I have been really lucky that within these four months in Odisha, I witnessed two of the most amazing and unique festivals. The one that just happened was Bali Yatra, which became a bigger event this year because of its tie-up with the Hockey World Cup being organized in Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar. The second one was Vishwakarma Puja in September, celebrated in ports like Paradeep. As I witnessed these festivals, I got to know so much about the history of the state and how much linked are the state and its culture with ancient trade with the other southeast Asian countries. My knowledge was further enhanced about the subject when I went to the Odisha State Maritime Museum in Cuttack later. The museum had a beautiful story to bring out the similarity Odishan Culture had with that of Bali, Java, and Sumatra.
It’s interesting how these observations came up. For Bali Yatra, the name of the festival itself is the biggest proof of what I am talking about. This festival is celebrated at the end of Karthik Masa when ancient traders used to start their journey towards Bali. Similarly to most of the festivals in the state, it stretches on to as long as ten days in the city of Cuttack, which had been an ancient river port. During these ten days, a specific ground in Cuttack known as the Bali Yatra ground is decorated and thousands of stalls are put up. Another interesting thing about this festival is that the festivities start five days before the actual event. Five days before the Karthik Masa ends, idols of Lord Karthik are put up in various places around the city and villages. The whole place hence is decorated too, pujas are offered in every nooks and corner.
At the end of these five days, a special tradition is followed everywhere from the city to villages, to rivers and lakes. This is on the auspicious day of Karthik Purnima when children and adults set sail to toy boats on the water. Small boats made up of bamboo, paper, dried banana leaves or nowadays polystyrene are beautifully painted and a lamp is inserted into it. These boats are then set sail in the waters of the river or lakes at midnight after a puja as a remembrance to the time ancient mariners started sailing towards Bali. A tradition which is followed even in the remotest of the villages, marking the auspicious time to start traveling by sea or river.
The next couple of days is a celebration, as people come to cities to witness huge fairs set up in the city of Cuttack where this has a huge significance. The stalls display food from all across the country and handicrafts from the state under the banner of ORMA – Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society. People from even villages come at least for once a day to enjoy the delicacies offered and also to take home a number of items from the stalls back home. The celebration and stalls are on the banks of the beautiful Mahanadi river, which once was a lifeline to all the trade that happened in the state. It is so interesting to see people celebrate a festival which is so different than other usual festivals in the same grand spirit. There is no ancient ritual involved with this festival, it’s just a simple commencement of the trading season for the Mariners.
The second festival is the Vishwakarma Puja, celebrated in around September all across the state. Its special significance is in Paradeep where the grandeur of the festival started since the mid-sixties and still remains one of the most unique and beautiful traditions in here. For the four days of this puja, the beautiful port city becomes more beautiful with the addition of magnanimous pandals all over. The pandals all across the town are made like huge and beautiful palaces, some of these pandals depict the court meetings as Vishwanath preside over his ministers. These makeshift palaces are sometimes three-four storey high and are vibrant with colors. The idol of Lord Vishwakarma, the divine architect, is placed in the center of these pandals. Restaurants from all across the state build stalls around these pandals with delicacies from there. The connection between the ancient port and the architect god is not hidden during this festival.
The strong connection between trade and culture in this state is evident at the Odisha Maritime Museum as well. One of the larger rooms of the museum focusses on the cultural similarity between Odisha and Indonesia. This involves costumes, festivals and weirdly Ram Leela. There are over ten different maps put up on the walls that show the trade routes at different point of time in the history of Odisha. What I witnessed during the festivals was very raw, but when I saw the connection in the museum it was clearly visible how much they celebrated this connection. Also its beautiful as to how they have adapted to the customs of a foreign land and made a part of their own. That I think is the biggest takeaway for me from all of it.
Stills from the museum