Odisha province, known as Kalinga in ancient times, was commanding a very high position in the maritime activities of India in the past. Brave and adventurous Kalinga sailors were making daring voyages to different far-off lands of the world and had maritime contacts with Roman Empire, Africa, Persian coast, Arabian countries in the West and China, Japan, Siam, Champa, Burma, Ceylon etc in the East. Besides, the countries with whom the people of Kalinga maintained enduring commercial and cultural relationship were the islands of Java, Sumatra, Bali and Borneo collectively known as Suvarnadvipa or modern Indonesia. Odisha’s glorious maritime past has been proved from the excavated materials like Roman coins, Kushan coins, Chinese ceramic sherds found from different parts of Odisha in the recent past.
Some socio-religious festivals prevalent in coastal Odisha also provide vital information about Kalinga’s glorious maritime heritage. Festival of Baliyatra on Kartika Purnima (full-moon day of the month Kartika ie. Oct-Nov) is one of them on which ‘Boita Bandana’ (ceremonial send off to the merchants sailing in boats) festival is observed throughout Odisha . Even now toy boats lit up with candles are floated ceremonially by the women-folk of Odisha on all available water courses in the same fashion in which the ladies of yore used to send their men on voyages wishing them well.
Baliyatra literally means a ‘Voyage to Bali’. And it also suggests a festival connected with Bali. But people of Odisha , on this auspicious day, become nostalgic about their past associations with Bali and the glorious maritime tradition of trans-oceanic voyages they undertook to South East Asian countries. Large number of men, women and children attired in colourful costumes throng all water bodies carrying tiny boats made up of banana peels or paper or solapitha with lighted lamps inside to launch them on the gentle waves accompanied by blowing of conch, ululations by women and occasional burst of crackers. Oriya women perform the rite of ‘Boita Bandana’ to evoke the memories of the voyages of adventurous Kalingans of yore and create a truly romantic mood.
Bali of Indonesia and Kalinga (Odisha ) of India have influenced each other’s culture to a great extent. There are many similarities between the culture and life-style of the people of these two countries. Both Bali and Odisha boast of their culture, tourism, graceful dance forms, art and handicrafts, temples and monuments, distinctive style of architecture and tie-die technique, elegant textile designs etc.
Baliyatra festival of Odisha has some parallel with ‘Masakapan Ke Tukad’ festival of Bali where similar floating of toy boats in memory of maritime ancestors is made. Likewise ‘LOYKRATHONG or LOY Brah Prahdip’ festival of Thailand consisting of ritualistic floating of boats in the month of December has similarity with Odishan custom.
On Baliyatra festival of Kartika Purnima an Oriya lyric is usually recited ie. ‘Aa-KaMa-Bai, Pana-Gua- Thoi’. Aa-Ka- Ma-Bai connotes the month of Asadha, Kartika, Margasira and Baisakha of Oriya calendar. While the period from Asadha to Kartika (July – September) was the season of outgoing voyage and Magha to Baisakha was considered to be the season of return voyage.
Apart from other places of Odisha , Baliyatra is celebrated with much pomp and grandeur in the historic city of Cuttack for seven days from Kartika Purnima. Some opine, Oriya Sadhabas (sea traders) were sailing off to Bali on this auspicious day at the end of the turbulent monsoon season for which it is named as such. Others say, Sri Chaitanya, the great Vaishnavite Bengali Saint, first landed in the soil of Cuttack after crossing the sand-bed (Bali) of Mahanadi river on his way to Puri on this auspicious day. Lakhs of people congregate in the famous Baliyatra festival of Cuttack city where innumerable varieties of goods are bought and sold. People also enjoy boating on the river Mahanadi with friends and relatives in the moonlit night during this festival.
Though the ancient ports in Odisha coast have become inactive due to gradual silting of the river mouths and maritime trade is almost extinct, yet the racial memory still preserves the past tradition through annual celebration of Baliyatra. This festival is still celebrated throughout Odisha as a commemorative ceremony of the past glory.
Baliyatra festival is also associated with legend ‘Taapoi’ and rituals like ‘Bhalukuni Osha’ and ‘Bada Osha’, ‘Akasadipa’ festival which speaks volumes of Odisha’s glorious maritime heritage. While ‘Khudurukuni Osha’ is observed on each Sunday of Bhadraba month by un-married girls to worship Goddess Maa Mangala for the safe return journey of the family members from sea, ‘Bada Osha’ is linked with the boat making tradition of yore Similarly, ‘Akasadipa’ festival is celebrated to remember the artificial light houses along the coast of Odisha , legend ‘Taapoi’ is deeply associated with Baliyatra festival which preserves in race memories the romantic stories of young maidens waiting for the return of their sailor brothers.
To revive and refresh the memories of Kalinga’s maritime glory, a boat expedition was organized on the Kartika Purnima `of 1992. History was recreated when seven member crew on board a 13 meter long yatch sailed for Bali from Paradeep port of Odisha retracing the ancient trade route of Kalingans. The flag off ceremony of the expedition was held at Paradeep port on 10th November 1992, the day of Kartika Purnima. ‘Boita Bandana’ ballet, evocative of ritualistic send off of the merchant ships of the past was performed amidst ululations and blowing of conch shells by women. Thousands of people cheered the sailors of sending out decorated yatch, INS SAMUDRA before dawn which revived the old tradition as a measure of goodwill for the people of Indonesia and to promote tourism. The event, a modest attempt to rediscover the cultural ties between two countries, drew the attention of national and international media to a great extent. The yatch, INS SAMUDRA, covered a distance of 5810 nautical miles over a period of about 17 weeks highlighting the glorious trans-oceanic voyage of Kalingans. The expedition witnessed a ‘grand finale’ at Bali of Indonesia where a cultural festival having seminars, exhibition and presentation of Odishan performing arts were held for three days. An attempt was made to recreate the ethos of Odishan culture through presentation of its dominant styles of architecture, handicrafts and folk dances so that Indonesian people could get a glimpse of the art form of this culturally important state of India.
The spirit of enterprise and adventure was remarkable among the people of Odisha in ancient times, who cherished the ambition of founding colonies in distant lands of South East Asia and Ceylon. Kalingan Sadhabas (sea-traders) were a prosperous community having trade and commerce link with many countries of the world. The festivals like Baliyatra, rituals such as ‘Khudurukuni Osha’, ‘Bada Osha’ and legend ‘Taapoi’ reminds us the maritime glory of ancient Odisha . Those glorious days are now gone but the memory is still alive.
By :Prabhukalyan Mohapatra
Writer is a Bhubaneswar based Freelance Journalist who lives in Qr No: VR 3/2, Unit-3, Behind R.B.I., Bhubaneswar, Odisha .