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Bali Jatra of Sonepur_Chitrasen Pasayat

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Everybody has been shedding crocodile tears for the heritage locations in Odisha. Forget about individuals. Despite all the hype and hoopla by the Government over the development of heritage sites and tourism spots, most popular destinations of Odisha are gradually losing popularity. Temple town Sonepur is such a place. Like Varanasi and Bhubaneswar, Sonepur is celebrated for its temples. It is known for the river Mahanadi, its water and boat. It is recognized for fish, for Matha, for Malli flower and handloom textile. The declined trend is more likely associated with the intrinsic problems like poor infrastructure, marketing, bad condition of connecting roads and inability to gauge the need of tourists. Even the local people are not showing any concern to protect their heritage. Architectural treasures in Sonepur get vandalized.

Sonepur is situated on the confluence of two rivers namely the Mahanadi and the Tel. It is the headquarter town of Sonepur district, created in 1993. It is situated about 279 kilometers away from the state capital Bhubaneswar via Nayagarh and about 310 kilometers via Redhakhol. Sambalpur is about 80 kilometers, Bolangir is 50 kilometers and Boudh is 50 kilometers away from Sonepur. It is on the National Highway No 224.

One may find persons who do not believe in supernatural power. But, one cannot ignore the fact that, a ‘belief system’ on power superior to human being has always played a vital role in society’s survival and growth since time immemorial. One finds some visual ritual performances in Sonepur through which the idea or message of this power superior to human being is spread to others. During my research work an old lady said, “I wish for my children to visit Sonepur on this occasion and be a part of this tradition. The idea behind my desire is very simple. It is as simple as to bring back my children to the path of spirituality and repose their faith in religious beliefs”.

Sonepur has been the land of Shakti worship since time immemorial. Bali Yatra is an annual festival of Sonepur related to Shakti worship. It is celebrated in the Hindu month of Aswina (September-October) from Amavasya Tithi or Mahalaya (New moon day) to Purnami Tithi (Full moon day). It continues for 16 days. It is a folk religious festival where various nitis are properly planned and prescribed for different Tithis (days). On this occasion, the Barua represents the deity to whom the people worship. He moves from temple to temple and from place to place dancing vigorously with the beating of Dhol, Nisan and Ghant.

The literary meaning of Yatra is traveling. Different deities leave their temples during Bali Yatra and make journey to various places to be worshipped by the people as per the prevailing tradition. This is the reason that this festival is called Yatra. Our subsequent analysis reveals the fact that, Bali or animal sacrifice is the essential part of this ritual. Hence, this festival is known as Bali Yatra. Bali means sacrifice, which is as old as human race. The essence of sacrifice emerges from the belief that, the sacrifice brings gain to the sacrificers and their community. What is sacrificed losses itself by being slain. The loss of the sacrificed victim is somehow seen as bringing gain to the sacrificers. Every year, common people believe it a proud privilege to be linked with this significant traditional event of Sonepur. Nowadays, this yearly Bali Yatra has not only established itself as an accepted folk festival in its native land but also known as one of the appealing and attractive festivals in the neighbouring areas including Sambalpur, Bolangir and Boudh.

Bali Yatra is replete with stories of persons whose work has created and established Bali Yatra as an institution and furthered the growth and popularity of this Yatra. It is said that Bali Yatra started in Sonepur during the reign of Raja Madan Gopal Singh Deo (1635-1660), who was the first Chauhan Raja of Sonepur. He received Sonepur as his Bhai-Bhaga i.e. shares. Accordingly, Sonepur was created as a separate kingdom. When Madan Gopal left Sambalpur for Sonepur, he brought with him PataKhanda, DolaKhanda, PataMaheswari, Bhubaneswari and Bahuta Chhatra and initiated Bali Yatra in Samaleswari, Khambeswari and Sureswari temples of Sonepur. But as per the oral tradition, human sacrifice was prevalent during Bali Yatra in olden days. This reminds us the Meriah sacrifice of Kandhas of this area.

Prior to Chauhan rule in Sonepur, this area was under the Bhanja of Baudh. There were tribal chiefs of Kandha origin in Sonepur region. Sambalpur Raja Balaram Dev (1605-1630) defeated the king Siddha Bhanja of Baudh. As a result, Bhanja surrendered the Sonepur region, which was annexed to Sambalpur kingdom. Subsequently, his second grand-son Madangopal was made the Chief of this newly acquired territory of Sonepur (Senapati and Mahanti, 1971: 62; Sahu, 1985: 14).  In view of this, it may be suggested that, Bali Yatra was prevalent even earlier. However, Madan Gopal was the first Raja of Sonepur where he established a new chain of Chauhan dynasty.

It is pertinent to mention that worship of Khambeswari is believed to be the earliest form of Sakti worship in West Odisha. It is prevalent since fourth century. It is difficult to ascertain the exact time of worship of Khambeswari in Sonepur, which is considered to be an earliest seat of Khambeswari. Nevertheless, according to the noted historian B. C. Majumdar, the wife of Raja Rajsingh Deo had initiated this festival in Sonepur. Raja Rajsingh Deo had married the princess of Khemendi. The newly married wife of the king had brought with her the wooden image of Khambeswari and started the worship of the deity in Sonepur. Subsequently, Raja Rajsingh Deo had constructed the present Khambeswari temple in honour of the deity.

As it has been noted above, these three Sakti Pithas are the main centres of Bali Yatra in Sonepur. Role of Brahmin priest during Bali Yatra is insignificant and unimportant. On the other hand, function and meaning of non-Brahmin priests in this Yatra is noteworthy and worth mentioning. Yatra begins from Samaleswari temple on the night of Amabasya i.e. new moon day in the Hindu month of Aswina (September-October). The deity ascended through two non-Brahmin human beings i.e. Thanapati Barua Dangua and Keunt Barua.

The traditional musical instrument namely Dhol plays an important role. It is the Bharni-Par which is played at the time of ascending the deity through the Barua. The ritual continues amidst the high sounding beat of Dhol, Muhuri and Ghanta. The literary meaning of Bharni is pouring or transferring. Barua is the person who holds the deity in his body. The Barua becomes Bali after the deity appears in his body. In other words, the deity or the unseen celestial power is transferred to the body of Barua. Here the meaning of Bharni-Par lies. It causes to flow the divine power to the human body of the Barua. In other words, the deity ascends through him. When the deity appears in the body of Barua, at that time he loses his sense and acts according to the direction of the unseen force. Here he is addressed as Maa. People worship him (deity in the body of the Barua), ask him various questions to solve their problems and the deity replies them accordingly. It is said that Bali can foretell the past, present and future of the devotees on prayer.

The Brahmin priest hands over the KalaBauti Chhatar to the Keunt Barua, who carries it and leaves the temple. Thereafter, Thanapati Barua leaves the temple. It is believed that, if at that time the Thanapati Barua pulls the Chhatra carried by the Keunt Barua then the death of Keunt Barua is imminent. Such situation also indicates that Sonepur has to fact a lot of tragedies and misfortunes that year. When the Keunt Barua arrives at the palace, the deity leaves his body. Thanapati Barua sits near the Budharaja temple situated in front of the Sonepur palace. Samaleswari ascends him. One or two Buka (he-goat) are offered to the deity (Barua). In other words, the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed there and the blood is offered to him (deity). It is most surprising to see that the Bali drinks the fresh blood of the Buka i.e. he-goat just after its sacrifice. After that, the Barua returns to Samaleswari temple and the deity leaves his body at the twin poles (Juda Khamba) near the temple.

It is not out of place to mention that, the neighbouring districts of Boudh and Phulbani are Kandha dominated areas. Before 1993 i.e. the year of partition, Boudh and Phulbani were under one district administration named Kandhamal i.e. the highland of Kandhas. Kandha people worship a deity called Chhatar Bauti. She is portrayed as a terrified deity of Kandha society. If incited and provoked, she is supposed to be the cause of death in the Kandha community. Use of Kala (Black)-Bauti Chhatar and Dhala (White) Chhatar during Bali Yatra points out that, Bali Yatra is influenced by the tribal culture and tradition in Sonepur.

After the Amabasya ritual, Bali Yatra of Pratipada (first day), Dwitiya Tithi (second day) and Trutiya Tithi (third day) is called Nisa-Bali, because it is performed at mid-night. Nisha implies mid-night. In these three days, Samaleswari ascends the body of the Barua and visits the palace to be worshipped and returns thereafter at mid-night. At this time, a lot of curd is poured over the head of the Barua, who is found in the state of ecstasy.

Chaturthi Tithi is a significant day of Bali Yatra. On this day, the Barua collects sacred soil from the Khaul-Gad, situated near Sureswari temple. This niti is called Khaul-Phita. This Khaul-Gad is located under a tree near the pond of the temple. At night, animal is sacrificed here. This is known as Khaul-Bali. It is a Gupta-Niti of Bali Yatra in Sonepur. It is performed in secret and very confidentially. General public are not allowed to witness this ritual. Only the non-Brahmin priest called Khambeswaria Purohit and Khaul-Phita Dangua are present on the spot when this niti is performed. When the Khaul-Phita Dangua completed the ritual, he shouted three times. Hearing his shout, his wife sacrificed a Boda (he-goat) in her house at once. It is believed that, any deviation in this ritual might cause death of the Barua. However, Barua collects the soil in three earthen Kundi and takes to Sureswari temple. In the temple he becomes senseless and the deity leaves her body. Then animals are sacrificed and Kundi-Puja is performed. It may be noted here that this soil is used during next year’s Bali Yatra.

As it has been mentioned above, rituals are performed at Khaul-Gad. Animals are sacrificed there. Blood sacrifice is the integral part of this ritual. The literary meaning of Gad is hole. Khaul-Gad represents female sex organ. As Linga represents Lord Siva in its uniconic form in various Saiva Pithas Khaul-Gad represents Sakti at this place. In other words, Sakti in this form is worshipped at Khaul-Gad. It is pertinent to mention that, in Sindhekela of Titilagarh sub-division and in Khariar the deity Duarseni is worshipped in such form i.e. hole. Similarly, in Jena-Khal during Chhatar Yatra of Bhawanipatna Manikeswari is worshipped in this form. So, it may be said that, in some parts of West Odisha Sakti worship in the form of Yoni worship is prevalent.

There are numerous myths and legends associated with Khaul-Gad. Sonepur is viewed as the land of Parasuram. The Khaul-Gad under study is supposed to be the Entudisala i.e. birth place of Parasuram. It is also said that, Parasuram killed his mother Renuka on the instruction of his father. Later on, he repented a lot and performed a Yajna. Khaul-Gad is understood to be that YajnaKunda. There is a stone image of Abalokiteswara near the Khaul-Gad. People identify and recognize it with Parasuram. It is also believed that, Parasuram raised his war against the Kshatriyas because they became very unkind and cruel. He fought 21 times and annihilated the Kshatriyas from the earth. Thereafter, he threw all his Pothi in the Khaul-Gad. As per the other oral narrative, Parasuram performed a Yajna here and on his mother’s instruction he installed Sureswari Devi here. So also, this is famous as RenukaPitha.

The ritual of Panchami Tithi is important in the sense that it is known as Ghoda-Panchami. Previously, Sonepur Raja used to perform puja in his Ghoda-sala, because horse was not only an important war instrument but also an imperial mode of transport. So, for the safety as well as growth of this wealth, Sonepur Raja used to offer ritual to the deity on this occasion. As per the tradition, the Barua leaves Samaleswari temple and visits the palace at night. After the ritual of animal sacrifice, the deity i.e. the Barua returns to the temple. The ritual of Sasthi Tithi is also very significant when the Barua goes to the palace at night and the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed. Sodasa Puja begins on Saptami Tithi. Earlier, Bhubaneswari and Bana-Durga were also propitiated by Sonepur Raja. Consequently, as per the tradition the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed at the palace before Bhubaneswari and BanaDurga at night of Saptami Tithi.

Rituals of Astami Tithi are imperative. The ritual of animal sacrifice is performed in the temples of AstaChandi (Sureswari, Narayani, Bhagavati, Samaleswari, Khambeswari, Ramachandi, Dasamati and Bimalakshi) of Sonepur. Also, the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed at ChariNala (SashiSena Tikra, RanaRahu Tikra, HulBhita Tikra and Sulia Tikra), ChariKhala or Gada (ManeiGad, DaneiGad, MahiGad and Kanhei-Gad), Chari-Bata (Khambeswari Bata, Kulipada Bata, Budharaja Bata and Samalei Bata) and Chari-Ghata (Raj Ghat, Gouri Ghat, Kadamb Ghat and Samalei Ghat) of Sonepur. Sonepur Raja used to perform the ritual of animal sacrifice in these places for the safety of Sonepur.

Rituals of Navami Tithi are also very important. Mahakali Devi spends this day with Samaleswari Devi in Samaleswari temple and returns thereafter. Bali Yatra of this night is known as Maha-Bali or Khambeswari Bali. Khambeswari temple is the main attraction of this ritual. At night, Khambeswari Devi ascends the Barua. The ritual of animal sacrifice is performed and then the deity (Barua) visits the town. At the door of almost every household, the owner greets and washes the feet of the deity and offer puja, even animal sacrifice. Then the deity returns to her temple where the Barua loses his sense and the deity leaves his body. After sometime, the deity ascends the Barua again and the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed. There from, the deity goes to the temple of Sureswari where the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed. Then the deity goes to Samaleswari temple where also the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed. From there, the deity goes to the palace where her feet are washed at BaliChaunra and the ritual of animal sacrifice is performed. Then the Barua returns to Samaleswari temple where he becomes senseless and the deity leaves the body of the Barua or Dangua.

On Dasami Tithi, Dasahara Bali is organized in the temple of Samaleswari. This is known as Maidhania Bali because it is performed in the noon. On this day also, Barua visits the palace with the two Kala-Chhatras final ritual is performed on Aswina Purnima i.e. on the full moon day. At night, Puni Bali otherwise known as Jaunli Bali or Nisha Bali is organized. Mahakali is worshipped on this occasion. As per the tradition, the deity i.e. the Barua visits the palace where Podh or Mahisi Bali i.e. buffalo sacrifice was once prevalent.

Once upon a time, the Gauntia i.e. the headman of the village Sakma and his family members were performing the role of Barua on the occasion of Bali Yatra in Sonepur. At that time, he was greeted in the Samaleswari temple and taken to the palace with a grand procession. Traditionally, they were also enjoying free lands of the village Sakma. However, time has changed. People have recorded the religious property in their names. The people of Sakma are also reluctant to perform the role of Barua now-a-days.

In this context Dr. P. K. Chaulia, former Collector of Sonepur once told me that, when he was the Collector of Sonepur in 2005 the traditional Baruas of Sonepur did not want to perform the role of Baruas on the ground that, they did not want to drink the blood of animals anymore. So, they were reluctant to act as Baruas. It clearly shows the sign of change from inside.

However, in course of time, the management of the temples in Sonepur is taken over by the Endowment Commissioner. Limited funds provided by the Government on this occasion are not sufficient to meet the expenditure of such a grand festival. There is no denying the fact that, today it is simply difficult to organize Bali Yatra in Sonepur without public support and their patronage.

Barua is an important character of Bali Yatra in Sonepur. His most impressive feat is perhaps his balancing act. Besides being the hero of Bali Yatra, he is also the mouth-piece of the deity. He represents the deity. In other words, Barua symbolizes the deity. So, Barua though male by sex is addressed as Maa when the deity appears in his body. Thus, different deities in the human form known as Barua or Kalisi come out of the temple once in a year and travel to different places like Sonepur palace and temples of other deities where certain rituals are performed. Notably, Chhatars are also carried with Baruas. Thereafter, the deities in the appearance of Barua return to their respective temples. The literary meaning of Yatra is traveling. For this reason, this annual festival is called Bali Yatra.

Once, Buddhism spread in this area. The Queen of Sonepur Lakshmikara propounded SahajaYana and popularized this stream of Buddhism in this area during ninth century. She is regarded as one of the traditional 84 Siddhas of India. Subsequently, during the Hindu revival movement Saivism with Saktism flourished in medieval period. Perhaps, Tantrik Buddhism and Tantrik Saivism with Saktism have influenced the activities of Baruas of Bali Yatra of Sonepur. Means i.e. Sadhana of doing this are called Tantras. By pronouncing the right formula i.e. Mantra in the correct manner or by drawing the correct magical symbol i.e. Yantra, one may force the deity or superior power to appear in his body.

It appears that, the Barua of Bali Yatra hypnotizes himself. It appears to be a magical mysticism. For some, this is a higher form of Yoga, when the Barua is completely anaesthetized. It is believed that, Bharni Paar of Dhol and devotional songs with a tantric overtone in Malashree Rag on this occasion takes the Barua from a state of consciousness to the state of meditation and finally that of Samadhi. Here lies the meaning of the word ‘Bharni Paar’ of Dhol. ‘Bharni Paar’ is a specific beat of Dhol (drum) which pours or transfers the deity into the human body i.e. Barua. The chorus creates a breathtaking and thrilling sensation among the devotees who congregate from different areas. But it had generated a sense of fear in me.

It is interesting how the elite of the society mock and scorn the Bali Yatra tradition, because it does not fall inside their acceptance parameters. This is not to eulogize and praise Bali Yatra as the best form of ritual dance. Or even to criticize that, it is a cruel and heartless form of ritual practice. This is to say that, Bali Yatra is as good as a ritual dance incorporated with the traditional ideas of Tantra, Mantra and Yantra when the Barua does not feel any pain and physical exhaustion during his performance.

Hundreds of people assemble near the Sureswari, Khambeswari and Samaleswari temples and near the Sonepur palace on different events of Bali Yatra and witness this rich folk festival of Sonepur. In fact, the entire Sonepur feels the vibration of Bali Yatra right from the beginning of Aswina. Notably, Sureswari is the reigning deity of Sonepur and Samaleswari is the presiding deity of Sambalpur. Khambeswari is the most popular deity of neighbouring Kalahandi, Boudh and Phulbani. Their participation in Bali Yatra indicates that since long, Bali Yatra has not only entertained the people of these areas but also acted as an emotional bond of unity among them. It is an instrument of social harmony in a bigger and larger society. Bali Yatra creates an environment by facilitating people of all caste and tribe to develop emotional attachment. It creates a greater place to work and foster better social awareness.

It is said that, once upon a time human sacrifice was prevalent during Bali Yatra. As per the tradition, when the ex-state was under the tribal rulers human blood was offered to the deity. Every year, the Barua sacrificed during Bali Yatra. It reminds us the famous Meriah sacrifice a long time ago prevalent among the Kandhas of neighbouring areas. As per the Meriah custom, the Kandhas never sacrificed a Kandha. They used to kidnap a non-Kandha boy from the plains. The boy lived in the Kandha village as a very honoured guest. He used to get plenty of wine, whatever food he wanted and even had the company of any Kandha girl he required. Naturally, he did not try to run away from the place. On the day of the sacrifice he was so drunk that he was completely anaesthetized. Portions of his body could be cut away without feeling any pain.

Time has changed. In due course of time, severe form of blood sacrifice i.e. human sacrifice has been stopped and animal sacrifice has been replaced. It is believed that this transformation has come during the British Raj when the practice of Meriah sacrifice i.e. human sacrifice was ruthlessly suppressed and curbed by John Campbell during December 1837 and January 1842 in the adjacent Boudh-Kondhmal areas. In order to expedite the suppression of human sacrifice, the Governor General in Council also decided to establish a cohesive agency including all Kandha areas under an agent directly responsible to the Central Government. It was known as Meriah Agency which was established in July 1845. Captain S. C. Macpherson was the first Agent for the Meriah Agency, who took over the charges in December 1845.

As mentioned earlier, the traditional Baruas of Bali Jatra have also expressed their dissatisfaction over this bloody ritual. Even once a group of activists campaigned against animal sacrifice during Bali Yatra. These people believe that, many people are mute spectators to this bleeding ritual practice. They think that, even the social organizations and Government agencies working against such rituals do not seem to bother. So, conscious citizens should take up this issue. But wait, let us stop here and think. In every Sakti Pitha it is happening in the month of Aswina and Chaitra. This happens every day simply because these innocent creatures are not claiming their right to live. They do not have voice and strength to do so.

Let us, however, not wonder who is innocent and who is guilty, for the law professes to be doing that already. Let us not pronounce Bali Yatra is a sick tradition because it makes little sense and brings us no closer to any concrete conclusion at the end of it. What we want to say is how naked this tradition is in front of us. It is truthfully a real show, a reality show for the masses. We cannot help it, simply because it is an essential ingredient of human nature and, we believe, at least in this case, that we are human. We are physically superior to these animals and they are helpless even to save their lives. Minus this part of animal sacrifice, every thing seems to be all right.

During my research trip to Sonepur on the occasion of Bali Jatra one Pasrawali told me, “Festival is for celebrations, not only spiritually but also materially. It is the time to enjoy things and acquire things. There is no denying that, the intensity of celebration is unparalleled particularly during Bali Jatra in Sonepur. What you are talking about ‘commercialization’ is absolutely correct. But, it is not a new phenomenon; it was there earlier too. We cannot say that, this is only the age of ‘commercialization’. Yes, such event always and certainly brings me an opportunity to earn more”.

One of the great disasters of post independent India has been the absence of royal patronage to Bali Yatra. However, there is no denying the fact that, common people extend their patronage and support this festival once a year. Unquestionably, the inheritance of celebrating Bali Yatra and making this festival more popular are the sacred responsibilities of the general people of Sonepur at large. Bali Yatra is organized under the guidance of the District Administration. The number of animal sacrifice has been reduced to a great extent. Common people have left no stone unturned to achieve this feet. They have been devoting themselves to keep this century long tradition alive.

It is pertinent to mention that, Sonepur is a temple town just like Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha. The Kosalanandam Kavya, a work of seventeenth century declares Sonepur as another Varanasi with its numerous sacred shrines of Siva and Parbati. Regrettably, the spirit of heritage tourism has not reached to Sonepur till date. Sonepur is finding it tough to lure travelers partly due to accommodation problem. However, if one wants to take family on a holiday, please spend some quality time while traveling in this place.


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Pasayat, C. (2008), “Bali Jatra” (in Oriya), Souvenir, Lok-Mahotsav-2008, Sambalpur: District Council of Culture.

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