A Festival of Boats: Implications for the Modern World

By Ranjit K. Sahu

Most festivals in the world as in India, are connected with religious and cultural events. Then there are festivals associated with the practices of agriculture and other activities of indigenous communities, celebrating the events in tune with the natural seasonal cycle such as Purim  in Israel or Thanksgiving  in North America. There are  a few festivals however that encompass and celebrate religious, cultural as well as historical events in one go. The boat festival of Odisha (Boita Bandhaana) celebrated during the Full moon  of Karthik, is one such festival. While the day is more popularly knows as  Karthik Purnima or Guru Purnima in most parts of India, it is the day when entire Odisha, in unison participates in floating boats in water to commemorate the journey of ancient sailors (business men called ‘Sadhabas’) to the countries of south east Asia. The festival is also unique in the sense that it is the women who are traditionally involved in the floating of the boats as was the practice during ancient times. Nowadays of course everyone partakes in the celebration which is a pre-dawn/morning affair. The festival is a reminder of the bidding good bye process of women of the household to their men who set out for business across the seas. The speciality of the festival lies also in the fact that the object of worship is a boat ( in ancient times  it is likely the real vessel was worshipped, as traditions of worshipping vehicles and equipments exists in many parts of India). The philosophy behind such a practice is of course the acknowledgement and ode to all things that a human comes in contact and which play a role in his survival.

Historical records indicate  that until the coming of the British and the disruption of the Odia society economically and culturally, there was a flourishing trade between Odisha and the nations of Southeast Asia like Indonesia and Malaysia. The trade activity was mainly determined by the prevailing winds which helped to set sail in the Bay of Bengal and often this was when the Southwest monsoons had ceased to exist and the North east monsoons were in the beginning, helping the ships to make use of the wind power in the sea. This coincided  with the end of the cyclones and storms in the region which could occur during the monsoon season.

Pic Description

Traditional boat made with banana petiole, loaded with flowers, betel leaf, betel nut, grains and a sparkler for extra fun. 

Traditional boats in water.

A large boat decorated for the event.

Styrofoam boats.

People floating boats in a local pond.

The remnants of celebration (likely removed after the event as it is in a predetermined spot).

The festival’s significance lies in its ability to unify the Odia population that is relatively less in cumber compared to many other linguistic groups.In recent years the festival also has become a mode of  tourism and revenue generation with the associated event (Bali Jatra) being organized in the city of Katak. Yet the very underlying reason behind this festival, that is the creation and expansion of entrepreneurship using local materials has been lost over the centuries. Continued indifference of the sociopolitical system, lack of pride in self entrepreneurship and the erosion of cultural ethos among youth has reduced the purpose of this festival to mere symbolism of a glorious past, save the little economic turnover that happens in the week of Bali Jatra. It would be a great idea instead to use the festival and its associated events as a way to inculcate the importance and knowledge of local handicrafts and cottage industries among the youth. Odisha is also home to one of the largest migrating population in India as most people belong to the economically lower strata of the society. Though the state has a rich heritage and ample natural resources, the ineffective policies have largely limited the benefits of any large industry in the state to few employees and more to corporates. The revival of the state’s fortunes can only happen when the local, small and medium enterprises are revived and rejuvenated. This can begin with the restriction to  use of boats made from locally available material rather than imported fancy looking boats from China through proper policy changes. The festival may be the small thread where the policy changes of the government can begin to weave a good future of employment and entrepreneurship among the younger generation.

Like all mass events, the boat festival has its impact on the environment.  Since the festival involves the interaction of humans and their utilities with water bodies, this directly concerns changes in water quality after the event. Small ponds and lakes are limited in their pollution while rivers may have accumulation from several sources. Nevertheless the event is a one time affair of limited consequence, which can easily be modified to minimize environmental impact unlike mass celebrations like New year eve fireworks where firecrackers cause massive air pollution across the globe. While traditionally boats made of banana petioles were floated in local water bodies along with flower and earthen lamps, which were organic, or easily added to environment,  recent trends of using plastic, styrofoam or other materials (along with paper) are in vogue. This calls for a relook  at  the way the tradition is carried forward as shrinking water bodies in the rural and urban landscape and increasing pollution become factors in preserving the remaining water bodies. Some environmentally conscious individuals and organizations have been resorting to old methods of using the traditional boats while others have been limiting the activity to smaller sources of artificially created water bodies for the purpose, leading to less environmental pollution which is a welcome step. Also of concern is the use of chemical colors in decorative materials which may easily pollute the water. This festival can thus be a good opportunity to bring awareness among the less  privileged mass about how to safeguard our water bodies from chemical pollution.

Most festivals in the Indian subcontinent have a great significance for the world. The boat festival maybe a lesser known festival but it  may help further the  concept of being one with the global village, highlighting how through interactions  of people in terms of business,  and cultural exchange we can create a better world.

Photos (Courtesy: Sudarshan Sahu):

About the Author:

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research , currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

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