There is a rich history behind this centuries old festival.
Read the excerpt below from Sanjeev Sanyal’s book The Ocean of Churn which traces the history of the Indian Ocean.
By the end of the second century BC, Indian mariners appear to have learned enough about the monsoon winds and ocean currents to attempt a more southern route across the Indian Ocean to the islands of Indonesia. Odisha’s Lake Chilika was an important starting point for this voyage. It is a large brackish water lake with a small opening to the sea. The mariners of Kalinga, therefore, used the lake as a safe harbour. Even today, you are likely to find broken heaps of ancient pottery strewn along the lake’s shores.
Note that the ships did not sail out directly for Indonesia. Instead they used the north-eastern monsoon winds that blow from mid-November to sail down the coast to Sri Lanka. This was already a well-known route and the merchants probably stopped along the way to trade as well. In Sri Lanka, the ships would have taken in fresh water and supplies before using ocean currents to cross the Indian Ocean to the northern tip of Sumatra (called Swarnadwipa, or Island of Gold in Sanskrit texts). From here, the ships could choose to sail down the Straits of Malacca towards Palembang and take the sea route to Borneo and Vietnam. Alternatively, they could head south hugging the western coast of Sumatra to Bali and Java (called Yavadwipa, or Island of Barley/Grain).
After finishing their purchases and sales, most ships would have used the counter current back to Sri Lanka and then return to Odisha. If the sailors started from Odisha in mid-November, it is estimated that they would reach the islands of Java/Bali by mid-January. They would now have two months to conduct their business before they started their return journey in mid-March. This would allow them to get back to Sri Lanka in time to catch the early South-West monsoon winds in May that would take them home.
The merchants of Kalinga were not the only ones making the journey to Indonesia. There were merchants from the Tamil, Andhra and Bengal coasts too. There were even horse traders from India’s north-west who made their way to the port of Tampralipti in Bengal and then sailed to Java and Sumatra. However, in the initial phase, it is the Sadhaba merchants of Kalinga who seem to have had a dominant influence. This is why Indians were known as ‘keling’ by Kaundinya’s Wedding 85 the Malays and Javanese from ancient times although the term has acquired a somewhat derogatory connotation in recent times.
That era of maritime exploration and trade is still remembered in Odisha in folklore and festivals. The festival of Kartik Purnima takes place in mid-November when the winds shift and begin to blow from the north. This marks the time of year that ancient mariners would have set sail for Indonesia. Families, especially women and children, gather at the edge of a water-body and place paper boats with oil-lamps in the water. I witnessed the ritual on a beach near the temple town of Konark. Streams of people from nearby villages arrived before dawn to place their little boats in the water and watch them float away. A cool breeze blew from the north as promised and the full moon made the crashing waves glimmer. As per tradition, one must wait for the sun to rise. I watched my paper boat float away. This is how the families of the ancient mariners would have bid goodbye to their loved ones.
The maritime links to Kartik Purnima are remembered in many other ways. A fair is held every year in Cuttack called Bali Yatra which literally means ‘The Journey to Bali’. It is also a tradition to perform songs and plays based on the old folktale about Tapoi. The story goes that there was a wealthy merchant, a widower, who had seven sons and a daughter. The daughter, the youngest, was named Tapoi and her father and brothers doted on her. One year, the merchant decided to take all his sons on a long voyage to a distant land. He left behind Tapoi in the care of his seven daughters-in-law with clear instructions that they look after the young girl.
Unfortunately, Tapoi’s sisters-in-law secretly hated her and mistreated her. She was made to cook, clean the cowshed and do all the washing. They even withheld food from her. After several months of tolerating all the physical and mental abuse, Tapoi eventually ran away into the forest. There she prayed to goddess Mangala, a form of Durga, who blessed her. A few days later, her father and brothers returned unexpectedly. They soon realized what had happened and brought Tapoi back from the forest. The evil sisters-in-law were punished. The folktale not only hints at the tradition of long oceanic voyages but also expresses some of the inner anxieties of those who made these voyages—when will we get back home, what will happen to those left behind?
The most important Indian export was cotton textiles which would continue to be in much demand across the Indian Ocean rim till modern times. Excavations in South East Asia also show evidence of carnelian beads and a variety of metal ware. By AD first century, we find that Indian merchants were also bringing along Mediterranean and West Asian products that they, in turn, had purchased from the Romans, Greeks and Arabs. Artefacts found in Sembiran in Bali clearly show that it was in close contact with Arikamedu, an Indo-Roman port, just outside Puducherry.
Indian imports included Chinese silks, via ports in Vietnam, and camphor from Sumatra. The islands of Indonesia would have been a source of cloves, nutmeg and other spices. Many of the spices thought to be ‘Indian’ by medieval Europeans were actually from Indonesia except black pepper which grows along the south-western coast of India. Till the late eighteenth century, the world’s entire supply of cloves came from the tiny islands of Ternate and Tidore in the Maluku group.
Trade links with South East Asia unsurprisingly led to cultural exchange. Within a few centuries we see the strong impact of Indic civilization on the region—the Buddhist and Hindu religions, the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Sanskrit language, scripts, temple architecture and so on. Despite the later impact of Islam, European colonial rule and post-colonial modernity, the influence of ancient India remains alive in place and personal names, commonly used words, and in the arts and crafts. Buddhism is still the dominant religion across Myanmar to Vietnam, while Hinduism survives in pockets such as Bali.
There are some cultural artefacts that seem to have survived with little change from the very earliest phase of contact between the two regions. One cannot look at traditional masks from Bali, Sri Lanka and the Andhra–Odisha coast without being struck by the similarity. The same is true of Wayang Kulit, the Indonesian art of Kaundinya’s Wedding 87 shadow puppetry, and its equivalent in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Imagine ancient mariners entertaining each other during the long nights of an ocean-crossing by using to their ship’s sail to enact shadow-puppet plays, cultural roots anchoring them as they made a perilous journey to distant lands.
One should not be under the impression that influences always flowed unidirectionally from India to South East Asia. Far from it, Indian civilization was enriched in many ways by influences from the east. One commonplace example is the custom of chewing paan (betel leaves with areca nuts, usually with a bit of lime and other ingredients). While it is common across the Indian subcontinent, the areca nut, called ‘supari’ in Hindi, is originally from South East Asia and was chewed across the region and as far north as Taiwan.
Paan is still widely consumed in India but, in recent years, has become less popular in the urban areas of South East Asia. Still, the leaf and nut continue to play an important cultural role and are used in many ceremonies. I have eaten them at a wedding in Bali and found old villagers chewing them in the Philippines. The Vietnamese too use it for many marriage related ceremonies. It is quite possible that they were used by the warrior princess Soma when she sent the marriage proposal to Kaundinya. The supari that one chews today in most parts of India gives no more than a mild buzz. The Khasis of Meghalaya, however, have preserved a strain that can be surprisingly strong. Perhaps they brought it with them during their pre-historic migrations from Sundaland. Surprisingly, the strongest that I have eaten came from a wild variety that I accidentally discovered in Singapore of all places. Suffice to say, the tiny nut packed the punch of a bottle of rum!
The Ocean of Churn explores the history of the significant region that stretches across East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent to South East Asia and Australia — a region that has defined civilisation from the very beginning. Storyteller Sanjeev Sanyal offers the reader a comprehensive understanding of the events that happened along the rim of the Indian ocean.