Rashmi Rekha Das

A nation’s culture captures the collective psyche and lifestyle of its people. It encapsulates its tradition, custom, fairs, festivals, enterprises, industries, art, sculpture, literature and music. Besides its rich cultural endowments, people of Kalinga (ancient name of Odisha) were known for their glorious maritime trade. In ancient times, traders (Sadhavas) of Kalinga undertook long sea voyages to south-east Asian countries, especially to Bali in Indonesia and returned home with plenty of wealth. Our history, folklores, myths and literature carry vivid footprints of Odisha’s maritime trade.

The heroics and success of Sadhavas are deeply embedded in every Odias’ collective psyche as illustrated in our folklores. Kunja Bihari Dash’s Kuhuk Mandal Chadeikatha, Saudagarara Charipua Katha, Taapoi Katha, Sadhavara Sanapua, among others, have references to this tradition. It is also amply illustrated in Kumar Purnima and Rajo songs.  

All You Need To Know About Bali Yatra 2022

Our language, literature, idioms and daily-use phrases vouch for our rich maritime past. Phrases such as ‘Bhela Budila’ (sinking of boat), ‘Jahaj Phatila’ bursting of ship and ‘Jahaj Lagichhi’ (ship ashore) illustrate our deep association with maritime trade. Our ‘Chaiti Ghoda Nacha’ talks about the lifestyle of fishermen who worship boats. Khudurukuni, floating of miniature boats on Kartika Purnima and drawing of boats during Deewali also symbolise our maritime history. 

Historian Birupakhya Kar has talked about the ideal time for sea voyage. According to him, traders of Odisha used to carry betel leaves and exchange them with betel nuts from Bali. In ancient times, sadhavas offered a mix of betel leaf and betel nuts to river Ganga before setting sails in sea. While departing from their families and relatives, they uttered 'aa ka ma, bhai' which means ‘will come back between Ashadha and Kartika and never fear. 

Emperor Ashok in his rock edicts has praised the heroics of Kalingans (Kalinga Sahashikas). Kalinga’s wealth and its prosperity was always envied by the powerful Magadha Empire which might have egged on Emperor Ashok to invade Kalinga. KP Jaiswal, in his book, Hindu Polity has talked about a minister in charge of sea ports. Ptolemy’s Geography also makes ample references to existence of port towns in Kalinga. In the 13th edition of Puri District Gazette, references have been made to villages such as Boita Diha, Boita Kuda, Kuda Patana, among others, on the banks of river Prachi in Puri district. 

Bali Yatra

References To Maritime Trade In Literature

References to Odisha’s maritime history are also found in Sarala Das’s Mahabharata, Achyutananda’s Kaivarta Geeta, Upendra Bhanja’s Lavanyabati, Dinakrushna Das’s Prastab Sindhu, Kanhei Champati’s Paika Kheda and even in Fakirmohan’s Galpa Swalpa.  

In the 5th chapter of Achyutananda’s Kaivarta Gita, it is written -
“Boita Beusa Kara Na Hoiba Khyati,
Hasti Aswa Prajati Khatibe Tota Kati.” 

Upendra Bhanja has mentioned about ‘Karnata’ country in his poem Lavanyavati. Karnata used to be part of ancient Utkal. Going by his lines, traders from ‘Karnata’ country went for sailing and presented costly gifts to King after returning to their hometown. 

In Lavanyavati, Upendra Bhanja has written that “Bahitra lagila aasi Sinhala dwipare….” meaning the boat/vessel reached the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which clearly indicates the overseas communication between Odisha and Sri Lanka.

Literary personality Dinakrushna Das in his literary work Prastaba Sindhu has mentioned how to make a boat. 
Byasa Kabi Fakir Mohan Senapati’s book ‘Galpa Swalpa’ has mentioned about maritime tradition. He has written: “Every year Balasore district supplied nine mahan (172.8 kg) salt to Gopalpur, Visakhapatnam, Rangoon, Madras and other islands. That implies that maritime trade was existing then also.”

Govinda Rath’s book ‘Cuttack Darshan’ published in 1885 also made vivid mentions about Bali Yatra.

Odia Folk Songs

“Bata Brukhye Janama Hoili Sinhala Dipa re Ghara 
Siddha Baseli nku Kandha Re Bohichhi
Sipahi Kaibarta Nama Mohara.”

“Mu Paili Mati,Mo Bhai Asibe daria Katilo
Hate Suna Danta Kathi.”
“Doli ru Chhidila Lai
Boita re Gale Sapata Bhai Bane Kande Tapoi”

The above lines have made us revisit the ancient maritime trade and overseas activities of Odias in ancient times. 

Bali Yatra

Vegetables Named After Bali Yatra

In our day-today life, we use so many phrasal verbs. However, many of us are unaware about the fact that there are certain proverbs which have their origin in our maritime past. It’s believed to be a source of origin for words like Boiti Kakharu (wax gourd) and Boiti Alu (pumpkin).

It is assumed that these two vegetables were imported from Indonesian islands of Java and Bali respectively in ancient times. These vegetables with passage of time have acquired a permanent place among the vegetables used in the temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri.

Ghoda Nacha & Bali Yatra

The kaibartas (fishermen) living in coastal districts celebrate Chaiti Punei or Chaitra Purnima which is closely associated with the maritime activities. On this day, fishermen move from village to village performing Ghoda Nacha. The significance of this festival lies in the fact that fishermen worship their boats on the day. In a bid to keep the boat-worshipping tradition alive, women usually draw boat pictures on the day of Khudurukuni Osha and Diwali and worship them. Boat sailing tradition is believed to have got its origin from fishermen’s Ghoda Nacha.

Aa, Ka, Ma Bai...

Gone are the days when Odia mariners Sadhabas used to sail to south-east islands of Bali, Java, Sumatra for expansion of trade and culture. To remember the occasion, Bali Yatra is observed each year from the day of Kartika Purnima, the full moon day of Kartika month according to Hindu calendar. Aa Ka Ma Bai (Ashadh, Kartik, Maargashira and Baisakh), the signature song sung by Odias on this occasion tells about the four months that are important for Odia merchants of Kalinga. This period was considered auspicious by the merchants when they kicked off their voyage in vessels to take advantage of direction of the winds.


Historian Bipupakhya Kar wrote, Java used to export betel nuts to Odisha in exchange of betel leaves. Before mariners go for sailing they were advised to offer betel nuts imported from Java and betel leaves to ocean for a safe journey. They used to console their relatives by singing Aa Ka Ma Bai before leaving for voyage. ‘Ma’ ‘Bhai’ also denoted to assuring family members not to panic.

Also Read: Complete Route Map of Bali Yatra; How To Get There

Bali Yatra of Cuttack, which is held every year to reminisce Odisha’s maritime past, is not only one of the largest fairs of the country, it has gradually achieved the status of prominent draw for tourists. The fair showcases the rich cultural heritage dating back to around 2,500 years. Cultural festivals involving artistes from across the state as well as from other parts of the country only add to the popularity of the fair. 

By Dr Bijayalaxmi Dash (Ravenshaw University)