In November every year, the people of Odisha celebrate an ancient maritime tradition that goes back more than 2,000 years. This is the Bali Yatra, or ‘an ocean voyage to Bali’, a week-long festival that starts on the morning of Kartik Purnima, the full moon in the month of Kartik (October-November), the most auspicious month in the year, according to the Odia calendar.
In the early hours on this day, people assemble on the banks of rivers, ponds, tanks and the sea shore, and float toy boats made of paper, banana bark and cork, decorated with betel nut, betel leaves, flowers and lamps. It’s a tradition called Boita Bandana and it celebrates the voyages of their ancestors, to Bali and other South East Asian countries, which include mainly present-day Java, Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
These voyages were undertaken in vessels called biotas, by sadhabas or merchant mariners, who set off for months at a time, to trade with people from these distant lands. Kartik Purnima was considered auspicious for them to begin their voyage. It is also when the North-East monsoon winds start blowing from November to February, powering the sails of their boats to the lands they were visiting.
Bali Yatra harks back to a time when Odisha was called ‘Kalinga’, a coastal region that comprises large parts of present-day Odisha and parts of northern Andhra Pradesh. Literary references and archaeological evidence trace maritime trade between Kalinga and South East Asia to the Mauryan times, down through the reign of Emperor Ashoka (3rd BCE) till the 14th CE.
One of the earliest mentions of Javadvipa (Java Island) is found in the Kishkindha Kanda of the Ramayana.
Yatravanto yavadvipam sapta rajya oashobhitam
Suvarna rupyakam dvipam suvarna akara manditam II (4,40,30)
(King of the Monkey Army, Sugriva, while sending his army in search of Sita, suggests that they strive hard on the island of Java, a place of splendour with seven kingdoms wreathed in gold mines).
Probably the earliest mention of ancient ports in Odisha, in foreign accounts, is in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a 1st century CE text on maritime trade and navigational routes in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. These ports were also mentioned by travellers of antiquity, such as Pliny, Fa-Hien and I-Tsing.
Archaeological discoveries at Sembiran in Bali suggest that contacts between India and Indonesia were already occurring at the beginning of the Common Era. The discovery of Indian Rouletted ware (Indian Pottery with a distinctive decoration) at Sembiran is one of the largest collections in terms of forms and decoration in South East Asian sites. Besides, there are inscriptions found in several port sites in East Java and Bali referring to merchant guild (banigrama) and foreign traders including people from Kalinga among others.
Similarities between Bali and Odisha concerning food habits, manners, religious practices and vocabulary has been studied in detail by scholars. Studies have revealed remarkable similarities in between names of many places in Indonesia to that of places in southern Odisha. Rama legend features prominently in literature and sculpture of Indonesia. Out of the many versions of Ramayana, the old Javanese Kakavin Ramayana, regarded as one of the best works of the Indo Javanese literature has a few episodes quite similar to the description in Bichitra Ramayan written in Odia by Biswanath Khuntia.
The might of Kalinga King Hemangada over land and sea is described in Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha (around 5th century CE) as “Asau mahendradisamanasarah patirmahendrasya mahodadhescah” (“His might is equivalent to Mount Mahendra and he is the Lord of Mount Mahendra and the ocean”). Buddhist text Arya Manjushri Mulakalpa, mentions that the Bay of Bengal was called the ‘Kalinga Sea’ and the islands in the Bay of Bengal were called ‘Kalingadresu’.
Odia literary works dating to the medieval period shed light on the maritime traditions of Odisha. Prominent among these are Sarala Das’s Mahabharata, Upendra Bhanja’s Lavanyavati, Dinakrushna Das’s Rasakallola and Narasimha Sen’s Kavya Parimala. Besides literary references, maritime activities of the region are recorded in Odia folklore, folk songs and oral traditions. This living culture of the region provides a rich source to study the socio-cultural history of the state.
During Boita Bandana, when miniature boats are floated in ceremonial style, people recite the centuries-old phrase, ‘Aakaamaboi, paana gua thoi, paana gua tora, masaka dharama mora’. There are many different interpretations of this phrase, the most accepted one being that offering betel nut and betel leaves to the sea brings all the blessings of the month-long worship during Kartika and ensures the safe return of family members from long sea voyages.
It is not possible to ascribe a date to the origin of the tradition. However, one of the earliest literary references to the first word ‘aakaamaboi’ in the context of taking an early morning bath on Kartik Purnima is found in the Mahabharata written by Sarala Das in the 15th CE, which suggests that the ritual dates to at least this time. There is no consensus among scholars on the exact meaning of the word ‘aakamaaboi’ and there are many interpretations, such as – Aa ( aakasa or sky) ka ( paani or water) ma (nahi or do not) boi (bhaya or fear), meaning ‘do not fear the sky and water’ and
Aa ( Asadha) ka ( Kartika) ma ( Magha) boi ( Baisakha)- the four months which are considered sacred.
Local traditions ascribe Bali Yatra to the 3rd century BCE, when 2,000 families from Kalinga are believed to have migrated to Bali. The departure of such a large number of people could be due to their fleeing after the Kalinga War (261 BCE) or an invitation for the Brahmins of the ruling class in Java.
With trade came cultural exchange and the Bali Yatra resonates with festivals in neighbouring countries. For instance, Thailand celebrates Loy Krathong (to ‘float a lotus-shaped boat’), which is celebrated every year in November. The South Balinese Hindu custom of Masakapam Kepesih is observed by floating a tiny vessel into a river.
Interestingly, both these traditions are accompanied by the belief that good deeds are accounted for and bad ones melt into the sea. This is similar in meaning to the phrase chanted during Biota Bandana, which shows a similarity in cultural traditions between Odisha and South East Asian countries.
Bali Yatra is observed with much fanfare across Odisha. All manner of water bodies are filled with small, colourful boats and women blowing conch shells to pay homage to their brave ancestors. Large crowds gather at these sites and the mood is nothing short of magical. Apart from the religious aspect, the Yatra is marked by cultural programmes organised mainly in the cities of Cuttack and Paradeep.
The year 1992 saw Boita Bandana observed in dramatic style, when the Government of Odisha attempted to retrace the ancient maritime trade route from Kalinga to South East Asia, by dispatching a naval yacht, INS V Samudra, from Paradeep Port to Bali, on 10th November 1992. Called ‘Boat To Bali’, the event was meant to revive memories of Kalinga’s glory days and to also promote a more modern yatra, one of tourists making their way to the state! Nonetheless, it was a memorable event, a journey that took the yacht 82 days. This experiment was meant to pave the way for a new chapter in cultural exchange and trade, as well as tourism between Odisha and Bali.
A sense of what Bali Yatra really means in Odisha can be gauged from a visit to Gadgadia Ghat on the banks of the Mahanadi River in Cuttack. It is the most-awaited event of the year, where a mela or fair is held for at least a week. With hundreds of stalls selling a variety of products and evenings filled with cultural programmes, Bali Yatra here attracts huge crowds.
In fact, the trade fair has grown so big that the year 2019 saw 1,500 stalls on the banks of the river, raising concerns with the National Green Tribunal. While Covid 19 pandemic has put the brakes on this age-old tradition, it is hoped that very soon, the banks of the Mahanadi will light up to this colourful tradition.
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