Lesser-Known Festivals Of Odisha Celebrate History And Devotion

From a festival that marks the journey to foreign lands during the days of seafaring traders to one celebrating akhadas (gymnasiums), here's a look at some of Odisha's age-old culture and tradition
Festivals in Odisha are woven around its lakes and rivers
Festivals in Odisha are woven around its lakes and riversshutterstock

Bali Yatra (October-November)

This week-long festival held in the city of Cuttack celebrates an ancient maritime tradition of Odisha that dates back to 2,000 years. It starts on the full moon day of Kartika Purnima in the month of Kartik (October-November) as it was considered highly auspicious for embarking on a voyage to distant lands.

The name literally translates to 'voyage to Bali', and refers to the annual journey that Odisha's seafaring traders undertook to Bali in Indonesia under the Kalinga empire, known for its glorious maritime history. The Kalingas had trade links with Sri Lanka, Java, Borneo, Sumatra, Bali and Burma.

Baji Jatra, held in Cuttack every year, is a week-long craft and cuisine fair
Baji Jatra, held in Cuttack every year, is a week-long craft and cuisine fairPradyumna Prusty/ Wikimedia Commons

Bali formed a part of the four islands that were collectively called the Suvarnadvipa, known as Indonesia today. The traders would set sail during Kartik month on huge boats called 'boitas' which had copper hulls and could carry up to 700 men and animals aboard.

Today, that ancient voyage is marked by the people of Odisha every year with the Boita Bandana. People sail tiny boats (made of paper or the bark of banana trees) decorated with clay lamps, flowers and betel nut leaves. These are floated in rivers, tanks, and the sea. The biggest celebration takes place on the banks of the Mahanadi River near Cuttack. The local administration organises a week-long craft and cuisine fair, called Bali Jatra, at the fort area on the banks of the Mahanadi.

Dhanu Yatra (December to January)

Said to be among the world's largest open air theatrical performance, the Dhanu Yatra is celebrated in Bargarh in Sambalpur district of Odisha. It is based on Lord Krishna's visit to Mathura to witness the bow ceremony organised by Kansa as described in the Bhagawat Purana. Held every year in the month of Pausa, the festival is celebrated for 11 days of the month from the 5th day of the bright fortnight till the full moon day.

What is interesting is how Bargarh's topography is weaved into the elements of the performance and the entire town becomes a stage. Bargah itself becomes Mathura, the river Jira becomes Yamuna and the village Amapalli on the other banks of the river becomes Gopapura. Different acts of the Puranic description are performed at these places and spectators move with the actors to see the performances.

The drama and reality get inextricably fused. The festival continues for seven to 11 days preceding Pausa Purnima, the full moon day of Pausa which falls in December-January every year. The performances are held throughout the night, and are followed by entertainment programmes.

Dhanu Yatra is celebrated in Bargarh, Odisha, for 11 days
Dhanu Yatra is celebrated in Bargarh, Odisha, for 11 daysWikimedia Commons

This mass festival is said to have begun in 1948 and symbolically shows the victory of Lord Krishna, the embodiment of truth, justice and righteous over Kansa who personifies arrogance and wickedness. Different acts of the Puranic descriptions are enacted in their right places and the spectators move from place to place to witness these variegated performances. The entire population of Bargarh gets involved in the festival process, thereby leading to it being labelled the greatest play in the world enacted in the biggest open air theatre.

Chaitra Parva Chhau Festival (April)

The 140-year-old Chaitra Parva festival is a showcase of an ancient dance form, the Mayurbhanj Chhau. It is celebrated every year before the Maha Visubha Sankranti Day in mid-April mainly in Baripada (headquarters of the Mayurbhanj district), and Koraput. The three-day-long festival dates back to the Bhanja dynasty from the 7th century AD, when it was a harvest festival performed during spring time. One of the Bhanj rulers, Krushna Chandra Bhanj Deo, was a devotee of Shiva, and is said to have started this festival as a tribute to the Hindu god.

The Chhau dance style of Mayurbhanj incorporates folk and classical elements, and its music is influenced by folk, Hindustani and Odissi. The name is derived from the word 'chhauni' or military camp, and some of the dance elements are based on the mock fights and drills soldiers would perform to remain battle-ready. The dance encapsulates martial arts, acrobatics and athletics forms which are weaved into a structured performance with religious themes found in Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism.

People from all over the world come to witness the performances which take place at night when the air is alive with the sound of reed pipes and drums like the dhol, dhumsa, and kharka. The dancers enact folk stories and those derived from epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas.

Unlike the other two styles of Chhau dance (prevalent in Purulia in West Bengal, and Seraikela in Jharkhand), the Mayurbhanj Chhau dancers do not use masks, except when they first appear on the stage to introduce themselves to the audience. The dance is performed by male dancers from traditional artist families, however, in the past decade or so, many women have taken up Chhau and the presence of all-women troupes at festivals is becoming fairly common.

Mayurbhanj Chhau dance narrate stories from the epics
Mayurbhanj Chhau dance narrate stories from the epics Ramesh Lalwani/ Wikimedia Commons

In 2019, a survey conducted by Project Chhauni, an initiative to revive the lost glory of Mayurbhanj Chhau, listed 212 Chhau organisations and around 12,000 artistes across the district. In 2010 Chhau dance was inscribed in the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Sitalasashthi (May-June)

This festival, celebrating the holy matrimony of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, was started several centuries ago in Sambalpur as a major festival of Utkal Brahmins. Held towards the end of the summer season (sixth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Jyestha), the festival also called upon the rain gods for reprieve from the summer sun. The marriage between Shiva and Parvati is referred to as 'sital' (or cool). 'Sasthi' refers to the sixth day of the fortnight of the month of Jyestha.

The cities of Sambalpur, Barapali, and Bhubaneswar celebrate Sitalasashti with great fanfare. The main focus are the Shiva and Parvati idols which are taken out in a grand procession on decorated hand-held shrines. A puja culminates with the installation of the divine couple at a Shiva temple.

Dance and music performances form a big part of the festival. Various folk dances from Odisha, and also dances from states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Assam, and Punjab, are performed during the festival. Tableaus on mythology, and various social issues are also part of the carnival in Sambalpur --- they take different routes to the temples where it culminates. You will find people moving from area to area, following the tableaus.

Sahi Jata Street Festival (April-May)

This unique festival is based on a more than 800-year-old tradition of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Members of the temple 'akhadas' (or gymnasiums) participate in the festival in the month of Chaitra (April), starting on the day of Ram Navami.

The akhadas were founded by Gajapati Ananga Bhima Deb of the Ganga dynasty to train warriors to protect the temple shrine from external aggression. The name comes from 'sahis' or streets of Puri. The word refers to the wide lanes or main streets of human settlement areas. In Odisha, the term is frequently used in towns like Cuttack, Berhampur, and Baleswar.

All the seven sahis of Puri participate in this open-air theatre, based on the Ramayana. Members of each sahi play a specific role during this festival, giving it a true community flavour. Bali Sahi, Kalikadevi Sahi, Kundhei Benta Sahi, Harchandi Sahi, Goudabada Sahi, Markandeswara Sahi and Dolamandapa Sahi are the seven sahis which take part every year.

Also referred to as the street play of Puri, it is partly derived from combat and military, but its dominant theme is religious, taking cues from the Ramayana. Though the origins of the Sahi Yatra are not clear, it is believed that it comes from the medieval ages when Puri had been raided and looted many times by Muslim invaders who would attack Jagannath Temple for its treasures.

The show starts on Ram Navami with the birth of Rama with rituals being conducted in Jagannath Temple. The four young boys who play Rama, Laxman, Bharat and Shatrughan go round the town on a horse cart royally dressed like princes in the evening.

Throughout the festival days, the members of each locality play their part as assigned to them. The major attraction of the festival is the exploits of demon king Ravana. Whoever plays the part is put on a strict regime for months before the festival --- not just rehearsals, but diet and fitness too play a role as Ravana's clothes and the 10-headed mask can be quite heavy. And the actors have to wear it while dancing like warriors for more than an hour.

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