Bali Yatra: A Voyage Like No Other

Bali Yatra: A Voyage Like No Other

In the early hours of Purnima, in the month of Kartik, men and women gather in Odisha, carrying with them small boats made of banana leaves, cork, or paper. They light a lamp in the hollow and float it in a lake, river, or the sea while chanting an ancient prayer, “Aa ka ma bai, pana gua thoi; Pana gua tora, Masaka dharama mora.”

Aa, Ka Ma and Bai represent the months of Ashwin, Kartik, Margashira and Baisakh respectively when the Sadhabas, or merchants from Kalinga (present-day Odisha), would visit Southeast Asia for trade and commerce. Their journey was known as the Bali Yatra, literally translating into a journey to Bali. The prayer, generally sung by women while bidding farewell to the men in the family, asked for the success and safe return of the seafaring merchants. This ritual is known as the Boita Bandana wherein Boita means a boat.

A popular story that revolves around this journey is that of the young girl, Tapoi, who was left behind by her father and six brothers, hailing from the Sadhabas Community, when they embarked on the Bali Yatra. Instead of being taken care of, Tapoi was mistreated by her sisters-in-law. The pained Tapoi prayed to Managla Devi, a form of Lakshmi to relieve her from her sufferings, and for the safe and fast return of her brothers and father. Her prayers were answered and since then, many young girls pray to Devi Mangala for the wellbeing of their brothers on the day of Khudurukuni Osha. 

The story, reflective of the anxieties associated with kinship bonds when such arduous journeys were undertaken, has been adapted into local films and literary arts as well. Folklore and popular culture contribute towards keeping the memory of the ancient practice of Bali Yatra alive in the collective memory of people. A grand fair, with the name of Bali Jatra, hosted every year in the month of Kartik in Cuttack to commemorate Kalinga’s maritime glory further added to this. 

During the ancient times, apart from Cuttack, the coastal towns of Paradip and Puri were also the nodal ports driving business activities and trade thus contributing to the economic prosperity of the region. Many other eastern coastal towns, outside Kalinga, such as Machilipatnam and Arikamedu also became the connecting links between the Indian peninsula and Southeast Asia.

Travel and Trade

Commencing the voyage at this time was a well-informed decision, as the month of Kartik marks the onset of North-eastern winds that would power the sails in the eastern direction. Starting from the east coast, the merchants would make a stop at Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and then sail towards the East for islands of Suvarnadwipa, as Sumatra was known then, Borneo and further South to Bali. Some would travel further beyond to lands of Malay and Thailand.

Trade with Indonesia included the exchange of luxury goods, spices, textiles, and precious stones. Evidence of rouletted ware, beads of gold, and glass and black storage jars with rice husks have been found in the Northern islands of Bali – namely – Sembiran and Pacung. Owing to their strategic location, connecting eastern and western Indonesia, these islands became a hub of trade activities. Similarly, the islands of Ternate and Tidore became the leading suppliers of cloves, not just to India but to the entire world. In his work Raghuvamsa, Kalidasa alluded to the winds from the Indonesian lands carrying fragrances of lavanga (clove) with them.

Indian exports, on the other hand, were dominated by the supply of textiles, black pepper, ivory, diamonds, and other precious goods. Various inscriptions in Javanese and Balinese refer to puhawang (ships captain), Vaniyaga (long-distance or seafaring merchants), and sthapaka (sculptors) travelling to their lands. Merchants have also been mentioned as banigrama and traders as banyaga. This may be similar to the term baniya used in India to denote business people.

India's Cultural Influence 

Besides commodities, India’s cultural influence also travelled through maritime routes, many of which remain prevalent even today. This includes linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and Odia, and Bahasa as well as local dialects that are spoken in Bali and Java. Secondly, Mahabharata and Ramayana have been adapted locally in the form of puppetry, literature and art, and traditions of Natyashastra and Shilpashastra are evident in performing arts and architecture as well. Similarly, Hindu deities – Saraswati, Ganesha, and Vishnu and Lakshmi continue to be revered in Bali, Java, and other pockets of the island country where Indic heritage is preserved.

Furthermore, many rituals and festivities observed in India also have an Indonesian equivalent. The Hindu New Year, Ugadi and Balinese New Year, Nyepi are celebrated on the same day in the month of Chaitra. In the month of Kartik, Garbhana Sankranti celebrated in Odisha – thanking Lakshmi for rice harvest – finds its equivalent in Mabinukukung ritual at Bali. Interestingly, in Thailand, the Loy Krathong festival is celebrated on a full moon night as well in the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar. On this day, Thais would gather and float their small boats or krathongs made traditionally of leaves, decorated with flowers and carrying a lamp as a prayer to their deity of water, a similar practice of the Boita Bandana.

The Bali Yatra was not just a commercial journey that led to economic exchanges but also a channel of cultural infusion between India and Southeast Asia. A look at common festivities, rituals, and traditions reveals a lot about the prevailing cultural similarities between the two regions. These practices could form the bedrock of our shared intangible heritage that has been continuing since antiquity and must be preserved and celebrated.


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