Odisha’s Bali Jatra festival commemorates ancient links with South and South East Asia

Odisha’s Bali Jatra festival commemorates ancient links with South and South East Asia

By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia

The Bali Jatra (also known as Voyage to Bali and Bōita Bandāṇa), a famous annual festival in the Eastern Indian state of Odisha, celebrates ancient cross-cultural social and trade connections with South and South-East Asia. The festival is held in the city of Cuttack at Gadagadia Ghat on the Mahanadi river, to mark the day when the Sadhabas (ancient Oriya mariners) would set sail to the distant island of Bali in present-day Indonesia as well as other regions of South and South-East Asia, including Ceylon, Java, Sumatra and Borneo  for trade and cultural expansion. They sailed in large vessels called Boitas.

The cross-cultural connections between Kalinga (Odisha) and other parts of the Indian sub-continent and Ceylon can be traced to the Bali Jatra.

“The range of activities of sailors and merchants in the period represented by the Pali texts whose exact date is unknown was wide. This was the period of early Magadhan ascendency. We hear of sea voyages and of trading journeys to the coast of Burma and the Malay world (Suvarna-bhumi), Ceylon (Tamraparni) and even to Babylon (Baveru). The principal sea-ports in India were- Bhrigukachcha (Broach), Surparaka (Sopara, north of Bombay) and perhaps Tamralipti (Tamluk in West Bengal) (as mentioned in Advanced History of India by R.C. Majumdar, H.C. Raychaudhuri and Kalikinkar Datta 1978).

During the Mauryan period, a considerable part of State revenue came from overseas trade. The Mauryan empire had trade contacts with Syria, Egypt and other countries of the Hellenistic world. And as early as 1st century B.C, India had relations with the Roman Empire. There are epigraphic and literary evidences to support connections with China, the Hellenic World and Ceylon in the Early Christian Era.

These are recorded in the Nagarjunakonda inscriptions and the Milindapanho. The Nagarjunakonda inscriptions mention fraternities of Buddhist monks who had contacts with or travelled to Kashmir, Gandhara, China, Chilata, Tosali, Aparanta, Vanga, Vanavasi, Yavana, Damila, Palura and the island of Ceylon.

The Gupta age is referred to as the Golden Age in ancient Indian history. The Chinese writer and pilgrim, Wang-hiuen-tse refers to an embassy sent by Sri Meghaarma (Vanna), the king of Ceylon, to seek permission to build a monastery for Ceylonese pilgrims at Bodhgaya.

Emperor Ashoka and later on Samudragupta of the Gupta era, developed the concept of ‘parakrama’. During the Mauryan period, cultural influence spread through the propagation of the teachings of Lord Buddha. In the Gupta age, connectivity came through economic, political and military activity.

At the time of the Pallavas in southern India, evidence points to political connections with ancient Ceylon. In the south of the Vakatakas lay the realm of the Pallavas of Kanchi.Under Simhavishnu, the Pallavas defeated the Cholas as well as their southern neighbours, including the ruler of Ceylon. The conquest of Ceylon is also mentioned in the achievement of his grandson Narasimhavarman. Evidence of Simhavishnu was found in Varaha cave at Mamallapuram.

Ancient Kalinga trade routes

The epoch of the Pallavas of Kanchi is important as they are said to have built a realm south of the Pennar and the Tungabhadra and spread their hegemony to Ceylon (Mujumdar, et al).

By the 5th century A.D., cross-cultural connections between India and Ceylon could  be seen in the arts and aesthetics. The frescoes of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, executed at the close of 5th century A.D,  bear resemblance to those at  Ajanta and are in a “better state of preservation.” Some fresco paintings also adorn the caves at Bagh.

By the latter half of the 9th century till the beginning of the 13th century, during the time of the Cholas of Tanjore and under Rajaraja I and Rajendra Chola I, almost the entire Madras Presidency had come under a single Empire. The Generals of Rajendra went as far north as the Ganges. Chola admirals asserted their authority over several overseas territories- including Ceylon, the Nicobar Islands and parts of the Malay Peninsula and the Archipelago. Rajendra also defeated Mahipala I of Bengal.

After the fall of the Cholas (after Rajendra Chola Kulottunga), the southern part of the Chola dominions fell into the hands of the Pandyas. The areas became a battleground between the Hoysalas, the Kakatiyas and other powers. In the country between the Godavari and the Ganges, which had once been overrun by Ranjendra Chola I, rose the empire of the eastern Gangas of Kalinga and Orissa.

Much later, after the Cholas, the Sailendras suffered a great defeat at the hands of a king of Ceylon in the 13th century.

An Italian traveller, Nicolo Conti and Abdur Razzaq (an envoy from Persia) visited the Vijayanagar Empire in 1420 and 1443 respectively. Their records say the Vijayanagar Empire extended over the whole of South India. It attained its zenith during the rule of the 1st dynasty.

Many years later, at the beginning of the colonial period in the region, a number of Portuguese settlements were established on the Western coast by the successors of Albuquerque. These places were in  Diu, Daman, Salsette, Bassein, Chaul and Bombay, San Thome near Madras and also Hugli in Bengal in the East.

Their authority extended to a major part of Ceylon also. But in course of time the Portuguese  lost hold of most of these places, except Diu, Daman and Goa ,which also they lost in 1961.

In the latter parts of colonial rule, in 1605, the Dutch captured Amboyna from the Portuguese and gradually spread their influence at the cost of the latter in the Spice Islands. They conquered Jakarta, and established Batavia on its ruins in 1619, blockaded Goa in 1639, captured Malacca in 1641 and got possession of the last Portuguese settlement in Ceylon in 1658. In 1802, by the Treaty of Amiens, the Dutch part of the island was ceded to Britain, and Ceylon became a British Colony.

(The featured image at the top shows the Bali Jatra festival being held at the Gadagadiya ghat on the banks of the Mahanadi river at Cuttack in Odisha)