirm it. Of course I have some reason to believe. I remember a wooden trunk in our house containing many of his hand written manuscripts.

Maybe someone coming across this article will throw some light on this someday.

PS : This is the fourth post (D for danda nacha) of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.

All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.

16 thoughts on “danda nacha- a religiocultural celebration since time immemorial

  1. So glad you have written about Danda Nacha.True that the celebrations would have been on had Covid-19 not played spoilsport.
    Do hope the precious trunk with the manuscripts is still around. We need to document those. Your great-grandfather has played a huge role. May he guide & bless.
    Happy about the theme you have chosen! I have had the same Odisha theme for the last 3 editions of A2Z 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Core philosophy and belief systems of religions maybe different, but there are similarity in their rituals. Like companies do, religions while evolving must have adopted some best practices of other religions.

      Thank you so much for stopping by.


    1. Hello Sir ….First of all thank you for such an informative article. In this regard I want to make a little request to share some more details about the folk dramas which are performed at the time of Danda especially Chadheya-Chadheyani, Sabar-Sabarani etc. ? It’ll be very kind of you if you enlight us in this context.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course now also for the common man life is not easy. But in those days when life was a struggle, such rituals must have helped them in strengthening mind, body and spirit to fight with any eventuality. Hope you enjoy the videos.


  2. Its a myth, and its not a punishable kind of dance. Its a sound (Dan-Da) generated by Lord Siva while Explaining & showing Tandava nrutya to Ganesh. Rest is believe

    Liked by 1 person

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