Rituals succeed where history fails. Bits of our past survives as collective memory through them. History looks for evidence, they don’t. They deal with certainties etched into our communal consciousness centuries ago. History may be revisited and re-written, not so the case with age-old rituals. The absence of confusion makes them more effective at binding communities.
As we celebrate Bali Jatra, releasing banana stem boats into water bodies, the tiny load of betel leaf, betel nut and deepas in place, we must remember that the annual ritual is much more than a compulsive habit for the Odia community, all celebration and little substance. It is a reminder of our great heritage, our proud past and most importantly, our unique place in civilisational history.
The celebration becomes a vacuous exercise if it fails to inform us about our achievements as a society and rekindle in us the spirit of the olden days. Does it tell us that we were a maritime superpower who lorded over the seas in the ancient times? The Bay of Bengal was called Kalinga Sagara and its kings Mahadodhipati, meaning the masters of the ocean. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, of the pre-Christian centuries, mentions Kalinga as a great naval power and Muryan emperor Ashoka attacked it in 261 BC to wrest control of ports that made the kingdom prosperous and militarily formidable. Are we reminded of that through the celebration?
Long before the European nations leveraged their naval strength to reduce the rest of the world into colonies, Odias achieved something similar. They colonised several Southeast Asian nations and were instrumental in planting Hinduism and later Buddhism there. Ports around Chilika hosted merchants from countries across continents. Historical evidence indicates to our intense interaction with Romans, Greeks, Arabs and the Chinese. We built boats many stories high and capacity to carry a thousand persons, even elephants. The balance of trade was so favourable to us that it became one of the causes of the economic decline of the mighty Roman empire of the pre- and early Christian centuries.
As a civilisation we go deep in time, comparable to all world civilisations not only in ancientness but also in material achievements. The remnants of settlements thrown up by archaeological surveys across the state reveal we had flourishing urban townships, which are counted as a measure of human progress. We retained our position as an economic powerhouse in the country till as long as the 14th century before several factors combined to push us into gradual decline.
Behind all this lies the story of human spirit, of gut and glory. They tell us about the courage of the Odias, their readiness for adventure and skills at entrepreneurship. The ancients took on the sea, stood firm against powerful empires and stamped their authority elsewhere in the world. They were significant enough to find mention in the accounts of foreign travellers to India in those times. They suffered bouts of lows from time to time but sprang back in a great show of resilience.
The ritual that we observe doesn’t load us with details. It provides us the crux of the whole thing. It reminds us repeatedly that we are part of a great heritage. Our identity as a community derives from it. In times of setbacks and sagging morale we should take strength from what we achieved in the past against the odds. As we get into the flow of the Bali Jatra, we should grasp the true purpose of it.
The celebration should bring out the substance and make it apparent to all, particularly to the newer generations who are getting gradually distanced from their roots. Otherwise it would remain an empty, pointless exercise.