Bali Yatra (October to November)
This week-long festival held in the city of Cuttack celebrates an ancient maritime tradition of Odisha that dates back 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 taking 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 which was known for its glorious maritime history. The Kalingas had trade links with Sri Lanka, Java, Borneo, Sumatra, Bali and Burma.
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 large boats called ‘boitas’ which had copper hulls and could carry up to seven hundred 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 all over Odisha. 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 in honour of the festival 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 ceremony of ‘Bow’ organised by Kansa as described in the Bhagawat Purana. Held every year in the month of Pausa, it is celebrated for eleven days of the month from the 5th day of the bright fortnight till the full moon day. What is truly interesting is how the topography of Bargarh is weaved into the elements of the performance and the whole town becomes a stage. Bargah itself becomes Mathura, the river Jira becomes Yamuna and the village Amapalli on the other bank of the river becomes Gopapura. Different acts of the Puranic description are performed at their right places and the spectators move from place to place with the actors to see the performances.
The drama and reality get inextricably fused. The festival continues for 7 to 11 days preceding Pausa Purnima, the full moon day of Pausa which falls in December-January every year. The performances are held through night, and are followed by various entertainment programmes. 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.
The 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 7 th 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 in order to remain battle-ready. Hence 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. 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.
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 other theme of the festival was to call upon the rain gods for some reprieve from the summer sun. The marriage between Shiva and Parvati is referred to as ‘sital’ (or cool). Sasthi refers to the fact that it is held on the sixth day of the fortnight of the month of Jyestha.
The cities of Sambalpur, Barapali, and Bhubaneshwar celebrate Sitalasashti with great fanfare in
the form of a carnival. The main focus are the images of Shiva and Parvati which are taken in a procession on ornate decorated cottages. 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 and include various folk dances from Odisha, and sometimes even dances from other states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Assam, and Punjab. Tableaus on mythology, and various social issues are also part of the carnival at Sambalpur – they take different routes to the temples where the carnival culminates. Hence 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 linked to the Jagannath Temple of Puri. It takes place in Puri in the month of Chaitra (April), starting on the day of Ram Navami. Members of the temple ‘akhadas’ (or gymnasiums) participate. These akhadas were founded by Gajapati Ananga Bhima Deb of the Ganga dynasty to train warriors who would 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 Orissa the term is frequently used in towns like Cuttack, Berampur, and Balesore.
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, making it a true community festival. The seven sahis which take part every year are Bali Sahi, Kalikadevi Sahi, Kundhei Benta Sahi, Harchandi Sahi, Goudabada Sahi, Markandeswara Sahi and Dolamandapa Sahi. 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 dressed like princes in the evening, riding a horse cart. Through the festival days, members of each locality play their part as assigned to them. But 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 ten-headed mask can be quite heavy. And the actors have to carry it while dancing like warriors for more than an hour.