Bali Yatra, a festival that celebrates the rich maritime history of Odisha is celebrated throughout the state. The people of Odisha gather near banks of Mahanadi, Brahmani river, other river banks, ponds, water tanks and sea shores to float miniature toy boats, made of colored paper, dried banana tree barks, and cork, as a symbolic gesture of the ancestors' voyage.
Boats made of banana leaves with lighted candles
It is on the same day, the day when ancient Odia mariners (Sadhabas) would set sail to distant lands of Bali, Java (at the time of the voyage known as "Yawadvipa"), Sumatra, Borneo (all in Indonesia), and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) for trade and cultural expansion.
Bali Yatra celebration fair entrance in cuttak
This day was specially chosen because the ocean winds started blow in the direction of travel from that day. Today, in the historic city of Cuttack, a week-long event is organised starting from the day of Kartika Purnima (full moon day in the month of Kartik i.e October-November). People sing a song Aa ka ma boi, pan gua thoi... to remember the early maritime history of Odisha. The song tells about four months that are important for marine merchants of Kalinga (the earlier name of Odisha).
Map of the sea routes of the Kalinga Empire.
The Kalinga Empire (present-day Odisha) is known for its glorious maritime history. Due to the geographical location of Kalinga, this area saw the growth of ports as early as the 4th and the 5th century BC. Some of the famous ports, Tamralipti, Manikpatna, Chelitalo, Palur, Pithunda allowed India to connect with other countries via the sea. Soon, the Kalingas had trade links with Srilanka, Java, Borneo, Sumatra, Bali and Burma. Bali formed a part of the four islands that were collectively called the Suvarnadvipa, today known as Indonesia.
The Kalingas constructed large boats called the ‘Boitas’ and with the help of these, they traded with the Indonesian islands. These ships had copper hulls and could carry up to seven hundred men and animals aboard. Ajhala or big fabric sails were used to harness the wind power to move the Boitas. Interestingly, the Bay of Bengal was once known as the Kalinga Sea as it was thronged by these ships. The dominance of the Kalingas over the sea routes can be understood from the fact that Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsa referred to the King of Kalinga as ‘The Lord of the Sea’.
Map of India highlighting the extent of the Kalinga Empire
The Kalingas frequently traded with the island of Bali. The trade-in commodities also led to the interchange of ideas and beliefs. Odia merchants formed settlements in Bali and influenced its culture and ethics. This led to the growth of Hinduism in the region. Hinduism blended well with the Balinese concepts and even today, ‘Balinese Hinduism’ is practised by a majority of their population. They worship various Hindu Gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha and Brahma. Shiva was considered to be the presiding deity and believed to be the elder brother of Buddha.
As a result of these influences, the Balinese also celebrate Hindu Festivals such as Shivaratri, Durga Pooja and Saraswati Pooja. Interestingly, the ‘Masakapan ke Tukad’ festival celebrated in Bali is similar to the Bali Yatra festival in Odisha. Both festivals are celebrated in the memory of their maritime ancestors.
A board saying we love Bali in Odia Language, Cuttack.