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Odiyas – Pioneers in the Naval History of Eastern Indian Ocean

Now somewhere down the line, Odiya discovered that, this business of sailing along the coast was just too cumbersome and I suppose somebody who went down and that it was much much easier, to in fact rather than try and go along the coast to Southeast Asia, it would be much easier to actually sail down South using the winter monsoon to Sri Lanka and use the currents, the equatorial current, to go across to Sumatra and Java and so on.

So now what happens, it’s quite an interesting change in the orientation of the Indian trade with Southeast Asia, earlier it was through Thailand, Isthamus of Kra to Vietnam, now it’s suddenly reorients going south to Sri Lanka and then swinging across using the current to Java, to Bali, to Sumatra and so on and there also you see this explosion of Indic culture happen at this time. Now what is interesting is while it is all very obvious (in) if you go to Bali or Java etc. enormous amount of Indian influence clearly suggests, shows you how much cultural flow was going back and forth. But very often (in our) in India we tend to assume that this was due to much much later Tamil influence, that is not the case.

The real great pioneers of the eastern Indian Ocean are really the Odiya and it shows through many other things. The slang word to this day, used for Indians in much of Southeast Asia is the world “Kling”. Of course now it has a slightly derogatory meaning, but the word Kling or Kalinga obviously it derived from Kalinga, is the slang word used or the word used, for Indians. The word for West in all Malay languages is Bharath. So you can see that there is clearly memory on the Indonesian side (of) why they have even named their country after India. So this is clear memory on the Southeast Asian side.

Now what is the memory that we have on our side, of that period? Interestingly, it actually lives very much in many many ways which till very recently, even though it’s right in front of our eyes, we didn’t fully appreciate. One of the biggest festivals of Odisha is Karthik Poornima, now what happens in Karthik Poornima? In Karthik Poornima basically when the Poornima happens, you are supposed to get up before sunrise and particularly the women and children are supposed to go to the river or sea or the water body and put a small boat with a Diya into it, into the river or water body. Now what is the significance of this? The significance of this is the following, you see around about Karthik Poornima what happens, the winds change. They stop flowing from south to North and begin blowing from North to South. So what is going on? So basically this is the point at which the Odiya sailors use to go off on their voyage. So that was basically, what are they doing? The family is saying goodbye to the sailors and the merchants, as they are setting sail and about at the same time in Cuttack, even today there is a fair called Bali Yathra, which literally means the journey to Bali.

Just think about this, this is real civilization memory right in front of our face and I have witnessed this myself, couple of years ago I went and witnessed a fascinating event, on the beach in Konark, they in fact do these plays and there is a story of Tapoi those of you who are Odiya may know the story, but it’s a story about a young girl, who was left behind with her sisters-in-law, when her brothers and father go on this long voyage and how her sisters-in-law mistreat her and then she prays to Goddess Manasa and you know the brothers come back just in time before really bad things happen to her and rescue her.

Anyways it’s a folktale, but it’s quite clear that this linkage with foreign travel with maritime trade is very very alive in day-to-day cultural motifs and it is also shown in Konark Temple.

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