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Odisha’s maritime traditions reinforced at Bali Jatra

The eastern state of Odisha celebrated Bali Jatra from 8 to 16 November 2022. It is a major Boita Bandana festival held on Kartik Purnima, at Cuttack on the bank of Mahanadi to mark the day when ancient Sadhabas (ancient Odia mariners) would set sail to distant lands of Bali, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo in Indonesia and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) for trade and cultural relations.

RAJARAM PANDA | New Delhi |

The eastern state of Odisha celebrated Bali Jatra from 8 to 16 November 2022. It is a major Boita Bandana festival held on Kartik Purnima, at Cuttack on the bank of Mahanadi to mark the day when ancient Sadhabas (ancient Odia mariners) would set sail to distant lands of Bali, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo in Indonesia and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) for trade and cultural relations.

To commemorate the event, the festival is celebrated every year from the day of Kartik Purnima (the full moon day of the month of Kartik) according to the Odia calendar.

On Kartika Purnima, which falls around the end of October and November as per the Odia calendar, people of Odisha gather near the banks of Mahanadi and Brahmani rivers, other riverbanks, ponds, water tanks, and seashores to float miniature toy boats (Boita), made of coloured paper, dried banana tree barks, and cork, as a symbolic gesture of their ancestors’ voyage.

These toy boats are launched usually early in the morning. They contain traditional paan (betel) and small oil lamps, which are lit and placed inside them. This symbolic gesture is a remembrance of the ancient maritime history of Odisha. This time of the year was considered auspicious by the Sadhabas to begin their voyage in vessels called Boitas.

The voyage often coincided with favourable winds to navigate when a compass and other navigational tools were not available at that time. Bali Jatra is also associated with Ta’apoi, which recalls traditional memories of young maidens waiting for the return of their sailor brothers. There is also a belief that young girls participating in the rituals and sailing paper boats and lamps pray for the safe journey and return of their prospective husbands with wealth from the trade.

Apart from traditional delicacies available in many stalls, the festival also witnessed many cultural programmes. Every year millions of people from all over the world visit the Bali Jatra.

In order to revive Odisha’s maritime glory, the Indian Knowledge System (IKS) Division of the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Siksha O Anusandhan, a deemed to be university in Bhubaneswar, organized ‘Samudramanthan’ -a three-day conference on maritime traditions of Odisha at the Odisha State Maritime Museum located at Cuttack.

The conference drew a galaxy of experts including senior retired officers of the Indian Navy, serving officers, and civilian experts to discuss the state’s maritime traditions, its present situation, and future possibilities. The outcome of the conference was to prepare a Vision Document on the country’s maritime future by the year 2047. This programme by the IKS division was the sixth edition of the Dhara series, a part of the government’s Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, held alongside the Bali Jatra to revisit the state’s ancient maritime tradition.

Spread over four sessions and two roundtables, resource persons focused on several areas and emphasized that the future of Indian maritime capabilities would be linked to advances in the domain of Artificial Intelligence, while new skills for learning, relearning, and unlearning need to be cultivated.

Participants underlined that promotion of increased research on maritime traditions and related ecosystems would help the larger goal of creating awareness about maritime traditions.

The core issues in focus were “Maritime History: Locations, Ship Building and Navigation”, “Reconnecting with Maritime Traditions through Museums, “Trade and Cultural Exchanges”, and “Maritime Security and International Law”.

A museum tour visit explained every detail by the curator and proved to be equally educative. It was suggested that technology be appropriately used by creating a one-platform window with both visual and simultaneous narration of each gallery to evince interest for the visitors for the historical past.

Group tours by school students could be another add-on to create awareness of the State’s maritime history among young minds. It was befitting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi while in Bali for the G-20 summit addressed the Indian diaspora and highlighted the significance of the Bali Jatra. He said that the event is part of long traditional ties between India and Indonesia. The festival hosts many cultural programmes for the millions of people who flock to the site to get a feel of the State’s ancient traditions. There are several attractions for the children too. Many food stalls selling Odia delicacies, besides vendors selling handcrafts, looms, curios and other items add flavour to the celebrations.

After two years of closure due to the Covid19 pandemic, this year’s event saw plenty of enthusiasm. The Sikshya O Anusandhan showcased a stall and partnered with the IKS division and Ministry of Culture to also organize some attractive cultural events. These included a performance by a Yakshgana troupe from Karnataka, a one-hour-long flute recital by the legendary Hariprasad Chaurasia, and an innovative play by a group of enthusiastic students of SOA.

The Kalinga empire had an illustrious maritime history. The State’s geographical location enabled it to develop ports and a flourishing shipbuilding industry as early as the 4th and 5th centuries BC. Tamralipti, Manikpatna, Chelitalo, Palurn, and Pithunda were the famous ports from where Sadabhas sailed. Then the Kalinga had flourishing trade links with Sri Lanka, Java, Borneo, Sumatra, Bali, and Burma. Bali and another three islands were then called Suvarnadvipa.

Kalinga’s dominance over sea routes was such that it was referred to as “The Lord of the Sea” by Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsa. The Sadhabas exchanged not only commodities but also ideas and beliefs, thereby influencing Odisha’s culture and ethics.

Simultaneously, Hinduism soon blended with Balinese concepts. One can see even today a Balinese version of Buddhism there. Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, and Brahma are still worshipped there. It was therefore appropriate that Prime Minister Modi invoked the ancient ties of Odisha and Indonesia in his talks with the diaspora in Bali during the G-20 summit. Thus, Bali Jatra symbolizes the shared cultural and civilizational heritage between the two countries. The Dhara series of the IKS division’s initiative is a significant milestone in celebrating the importance of preserving and protecting India’s sea and oceanic spaces.