Baliyatra – commemorating ancient maritime traditions
Festivals to commemorate ancient maritime traditions in South East Asia
Baliyatra, meaning a ‘Voyage to Bali’, is a festival celebrated every year in coastal Orissa on Karthika purnima, the Full moon day of October-November to commemorate Orissa’s glorious maritime history.
Masakapan Ke Tukad, is a Balinese festival where toy boats are floated in memory of maritime ancestors.
Loy Brah Prahdip or LoyKrathong, meaning ‘the floating of lamps at night’, is a festival of Thailand that is celebrated in December (twelfth month of Kartika). During this festival, little rafts, made of plantain stems and decorated with flags, paper umbrellas, incense sticks, and lighted candles, with offerings of food and flowers, are set adrift on the river by people living near its banks.
Three festivals, with similar celebrations consisting of ritualistic floating of toy boats, are celebrated in three different countries, in memory of ancient mariners, who undertook trans-oceanic voyages from Orissa to South East Asian countries including Indonesia and Thailand.
Past cultural and commercial connections between Orissa and South East Asia
‘Boita Bandana‘ –symbolizes the ceremonial send off to the merchants’ ships of the past when seafarers of yore would set sail in large vessels called ‘Boitas’ to the islands of Bali, Java, and Sumatra and Borneo that now form Indonesia.
The trade exchanges resulted in many cultural similarities between Bali and Orissa. The influence can be seen on temples and monuments, distinctive style of Indo-Balinese architecture, dance forms, art and handicrafts, tie-dye techniques and elegant textile designs.
It is likely that the Mariners used monsoon wind and currents as an aid for sailing ships during their onward and return voyages to Southeast Asia.
The decline of Orissa’s sea trade in the 19th century.
In the 19th century, siltation and the formation of sandbars at the mouth of many rivers prevented ships from entering into the ports, leading to the decline in the usage of many ports.
The Orissa coast frequently experienced cyclones and storms. Cyclones, accompanied by severe floods brought extensive damage and suffering in the districts of Balasore, Cuttack and the adjoining regions. Further, Orissa suffered greatly from the devastating floods which occurred between 1868 and 1896. Under such circumstances, the destruction of port installations was inevitable.
The maritime trade was gradually transferred to Bengal, as the Europeans shifted headquarters from Balasore to Hugli.
Thus, over a period of time, ancient methods of maritime trade disappeared, and are now only remembered and celebrated as rituals and social events along the east coast of India.
This festival is still celebrated throughout Orissa in memory of the maritime glory of ancient Kalinga.
Apart from other places of Orissa, Baliyatra is celebrated with much pomp and grandeur in the historic city of Cuttack for seven days from Kartika Purnima (full-moon day of the month Kartika). Lakhs of people congregate in the famous Baliyatra festival of Cuttack city, where a fair is organized.
Toy boats, made up of paper or banana peels, lit up with candles are floated on water, accompanied by blowing of conch and an occasional burst of crackers. It is a pretty sight to watch thousands of boats with blinking lights floating on the river at night, before they are swallowed up by the tide.
Baliyatra festival is also associated with the legend of ‘Taapoi‘, a young girl who awaits the return of their sailor brothers. Rituals like ‘Bada Osha‘, linked with the boat making tradition of yore, and ‘Khudurukuni Osha‘ observed by unmarried girls to worship Goddess for the safe return journey of the family members from the sea, evoke memories of the maritime glory of ancient Orissa.
Though the ancient ports are extinct, the memory of past traditions is preserved through these annual cultural celebrations.
Taking a cue from the past, perhaps Indian exporters can explore potential export opportunities in the South East Asian markets that were once India’s favoured export destinations.
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- Baliyatra: Reminiscence of Orissa’s Maritime Glory by Prabhukalyan Mohapatra
- Role of cyclones and other factors in the decline of the ports of northern Orissa, by Sila Tripati* and A. S. Unnikrishnan