Bali Jatra: A Journey into Kalinga's Gilded Maritime Past

Of adventurous seafarers to naval supremacy and a kingdom that was held in esteem by peers and others for their rich heritage, valour and knowledge – the festival is a fine glimpse into Odisha's unrivalled soft power, and its ups and downs through ages. 

By Madhulika Dash  

                                                                                            In Picture : Bali Jatra


A few days from now, Odisha will celebrate its second biggest festival of the year – The Bali Jatra. Roughly translated as, The Voyage to the Kingdom of Bali, modern-day Indonesia, this three-day culture, food extravaganza would see a major section of the erstwhile capital Cuttack erupt in euphoria celebrating the more than 2000 year old maritime history of Kalinga, a empire whose boundary once included parts of Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and even Indonesia, and a state that was revered as much for its natural resources and big elephants as it was as the learning center of two global religions, first Jainism and then Buddhism through all its three streams: Mahayana, Hinayana and Tantric. 

Such was the prowess of the kingdom of Kalinga that it earned its rulers back in the day the title of Mohodadhi or the Kings of the Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal, the moniker, “Kalinga Sagar'' as per the text in Manjushri Mula Kalpa, and natives who travelled from this coast to another as  Orang Keling, the title that during colonial history centuries later was reduced to an insult. 

The Keling Supremacy 

But back in BC, Kelings were people who were respected for bravery and benevolence, and were often conquerors, merchants and scholars who shaped much of South East Asia's vivid culture we know today. The islands of Java, Sumatra, Bali, Vietnam and Borneo (Malaysia) were collectively called Suvarnadvipa and shared a cordial relationship with Kalinga much like erstwhile Burma that has often been referred to as Kalingarat or a rastra of Kalinga in trade annals of the time indicating to a possible colonisation or a shared rule. 

According to the old Janmakosthi and some of the carvings in Konark temple, in the years preceding 261 BCE, Kalinga had not only earned the reputation of being a country of traders, clever Sadhabas who could predict the mood of the Sea, and superior ship-builders whose ships could carry thousands of people and hundreds of big black elephants (one of the prized exports then) but also of notorious pirates and effective colonisers. In fact, not just in Malay but Cambodia too was ruled by a series of great Odia kings. 

The Funan Empire, considered to be one of the greatest empires of this region, was in fact founded by a Naga princess Queen Soma (Neang Neak) and her husband, Kaundinya I (Preah Thong).  Kaundinya was a Brahmin merchant ship captain who was shipwrecked on the coast of Cambodia. Queen Soma went to fight off the crew as she thought they were invaders, but fell in love with Kaundinya and proposed marriage. 

The House of Kaundinya were practicing Shaivites and built quite a few Shiva Temples that bear resemblance to the Kalinga architecture of the time. The dynasty had 18 rulers including Jayavarman, the 17th king.

                                                                In Picture : The Ships that Carried a Thousand Big Elephants


One State That Ruled All

Likewise for Bali, which back in the day was a popular holiday destination, and a place that most Kalinga traders would choose to settle in between their sails. Bali's popularity and the healthy trade relationship could be a reason for many marriage alliances in the past. The result is the striking similarity in not just the culture but also in the architecture, especially the use of elephants and lions in the temple vicinity. In fact, according to a popular folk tale, the closeness with Bali began when a certain king dispatched his eldest son with 20,000 people with riches and other resources that included animals, especially tamed elephants to start a new kingdom elsewhere. 

The Prince, an astute warrior and seafarer, chose the balmy island of Bali to settle. Story goes that the princess fell in love, married and thus the rule began. Another version of the tale insists that it wasn't the king but the prince who sent fleets of ships across South East Asia to find more avenues for them to work. Result, by the fateful year of  261 CE, Kalinga by its sheer trade relations, prosperous ports that included Tamralipti and Chandraketugarh (in modern-day West Bengal); Nanigaina (modern Puri), Katikadarma (modern Cuttack), Kannagara (modern-day Konark); and Salihundam and Dharanikotam located in modern Andhra Pradesh, rich natural resources, crops, and its skilled people had become a prized state, worthy of a conquest.

Then the infamous Kalinga War happened – a sheer political want which in its bloody wake transformed the conqueror into Chakravartiya while washing away the grandeur of a culture and wealthy rich kingdom, Kalinga. 

Yet, in the years that followed the GOT styled battle, the state ports flourished and earned Maghadha its overfilled coffers enabling the once rowdy king to change perception by using the coastal towns to propagate the teachings of Gautam Buddha by sending convoys to different countries including Sri Lanka. 

                                                         In Picture : Map of East Asia Trade with South East Asia and China


Epicenter of Religious Learning and More

But this wouldn't be the first time that these ports would become religious hubs of learning. The journey began before the Ashoka invasion with the ports, especially Pithunda becoming knowledge towns for Jainism under the Kharavela King who ran a trade prosperous economy, to Tamralipta, the main emporium of Buddhist monasteries and learning center and the important port of departure for trade with Ceylon, Java, and China, as well as the west in the later years. 

In fact, it was here that Hien Tsang would arrive in 673CE and then proceed to Pu-su-po-ki-li or Pushpahiri, one of the key Buddhist knowledge hubs along with langudi Hills, and scholars like Subhankara Simba and Prajna would travel to China taking along with them the old and new learnings of Buddhism. While the former carried a copy of the Maha Vairochana Siutra for Emperor Hussan Tsung in China; the latter took an autographed copy of the Gangdavyuha for Chinese King Te Tsong as a gift from Wu Cha (Chinese for King of Udra Desh) Bharimakara King Sivakara Imnattasimha. 

Interestingly, the ravages of the infamous war had little effect on the coastal legacy that had shared cordial relationship with China since before 71CE when Buddhism first reached China. The healthy trade relations that extended beyond material exchange of pottery and silk, and ivory and elephants led to the creation of the Second Silk Route called the Maritime Silk Route.  

                                                             In Picture : The Wall that Depicts Trade Relations Between Kalinga and Africa

As per the Han Shu (History of Han Dynasty), from China, this route went through Sichuan and Yunnan province to Burma, North East India to the port of Tamralipti via Brahmaputra and Ganga, while from India the same trade route took the vessel through Sumatra, Java, Malaysia, Thailand to China. 

Among those traded were the China Silk which was loved by Kia-lings and the ivory, pepper, barley, iron and fine cotton that was loved by the Chinese. But more than the material exchange, it was Buddhism that united the two kingdoms with both merchants and scholars frequenting each other's coast. 

A Smitten Ptolemy to Chinese Ju-kuan Chao

One of the earliest mentions of Kalinga's glorious maritime past is in Ptolemy's Periplus of the Erythraean Sea where some of the most popular Kalinga coast ports including Palur, Pithuna, one of the metropolis of the Kharavela Kings, and Manikpatna and Dosarene among others are written about in great detail. In fact, Ptolemy doesn't hide his wonderment about the Kalinga people's ability to tame elephants and even build ships that can carry them through the waters of Bay of Bengal. His favourite port for this remains Dosarene which he says, “is best for a good breed of elephants especially the large, dark coloured elephants capable of making long journeys.” 

The famous Greek astronomer and mathematician isn't alone in his praise for the Kalingah Sahasikah, a team of sailors, builders and seamen, Chinese Buddhist scholar Ju-Kua Chao in his book Chau Ju- Kua and then Wang Ta Yuan as recent as the 12th and 14th century write about their wonderment with the Kia-ling Sea Going vessel, their sheer size, the management of the ship and the ability to make really long winding journey without much damage. In fact, as late as the 16th century not just the Chinese merchants and scholars but the Arab traders also preferred using the Kalinga ships to make their sea journey. 

Much like Kalinga's own story, the ports too continued to rise and fall as per the owners, barring a few that remained a key point of entry, even as Emperor Akbar took control of the nature rich state. Rice, ivory, pottery, iron still continued to be traded. Elephants continued to be tamed in the state, which today boasts of the one of the highest reserves in the country for elephants. 

In their last of prime years, these ports that once got the Arabs, the Romans, Chinese, Japanese, Egyptians and Greeks, served as the landing address for the colonial powers, the British, Dutch, Portuguese and the French. Even in their slowly dilapidated state, these once well appointed centers of knowledge and trade offered ample space for the early sailors to settle and mingle. 

The old bungalows in and around Gopalpur and Balasore stand testimony to these metropolises of the past. The advent of railways and ease of road travel eventually rendered them useless, and they slowly disappeared from the pages of history. It wasn't till the digging began and Stupas that had the 4 in 1 casket from China, potteries and coins were unearthed that the rich story of the Kalinga Sadabas came to light, and the process is still in progress.

The Richness of Culture & Food

Fascinatingly, these ports were not just popular for the rich natural offering and produce that ranged from grains to timber, or as the learning center of religion, they were literally Las Vegas of the time. Right from the recorded time of Kharavela Kings to the Mughal Emperors most of the ports remained either the administrative center or next to the capital city, and were designed as a showcase of the rich culture. 

From jatras to dance performances, debates and even night markets were all part of the metropolis building exercise that every king ruling the East did- be it the early Kalinga kings, the Ganga dynasty, the Mauryas and so on. Result, cities close to the ports developed into cultural hubs that were in sync with the changing trade times. So one would not just find early iterations of what would become Sarai Khana in Mughal rule, but also were the first where Old Dak Bungalows were converted into hotels with menu and room service in the early part of the 1900s when Japanese merchants travelled extensively in the state. 

                                                                                      In Picture : Mahuli


From Oysters to Mahuli

What remained sacrosanct during the different periods was food. As one of known ports for the best oyster in Sonapur, now in Berhampur, the ports of Kalinga were known for their unmatched delicacies made from seafood, meat, berries, honey, jaggery and of course, rice. From the steamed scampis drizzled with a honey sweetened spicy sauce (the earliest cousin of ceviche) to muri ghanta to steamed cakes made with millet and lentils, pickles, barbeques, wrapped delights in sal leaves were all part of the amazing layout that awaited the merchants that stayed for the winds to get favourable to go home. 

                                                                      In Picture : Lobster Scampis


Still famous then for its cyclone, these metropolises with the eateries and rest houses were safe havens that were cheap and so generous with their offerings that Chinese and Arab scholars often noted that “nine out of 10 people traveling to the ports of Kalinga would not come back ever.” The result, much like the Muziris to the South, the coast of Kalinga, especially those close to Puri and Konark became the “Samarkand '' of the Maritime Silk Route. 

Best of all the offerings was the alcohol. Known for their tribal hooch makers, Kalinga as per Roman merchants were known to supply the finest of alcohols made with honey, mahua, other floras, rice and millets. 

                                                                                                      In Picture : Mandia Jau

The Jau, which is a congee preparation, was said to be the best way to start the journey back home. The bowl  along with barbecued meat and fried fish was often part of the feast along with steamed rice cakes sweetened with honey or jaggery as a farewell feast to the sailor and merchants set for sail. It is said that no ship that sailed West from the East Coast ever went without the generosity of the locals and a bowl of Mandia Jau. 

                                                                               In Picture : Tunka Puri and Chenna Tarkari

Over the years, dishes were added on and the feast changed. Today, one of the best dishes to have during Bali Jatra is Tunka Puri and Chenna Tarkari. A dish that many would see as a Batura size puri and paneer sabji, the making of both is a reminder of what a caldron of influences the port would have been.