Balijatra literally means voyage to Bali. In ancient times Kalinga was a prosperous and mighty feudal republic who established trade with far away kingdoms of Suvarnadipa ( literally means Golden Island)- modern day Bali, Java, Sumatra now in Indonesia , Srilanka, Rome , Africa, Arabian Countries, Japan , China, amongst others.
On the day of Kartik purnima every year (falls on end of October or November every year according to the modern day calendar), the mariners (called sadhabas) set sail for trade in their huge vessels (called Boita). The festival is also called Boita Bandhana. The festival is a testament to the rich maritime legacy of the state.
Kartik purnima is considered as the most auspicious day of the year and the mariners could take advantage of the favourable winds to set sail for their voyage.
In modern age Kartik Purnima is celebrated by the ceremonial floating of paper boats which are lighted by a ceremonial candle or oil lamp in the river. Entire family participates in the festival.
The balijatra has a few other festivals attached to it, like the "Khudurkuni Osha" also known as Bhalkuni Pooja which falls in the month of Aug/Sept, where unmarried girls prayed to Goddess Mangala for the safe journey of their family members.
"Bada Osha" - is linked with the boat making of ancient times.
"Akashdipa"- is celebrated as a rememberance to the artificial light houses along the coast of Odisha during the ancient times.
'Masakapan Ke Tukad' festival of Bali where paper boats are floated in the river in memory of maritime ancestors is reminiscent of Balijatra . Likewise is the festival 'Loykrathong or Loy Brah Prahdip' of Thailand where paper boats are floated in the river in the month of December
Balijatra is celebrated in most parts of Odisha, but is particularly celebrated with great fanfare in Cuttack. The seven day long fair now is held at Qila Padia (Fort field) near Barabati Fort and Gadagadia Ghat overlooking the Mahanadi River, the river point where the ancient mariners set sail on their voyage.
It’s a delight for people of all age group, from the rich traditional handicrafts to lips smacking Odia cuisine everything is available at the numerous stalls set up at the festival.
What to buy while in Balijatra - the ORMAS stall (Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society) - set up by the tribal and villagers Self Help Groups, exhibit a wide range of products from pickles, spices to handicrafts and are known for their quality and affordability is the best bet.
Other than ORMAS, Balijatra ,many vendors set up shops selling products which are slowly vanishing from the household like stone utensils and grinders, earthen cook ware etc.
Apart from the traditional things, Balijatra has an impressive line of shops ranging from bikes, electronic items, furniture, carpets, clothes, toys basically everything under the sun.
Beware of pick pockets.
Due to heavy footfalls particularly on the weekends and holidays, the air is filled with dust. Those who are allergic to dust are advised to adequate protection or best is to visit during the early evening hours when the rush is relatively less.
Food – while Balijatra is a foodie’s delight , it’s highly advisable to do a hygiene check before ordering food from a particular shop.
Taapoi -The festival has a deep rooted legend "Taapoi Bandana".
According to the legend Taapoi was the youngest and only sister to her seven brothers. They belonged to a wealthy family of traders. Being the youngest of the lot, she was pampered and the apple of the eyes of her family. After the death of her parents, the financial condition of the family took a hit. The brothers waited for the maritime season to start, so that they can earn some money and make up for the financial loss. As they were about to start their voyage, they instructed their wives to take care of their beloved sister while they were away.
Taapoi was ill treated by all her sister in laws, except for the youngest one. Traumatised by the sudden ill treatment a disillusioned Taapoi was wondering in the village aimlessly, when a group of girls saw her and spoke with her. On being apprised of her plight, they asked her to pray to Goddess Mangala. Taapoi religiously prayed to the Goddess for the safe return of her brothers. Her prayers were answered and all her seven brothers returned back safely . On being told of their beloved sisters plight, the brothers asked Taapoi to punish her sister in laws. Its believed that she cut the nose of six sister in laws who ill treated her. Since then the Bhalkuni pooja is observed by the unmarried girls for the well being of their brothers.
It is also believed that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu first came to Cuttack on the day of Kartik Purnima and crossed the sand bed (called Bali in Odia) of river Mahanadi en-route to Puri.