ROUTES TO ROOTS
By Aditya Nag
The World Maritime Day is on the 24th of September. The day focusses on the importance of shipping safety, maritime security and the marine environment. It is celebrated across the world by all member states of the International Maritime Organization. The theme for this year is ‘Connecting Ships, Ports and People’. It is a theme that is befitting the spirit, history and geography of Odisha. Odisha’s rich maritime legacy traces back its roots when Odisha was still known as Kalinga. Kalinga enjoyed and relished its rich maritime socio-cultural influence with Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka where its local people feel proud of their Kalinga lineage till date. With simple navigational aids, profound knowledge of astronomy and weather patterns, sailors of Kalinga not just traded with these lands but also influenced the land’s socio-cultural footprint.
Sailors and their trade acumen
The spirit of enterprise was remarkable among the people of Kalinga in ancient times, who harboured ambitions of founding colonies in distant lands of South East Asia. Kalinga sadhavas (sea-farers) were a prosperous community having trade and commerce links with many countries of the world. The Kalinga sailors had a deep understanding of the weather patterns including monsoon and storm patterns. It’s a knowledge that is critical to a successful maritime trade operations. This knowledge is evident from thefact that the sailors used to set their sails in the second half or mid-November when almost no storms are experienced in the Odisha Coast. This data is well corroborated from the 103 year old statistical data at the Indian Meteorological Department (I.M.D.) Odisha has had a glorious maritime history. The first signs of naval activity were found in the ‘Chelitala’ area now known as the Chilika lake region. One can find the remains of old iron tools, fish bones, harpoons and adzes of the Iron Age here. These are strong evidences of the indigenous methods adopted by the Kalinga Sailors to accomplish their trading business.
The geographical advantage
India has long been a hot seat for trade and commerce. Sitting strategically between the West and China, India has always reaped benefits of the geographical advantage through trade. The silk route trade also helped cement our grasp over parts of Central Asia too. One of the most fertile regions in the world is the area through which the Ganges flows and finally enters into the Bay of Bengal. A trader from Samarkand could take all his goods and enter India through the Khyber Pass, sail down the Ganges and reach the ports of Odisha and simply load up on the ships that would take the trader all the way to Bali. The Bay of Bengal was a paradise where weary travelers from Arab and Mediterranean ports rested, interacted and traded with merchants from the Far East. Trade in ‘Cowries’ (marine mollusc which has a glossy, brightly patterned domed shell with a long, narrow opening), silk, Chinese pottery, spices, corn and many other goods flourished.
The undeniable historical evidence
Greek scholars like Ptolemy, Megasthenes and Pliny the Elder have left detailed accounts of ports on the coastline of Odisha. Chinese scholars like Hieun Tsang and later many Arab scholars have also described these ports associated with the various names of ancient kingdoms of Odisha. The ships used back then were called the ‘Boita.’ Terracotta seals from Bangarh and Chandraketugarh (now in Bengal) dating between 400 BCE to 100 BCE depict sea going vessels carrying corn. These ships had a single mast with a square sail. The earliest depiction of ships in Odisha is in a sculpture showing two ships, found near the Brahmeswar temple, Bhubaneswar, and now preserved in the Odisha State Museum. The first ship has standing elephants in the front part, two people seated in the center and two sailors with oars at the rear steering the ship. A temple in Bhubaneswar called the Vaital Deula temple named after the shape of its roof, which resembles an overturned boat. According to archeologists ‘the Mastaka is technically called Boita and hence the name of the Deula’. The Lingaraj Temple of Bhubaneswar has a representation of a boat being steered with an oar by a woman, dated to the 11th century CE. A sculpture from Konark in the 13th century CE shows a boat rowed by four people, with a cabin in the center in which a man is seated, armed with a bow and arrow. A boat depicted in the Sun Temple of Konark contains a giraffe, indicating trade with Africa.
The flip side of international tradeAn undesirable consequences of increased trade and commerce is the threat of war that loomed constantly. The people of Kalinga however were well equipped on this front as well. The Kalinga defense was known for their superior elephants and infantry. This led to the Odia people establish their own fiefdoms in Bali and Sumatra. These annexures gradually led Odisha to soon dominate the South East Asian trade. However things changed after the great Kalinga war. The war of Kalinga changed the combative spirit of the people into followers of Buddha. Ashoka, the great ruler of Kalinga, converted to Buddhism. A relative period of calm and peace followed and in this period Buddhism gained popularity. It soon spread to the colonies of Kalinga and further onwards to China. This established Kalinga’s superiority over sea trade.
Festivals celebrating the rich legacy
Some socio-religious festivals prevalent in coastal Odisha provide a testimony to Kalinga’s glorious maritime heritage. Festival of Balijatra on Kartika Purnima (fullmoon day of the month Kartika i.e. Oct-Nov) is one of them. On this day ‘Boita Bandana’ (ceremonial send off to the merchants sailing in boats) festival is observed throughout Odisha. Even today toy boats (“dongas”) lit up with candles are floated ceremonially on all available waterbodies mimicking how ladies back in those days used to send their men on voyages wishing them well.Bali and Sumatra in Indonesia and Kalinga (Odisha) of India have influenced each other’s culture to a great extent. There are many similarities between the culture and life-style of the people of these two countries. Both Bali and Odisha boast of their culture, tourism, graceful dance forms, art and handicrafts, temples and monuments. Today is tomorrow’s past; yesterday is today’s legacy Today the scenario is different with modern Odisha surging forward in the new age of maritime has well and truly begun. And in this age we Odias are again trying to regain and assert our command over maritime trade in South Asia. The Odisha government has significantly developed its prime port of Paradeep that serves as a gateway to China and Japan. Shrimp, iron ore, manganese and coal are new items of trade in this modern era. This trade has directly or indirectly helped many businesses flourish not just in Odisha but in the neighbouring states as well. The Dhamra port in Bhadrak and Gopalpur port near Brahmapur add to the strong lineup of significant ports of Odisha. The cumulative trade in these ports have quadrupled in the last 5 years.
The good old days of Odisha maritime superpower is hard to replicate but an effort is being made in all earnest. But we must learn from history. It is clearly evident that climatic conditions and climate change are today the biggest threat for coastal regions of Odisha. We the modern Odia folk must acknowledge this fact and must address it by being more conscious about our environment. So come 24th September, spare a thought for the rich Odisha maritime legacy and the undeniable mark it has left in India’s trade history. Odisha was and continues to contribute significantly to the rich Indian Maritime legacy. A fact that all odia folks should acknowledge and do visit the Odisha State Maritime Museum at Cuttack for further knowledge.