A Confluence of Performing Arts, Puranic Legends and Pure Spiritualism
Dr. Dadhibaman Mishra
Rarely has there been such a colourful vision of an open air festival(Yatra) in any other part of the country, comparable to Dhanu Yatra or the Festival of Bow in terms of length of tenure, emotional as well as devotional participation of masses, theatrical performances and other performing arts on about a dozen of stages based on Puranic legends of Vishnuite denomination with substratum of spiritualism, as of Bargarh town located in the western region of Odisha state. Starting its career in the post independent year 1948, it has grown luxuriantly like a banyan tree with hundreds of offshoots coming down the years and, along the continuum of time it has reached its noontide, nay, perfect mature age of 66 years with ramifications beyond description and importantly, the celebration has spread in a short time in recent years to many places of adjacent districts of Balangir and Sonepur. Those of Chichinda of Bargarh, Athgaon of Balangir, Ulunda and Bagbar of Sonepur etc. have shown excellence. Thus, Bargarh’s festival has become the role model and the pioneer of its kind for other regions.
Dhanu Yatra comprises two meaningful words:- Dhanu and Yatra. Dhanu meaning Bow, a classical or traditional weapon of our country of first rate importance and efficacy, which had been commonly used by warriors. Archery has been the symbol of bravery, chivalry and heroism for which a separate discipline of text or learning had been developed and systematised in India since very early date. It attained the celebrity or stature of a Veda called Dhanurveda. It had been the receptacle of various kinds of formulae (mantra) each one having the power or efficacy of a potent force of the particular god or things beginning from gods like Brahma, Vishnu, Pashupati, Kala, Indra, Agni, Varuna etc. to lower classes of animate and inanimate thing like snake, hill, tree, stone, lightening etc.
We have heard of such famous bows like Lord Rama’s Kodanda, Lord Krishna’s Saranga, Pandava Arjuna’s Gandiva, Ekalavya’s bow(name not known), Lord Siva’s Pashupata etc. In fact, the piece of bamboo, of which the bow is made, is itself not potent, it acquired a tremendous power of that force spoken above when the arrow is pierced with chanting or remembering the formulae (mantra) representing that. The formula would play its role best when the archer’s concentration becomes pinpointed amidst the war field. The teachers of archery like Drona of the Mahabharata, Vishwamitra of the Ramayana etc. tested the eligibility of the disciple (shishya) before imparting the hidden formulae. The bala and ativala of Viswamitra were two such mantras meant for use of the most efficient archers. Those were missiles capable of causing havoc. He gave those away to Lord Rama to save Aryavartta from the scourge of the Raksasa Ravana of Lanka and establish righteousness (Dharma). Likewise, Drona chose Arjuna and trained him to become the greatest archer to keep righteousness established in Kuru- Aryavartta. Bow had been a means of both destruction as well as establishment (conservation) of Dharma. The saint-king Janaka had obtained Shiva-Dhanu which became a means for uniting the embodiments of Bhakti (Sita) and Jnana(Rama) for welfare of mankind. Arjuna won Draupadi in a Svayambara (Ceremony of chosing husband) by piercing an arrow through a rotating discus to the eye of a fish on a post while looking downwards. Rama made Parasurama deprived of his greatness by touching the latter’s bow. Arjuna earned the renown of Savyasachin by shooting arrows in his left hand. Ksatriyas in general and other castes in particular learnt Dhanurvidya and many of them excelled and obtained immeasurable power. Such was the significance of Dhanu in Indian martial ethos. Of course, besides other criteria of like physical prowess, desire to learn, concentration-maintenance; humility, devotion to the preceptor and use of weapon for right cause made the most of a real archer.
We have known violation of the ethics of Dhanurvidya in many cases as well. The Mahabharata describes that Asvatthama shot Brahmastra (bow with mantra symbolizing Brahma) made from a kind of grass, which fell on the womb of Uttara, the wife of Abhimanyu and the foetus came out dead. He was restored to life by Lord Krishna. He was Parikshita, the last king of Dvapara and the first king of Kali Age. Kripa, Drona, Bhishma and Karna etc. were great archers of the Kuruksetra war. We have further heard of aiming at the target by any sound associated with it and shooting at it, e.g., king Dasaratha’s killing Shravan Kumar described in the Ramayana.
A hero’s worth and stature in those days had been evaluated in terms of his capability of defeating the numbers of archers by means of his bow.
Eko dasha sahasrani yoddhayet yastu dhanvinam I
astra sastra pravinascha maharatha iti smritah II
Amitan yoddhayet yastu samproktoti rathistu sah I
Rathi chaikan yo yoddha tanmyunordhi rathi matah II
(The adept in war, who can alone fight with ten thousand archers is called Maharathi. One who can fight with innumerable soldiers is called Atirathi One who fights with forces inferior to his own is called Arddharathi.)
Yatra is usually taken as a festival of the masses, an assemblage of people for some purpose like entertainment, religion, learning, observing some event etc. Several kinds of yatras are organized throughout the length and breadth of the country in different times and occasions of the year. The Sonepur mela of Bihar or those of Ajmer, Bikaner, Pushkar of Rajasthan, Onam of Kerala, Bihu of Assam, Pongal of Andhra, Ratha Yatra of Puri and importantly, Kumbha mela are in the genre of Yatra. People congregate there by their lakhs, millions, thousands from different parts of the country or states or from the same region in the best of their apparel and mindset, enjoy to their hearts content. Even in small areas yatras like Baliyatra of Cuttack, Sitalshashthi of Sambalpur etc. the presence of large crowds, beating of various kinds of musical instruments, exhibition of various types of dances and dramas and cultural functions are common. This has been the tradition in our country. Irrespective of castes, colour, creed, sex and age people have been participating in all such festivals.
Before going to legends and genesis of Dhanu Yatra, we ought to know what does Dhanu and Yatra stand for in spiritual love. Dhanu denotes two things – bow and a constellation of the sky. (one of the twelve rashi like Mesha, Vrisha, Mithuna etc.)
In the Upanishad, Dhanu – which ordinarily means a piece of bamboo, a string and an arrow used in war to achieve victory – has been taken in the same way but in a different connotation.
Pranabo Dhanuh Sharah-Atma I
Brahma tat-lakshya muchsate II
Apramattena beddhavyam I
Sharavat tanmano bhavet II
That is, Pranava or Om is the bow, Atman is the arrow and the Brahman is the target or goal. The arrow is to be set and pierced in single-pointed concentration towards Brahman to achieve Him.
It may explained that the human body has been taken as the shape and symbol of Pranava or Brahma or Om. (Figure enclosed). Atma which is symbol of mana (mind-stuff) is the arrow. That mind should concentrate at the target to achieve Him. Succinctly, realise Brahma, which you are but you know not, in thyself by rapt concentration towards Brahma.
In Indian spiritual lore, Pinda – Brahmanda or microcosm – macrocosm synchronism has been spoken as the quintessence of all spiritual practices and learning and, the realization of the identity of the two here and now is the summom bonum of the earthly existence of the human being. The body (bow) through the single-pointed concentration of the mind (Atma) should target at, and, achieve the goal Brahma. That is what Dhanu, the weapon stands for, We may remember the prayer:
Ratnakara-taba-griham Grihini cha Padma /
Deyam Kim-asti bhabate Purushottamaya //
Abhirabamanayana hrita manasaya /
Dattam mano Yadupate Tumidam grihana II
It may be translated as:
Thy abode is the ocean, the mine of gems. Thy consort is Padma(Lakshmi) What can I give Thou, Purusottama? Thou have no-mind which has been stolen by the milk-maidens (of Gopa), So oh Yadupate (Krishna), Thou accept my mind which I offer.
The other equivalent of Dhanu is one of the twelve constellations (rashi) acquires a meaning when the sun is ascendant on it, i.e., when the sun moves from Vrischika constellation to Dhanu (Sagitarus). The sun’s passage from Mesha rashi to Mina rashi. i.e. movement over all the twelve is reckoned as one solar year (saura – varsha) and movement from one to the other is called solar month (saura masa). The total number of days in Saura masa is always not the same, i.e., 30 days it is between 29 to 32 and that of the year is 365 days, 15 ghatika or danda (24 minutes), 31 palas (24 seconds) and 30 vipalas (1/60th of pala). The solar month is named after the particular constellation at which the sun arrives at the time. It is called Samkranti (sun’s entry into a rashi). While recokoning it through the arrival of the Moon (Chandra – masa) according to tithi (pratipada to Amavasya or Purnima) we count 1 to 29 and 30,31,32 of the cases of solar month are not often referred to. The lunar months are named after 12 of the 27 Nakshatras – namely, Chitra, Visakha, Jeystha, Asadha etc.
There is equivalence or correspondence between the lunar month of Pausha and the solar month of Dhanu although the former may come a few days earlier or later than the latter but they overlap on maximum days.
In another way, Dhanu month marks the culmination or ending of six previous movements on constellations of the Sun’s movement in the southern hemisphere of the earth – globe known as Daksinayana when auspicious ceremines are usually not observed. It is considered ashubha – kala. The movement in northern hemisphere or Uttarayana comes when the sun comes to Makara rashi from Dhanu rashi. Thus Dhanu month is the demarcating line of the solar year’s two halves. Dhanu marks the end of misery, wickedness, sorrow and unrighteousness while Makara ushers in joyful days, love, peace, non-violence and virtuous acts. Dhanu leads to the threshold of Makara which awaits one to begin things with new hopes, bright and vibrant time and prevalence of Dharma.
Krishna – Kamsa Synchronism:
The two central figures or personages of Dhanu Yatra are Krishna and Kamsa about whom allusions are found in the Epics and the Puranas. The lay people have accepted them as living in the Age of Dvapara. Kamsa was the tyrant – king of Mathura, he became king dethroning his father Ugrasena, heard the divine prophecy that his nephew, the yet to be born eighth child of his sister Devaki and brother-in-law Vasudeva would kill him, he imprisoned them and unleashed a reign of terror killing all new born children of Mathura including the first seven children of Devaki and Vasudeva. He did his best to kill the eighth child by sending demons and demoness in disguise to Gopa when the king heard that he was growing up in Gopapura lying opposite to Mathura. When all his attempts failed, he sent an emissary – a noble–hearted, Lord devoted, cruelty free man (Akrura) to Gopa with an invitation to king Nanda of Gopapura to send his two sons, viz, Krishna (the eighth child) and Rama or Balarama to Mathura on the occasion of Dhanu Yatra.
Dhanu Yatra was a colourful extravaganza (Ranga sabha) to which kings and peoples of different countries thronged to enjoy the events and performances which include dance, drama, musical performances, acrobatics, wrestling, boxing, archery etc. A grand pavilion for royal auditorium was a conspicuous feature. Most significant and important, however, was the inventory of the Bow (Dhanu ghara). The Bhagavata of Jagannath Dasa describes the Dhanu ghara in as many as forty – four stanzas (Skanda X, part – I, Gopa lila, Canto 45). It may be given succinctly as follows:
Where is Dhanu ghara, enquired Krishna. Let us see it. The king (Kamsa) has summoned us here to behold the Bow. He (Krishna) ordered the royal retinue accompanying him to take them there. The people of Mathura started going ahead of Krishna who followed them and thus came to Dhanu ghara.
The house preserving Dhanu was gorgeously decorated with flags and banners, arches studded with precious gem stones, with paintings and drawings of various hues.
A dazzling, multi-hued shamiana was over the Bow which was leaning against seven exquisitely decorated pillars. Two golden bells (ghantas) – one at each end of the bow and garlands of gem stones were hanging from it. It looked as resplendent as the bow of Indra. Trumpets and drums were making uproarious sound. The bow itself was a veritable inventory of wealth.
Rama (Balarama) and Krishna were denied entry into the bow-house by the royal guards, who used abusive language also. Importantly, Krishna told that the king (Kamsa) has brought us for we two and the two must see it. The people who were accompanying surrounded the guards in anger and broke their arms and threw away.
Krishna forced his entry into the bow – house and lifted the bow in his left hand. He forced the string to the other end of the bow by pulling it upto his ear. Within a twinkle of eye, the bow was broken into two pieces with great sound. The pride of Kamsa was razed to the ground.
Thus, Dhanu Yatra was an integral part of the Ranga Sabha. It appears to have been celebrated through a number of days. The present Yatra of Bargarh thus appears to be an imitation of the one once celebrated in Mathura by Kamsa with the prime intention of killing Krishna-Balarama who were, on their part, also had the intention of killing Kamsa. That was the very purpose of the colourful festival.
Etymology of Krishna and Kamsa
Whether the two personages were historical or legendary characters has been a matter of controversy. That does not matter, but the existence and continuance of such toponyms as Mathura, Brindaban, Gopa, Nandagaon, Barsana, the Yamuna river are the mute evidences. The vestiges under waters of Dwaraka, if these can be associated with Krishna, are archaeological proof. The inscriptions of Indo-Greek (Yavana) kings are witnesses. The adoption of Vasudeva Krishna as the leader of the powerful Vrishni tribe of Mathura region by historians like H.C. Ray Chaudhuri and importantly, the adoption of vasudeva as gooby Indo-Greek kings, like Sodasa who built Salagrama Vatika which was in present Mathura Krishna Janmabhumi temple complex, the references in Puranas like Harivamsa, Bhagavat and others go a long way to testify that once upon a time in the days of yore Lord Krishna’s feet had trodden and sanctified Bharatavarsha, the land of virtues (Punya Bhumi).
Dr. A.B. Keith has shown skepticism about historical value of Purana and other religious texts. He says about “naïve credulity” of events and persons. Against his view, it may be said “It is absurd to suppose that fiction completely ousted truth”. The epigraphic records of Satavahanas, Vakatakas, Guptas etc. speak about different names of Krishna. Dr. Vincent Smith after a lot of observation says “modern European Writers have been inclined to disparage unduly the authority of the Puranic lists, but closer study finds in them much genuine and valuable historical tradition”.
Some scholars reject the identification of Krishna of the Mahabharata and the Puranas with a historical figure named Krishna of Chhandogya Upanishad (III, 17). Both the Krishna took the metronymic, Devakiputra. The historical Krishna of the Upanishads belonged to Angirasa family or was a disciple of Guru Ghora Angirasa (of Angirasa Smriti) Santi Parva (335.19). However, in Vishnu Purana Sandipani was his teacher. The Harivamsha Purana (Vishnu Parva, 33.4 ff) makes a significant reference that Krishna was a Shruti-dhara (custodian of Shruti or Veda, i.e. well conversed in Vedic lore). It tallies with Gita’s statement “yada yada hi Dharmasya…………” Most important, however, was the acceptance of Krishna and his childhood pranks by the people which has been in transmission in people’s memory lane down the generations. In fact, it was indelible. Krishna temples are spread over the nook and cranny of this holy land. And if people of Bargarh and other places taking a cue from it they have been organising Dhanu Yatra, what was there to be astonished? The credit of keeping the reminiscenes of Krishna through a mass festival annually speaks high of the Krishna consciousness of the people of Bargarh. They remind people of other parts of Odisha and the country as well as beyond the country that the Lord Krishna appears in Veritable human form to resuscitate Dharma (righteousness) whenever it was in peril. That is a great message of Bargarh to the humankind.
Etymology of Krishna and Kamsa
Even if Krishna or Kamsa were not historical figures, it does not in any way belittle the significance of the episodes of their life. For the etymology is so appropriate that it speaks volumes about Indian spirituality and continues to impress an average Indian’s mind.
Krishna is derived from Krish root (dhatu) which means to attract, i.e. He attracts people towards him. He wants people to be oblivious of earthly desires and attachments (Visaya) and come to attain self (Sri Krishna Paramatma Devata) in the Geeta.
Ayam Atma paranandah parapremaspada tvata
(This Atma is the abode or refuge of supreme bliss)
Lord Krishna is the embodiment of Sat-Chit-Ananda. Further ‘Krish’ is symbolic of Pravritti (Inspiration) or Sat or Eternal Existence and ‘na’ denotes bliss (ananda) or Nivritti (restraint). The combination of the two makes Krishna, the Paramananda. Further in the Mahabharata Krishna is described as
‘Krish’ bhuvacaka sabda ‘na’scha nivrittivachaka
Tayorekyam Param Brahma Krishna ityabhidhiyate //
(‘Krish’ refers to ‘bhu’ or earth i.e. existence and ‘na’ refers to bliss. Both are integrally related to each other and combinedly those become Krishna- the Supreme Lord).
Devaki Paramananda Krishnam Vande Jagatguru
Kamsa – this word is derived from the root (dhatu) Kam which means desire or Kamana. It denotes all the attributes or properties enumerated in the Geeta (XVI, 4):
Thus, Kamsa was the personification of all such vices pride, vanity, anger egotism, ignorance etc. as we know him from the Puranas. He has also been termed as Asura while those qualities are Asuri-sampad. Since the beginning of the creation, there has been constant fighting between the Demons are the gods, the Evil and the Good. The Demons create havocs for sometime but ultimately overcome by the gods. That has been the Eternal Principle which is vouchsafed by Krishna-Kamsa synchronism on the spiritual plane.
Present day Dhanu Yatra is, in fact, conducted in two open-air theatres – the big one is Bargarh town which means a regal or imperial and extravagantly gorgeous spendour of Mathura Kataka, the capital metropolis of Kamsa and, the other a rustic, treeful, quiet and exquisitely serene and beautiful Gopapura i.e. Ambapali on the bank of the Jira which serves as the Yamuna river. The Vrindabana or Pasture of the cows of the milk-boysis a grove in the proximity of the village. The contrast is almost similar of Mathura and Gopa of Uttar Pradesh if imagined in the mind’s eye. For a short period, the trodden ground of joy was vibrant with the songs and sounds of the cowherd boys, the mellowing of the cows the plays and pranks of Krishna, exuberance of joyful complaints to Mother Yashoda by the milk-women (Gopi). Indeed, it becomes a melodrama with funny characters, incredulous episodes and orchestral music and dance performances. Amidst such environ one is sure to forget his self and become an essential cog of the natural machine which rolls over Gopa.
Agony and melancholy comes in slow and silent steps when the king of Gopa is asked by the king of Mathura Kamsa to send his two sons to Mathura for the Dhanu Yatra. For Gopa, Gopalas, Gopis and Vrindabana it is a bolt from the blue. The departure of the chariot carrying Krishna and Balarama was the saddest event. Wailing, crying, sobbing and losing sense of the Gopa women tear the heart of the cruelest onlooker. The atmosphere gets surcharged with the chanting and addressing the name of Krishna. A forlorn, desolate look and a moribund state descends from nowhere.
On the contrary, Mathura exasperated with terrors and atrocities of Kamsa suddenly becomes vibrant with the news of coming of the Lord. For everyone knows that he is the savior. Every household decorates itself like new bride laden with heavy dose of ornamentation with waterful jar, coconut and mango leaves garlanding the door-jamb of threshold. The colourful festival has been going on with all regal perphernelia in various stages of performers. The arrival of Krishna adds an enriching and enthralling look to the beautiful metropolis. It is the omen, it appears, of a big change. The city is agog amidst the various kinds of dramas, dances, classical and local vocal and instrumental music reverberating the atmosphere, the rounds of the king on the howda of the elephant passing whimsical order on persons who he comes across as and when he liked for any action. The seer, the scene and the sense join to make the self forget itself in such an atmosphere, to be one with the Lord Krishna – the epitome of love, the refuge of the devoted and the modus operandi of salvation. They feel spring has arrived to dispel the winter. Kamsa’s countdown of days has begun.
Among other important names – ‘Nanda’, the foster- father of Krishna derives from ‘Nand’ root means ‘Provider of joy’, Yashoda(Yashah dadatiya) ‘who provide fame and importantly, Gopa-Gopi-Gopal are derivations from ‘gup’ root to keep something hidden or tending i.e. controlling or taking care of cows or sense-organs. Every name has a pleasant, meaningful and spiritual aspect – related with Krishna- meaning bless, joy, happiness, righteousness and the like which converged in a single personage or a focal point called Krishna or Gopala or Vasudeva or Nandanandana or Kamsari or Vakari or Hrishikesha. The greatness of Krishna is contributed or substantiated or enriched by all those factors for the weal of all and the universe. May we seeing like king Parikshit.
May I have love for the limitless
Lord and the company of the great
who have taken resort to Him;
whatever birth I take, let me have
good will towards every creature
(Bhagavata, I, xix, 16)
or like Dhruva should we sing.
Obeisance unto Thou Supreme
Being who kindle with Thine
Power mine power of speech
that was dormant, also all
my sense organs-hands, feet,
cars, skin and my life-breath.
(Bhagavata, ix, 10)
Dhanu Yatra has been launched or grown out of performing Arts or their combination – music, dance, drama, dialogue and plays. Of course, all those do not conform to rules rigidly, done extempore based primarily on facts or meters of songs of the Harivamsa or Bhagavata Purana or Mathura-Mangala or Rasakallola. Sometimes some dialogues have been prepared by the actors or his associates or some learned men. Significantly, the Arts have not been imitating or copying popular Hindi- film songs and have kept indigenous folk tradition continued, though certain aspects have been moulded or remoulded keeping abreast of time. In that way, those were a combination of both classicism or traditionalism and modernism. The main purpose has been providing entertainment to the masses through everything devotional over the entire open landscape of about 4kms of Ambapali – Bargarh. Rustic and urban cultures have been amalgamated to make an undercurrent of devotion flow within and urban decency outside. It was, in fact, peculiar to Dhanu Yatra. Although, as said in an line above, rigidity has been forsaken, decency and decorum have been maintained.
The parameters of rituals have been observed scrupulously. The auspicious beginning (Mangalacharanam or Nandi) has been the invocation and worship of the Divine Mother Samalesvari by king Ugrasena, Kamsa’s father. A procession has been taken in streets of Bargarh which reaches the rendezvous where starts the drama on the stage.
“Tatra purva ranga sabha-puja tat param”
According to Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra Rangasthala (place of dramatic performance) should be worshipped. It is as good as a sacrifice (Yajna). Without that, dramaturgy fails and the performers and their patrons get birth as animals and birds (tiryag-yoni) (Canto 1, 120-125). The Natya-griha is taken as being constructed by Visvakarman with all its attributes and supposed to be guarded by gods, each one of whom takes care of one thing. The Dik-palas, each one of them, takes care of each direction (Canto 1-81-86)
However, each piece of the drama staged on different stage is of unique character – no written script, no formal director, no fixed dramatis personae and, above all, no preset dramaturgy, And yet, every piece is a piece of coup d’e theatre. The most remarkable is the dress, deportment and dialogue of the central character Kamsa who is the crowd- pulling charisma. The role has passed through many persons – the largest number of times is twenty-three played by Gopal Sahu, followed by fifteen times of Late Yudhisthir Satpathy to a one year and one day. In the earlier days, the Kamsa of other days did not like to be dead on the last day. So a scare –crow of cloth or a cloth-toy representing Kamsa was made to fall on the ground.and beaten severely. A man named Kunduru was taken to cremation ground in place of Kamsa character. In recent years, Kamsa character has to pass through a selection process when a few apply for it. The 11-day tenure of Dhanu Yatra comes to an end on the full moon day of the month of Pausa with the killing of Kamsa by Krishna. Of late, since last two to three years, for his misdeeds, atrocities and tyrannical rule – for the sins he incurred during his reign – he goes to Jagannath Puri to take a dip in the sea and apologize to Lord Jagannath and His Holiness Jagadguru Shankaracharya. This is an example of synthesis of the old and the modern ethos. We may remember the first one – Bundi Rath, then Bhimsena Tripathy followed by Yudhisthir Satpathy.
The other important character whose actions, of course, remain mostly confined to Gopa (Ambapali) has been Lord Krishna. Properly speaking, the entire Yatra centres round Him. The religious sentiments, devotional involvement and entertainment in beholding his pranks, plays, miraculous feats are the main themes, though of late Kamsa has become the chief attraction. That is because the role of Krishna is done by a boy of less than teen age who cannot act or speak dialogue like his opponent in his 40’s or 50’s.
Among other characters, mention may be made of Akrura the emissary of Kamsa to Gopa on the eve of the Yatra. Though he has a short role, of bringing Krishna and Balarama to Mathura, yet it is significant. A vile less, simple, noble man could not be denied of sending the two with him by the people in general or Nanda- Yashoda in particular. The people of Gopa knew the protocol. So all of them entreated Krishna not to desert them, Akrura not to take away their Krishna. Such polite was the general attitude of cowherd-dwellers of Gopa and certainly this has a bearing on their culture, not pro hac vice. From a published account, by Prafulla Birtia the present scholar learnt that late Sri Hareikrishna Pujari and Sri Duaru Birtia, with who the scholar had an interaction on 18NOV2014 and Sri Lalit Kumar Panda who has been doing the role from 1994 till date have done many times. The first three were late Prahallad Kar, Bhimsen Tripathy and Sadasiva Sarangi.
Duti Keuten’s role as Putana has been legendary. Looking alike an imagined Putana with black hue, protruded belly, huge and heavy breasts, loud and hoarse voice befitting a demon. She, it is told in the puranic account, embalmed her breast nipples with deadly poision and came to breastfeed Krishna. It did not work on Krishna who on his part sucked both her milk and blood. A befitting punishment was meted out to a ghastly woman with the intention of killing a baby. Astonishingly, some contemporary people say that though she had to do such a vile act under Royal orders, she had the bosom of a Mother. In her seventies, people have known secretion of milk from her breasts. She died on the same full moon day of Pausha.
There will be no end if each character is spoken about even succinctly and it will make a volume. Desisting from it, it may be summed up that all the numerous characters are unique in their own ways and perform in the best possible manner. Each Gopal, Gopi and even the onlookers of Gopa and Mathura are whole hearted participants in the stage covering a landscape of 3-4kms. All of us are actors. Not only we the good people-docile and elite like Ugrasena Vasudeva, Royal emissary Akrura, the scent-providing maid servent Kubja but also demons, animals like bulls and elephants(Kubalaya); birds like Crane(Bakasura) etc. and hills like the Govardhan, snakes like Kaliya, bullock carts like Shakatasura etc. have assumed living forms in the great play(Mahat-Krishna-Leela) of the Lord.
Dhanu Yatra has begun apparently from plays staged in village clearings or streets under open sky with indigenous local instruments of which “Sanchar”, a kind of music performance with an earthen drum with a protruded middle part and two faces called “Chhayan” and “Dhayan”. It is a kind of “mridangam”. It follows a series of musical steps with syllables one leading to the other, an invocation to Mahaprabhu Chaitanya or Gouranga. The steps are serially ‘adighata’, ‘murchhana’, ‘pralambha’, ‘udyama’, ‘lagana’, ‘ghota sanchara’ in a canonical procedure whose published text is not known but performances runs down from generation to generation. Then begins the songs based on, or related to, the episodes of the lives of Rama and Krishna. The survival of it has been languishing without patronage but Dhanu Yatra has been its receptacle and it keeps the audience spell bound from evening to midnight with enchanting beats of the percussive instrument, melodious high-tone singing, the jingling sound of ‘ghungru’ of the ankles of the singer (vahak) and colourful costume. Lakshapati Dash Gauntia was a patron. He used to recite Krishna’s play songs from a palm-leaf manuscript. Dhanu Yatra’s integral relation with play and play’s musical manifestation through ‘sanchar’ is a landmark.
Other indigenous musical instruments are the prominent five of west Odisha, namely, dhol, nishan, muhuri, tasa and timkidi. Western and modern music have not been in vogue. So also local musico-dance forms of the sub-region of west Odisha – Sambalpuri, Jaiphula, Rasarkeli, Mailajada, Dalkhai, Das Kathia, Pala, Krishnaguru, Ghumra, Parbha, Jhumer, Odishi and chhau. Of late, foreign danseuses have been entertaining with their performances.
If the people of Ambapali are all actors, if all groves are the play grounds, if all music and dance and drama are the heart and soul – the ‘rasas’ are life-force of entertainment, laughter (hasya), disdain (bibhatsa) sweet (Madhura), erotic (shringar) – etc the entire gamut of Dhanu Yatra is full of all varieties of rasa – for the Lord Krishna Himself is ‘Rasaraja’ (the king of all rasas). That is why the yatra has become one of rasas, not at all ‘nirasa’, i.e. dry, monotonous, drab or boring at any time or in any event.
Colour is the outer beauty and aesthetic sense is the force of the mindset of the yatra. Whether it is the pavilion of the Rang Mahal or colour of the costumes of the personages prescribed in Puranas or the decoration of the cart of Akrura or, importantly the fresco paintings on every wall of the houses of Ambapali depicting the plays and pranks of Krishna with quotes from devotional songs – all these make the entire scenario a replica of Gopa in the hands of make-up artists, decorators, painters, musicians. Similarly lavishly decorated Bargarh presents itself as the queen or an empress bedecked in ornaments of baffling description – all displaying a regal site coloured with an urbaneness with Krishna consciousness rising from the innermost recesses of bosoms which have been awaiting the arrival of the Puissant Force in the human form of the Krishna to save them from the scourge of tyranny, terror and unrighteousness.
Genesis: Who’s Who and What’s What
Why, how, when and by who was Dhanu Yatra started in Bargarh is in the realm of controversy. Different people say different things in these regards. Two generations have gone to heavenly abode in the mean time, no authentic text is available about its genesis. The contemporaneous people’s versions are our sources of information. It becomes difficult to separate the grain from its outer cover. The present scholar may commit omissions and commissions, but without those the account will be incomplete, for which he craves the learned and better-informed people’s indulgence.
Some say that it had been observed in the twenties of 20th century for a few years, others it was first organized at a village of Bhatli, some others at other places. The present scholar feels that wherever and whenever it might have begun, it must have been localized, that is confined to a village or two amidst local people. It must not have been like the present Yatra which have been continuing since 1948 till date with discontinuance for a few years in the run of time. As stated before, Krishna’s plays account, through songs of ‘sanchara’ and the interest of some leading people were the cause of commencement. The contributions of Krishnite leanings and devotions of Benu Baba Math may be accepted in this regard. The contention of a scholar that Sri Chaitanya Mahapabhu’s visit to west Odisha (Konark, Odisha Sahitya Academy, Feb-Apr 2014, p.26) and propagation of his dharma through sanchara does not appear to be tenable in connection with the genesis of Dhanu Yatra. In fact, he had not come to west Odisha at all.
The Yatra’s auspicious beginning is made by raising a pillar with banner commonly known as auspicious pillar (shubha – stambha) before a month. In Indian texts of rituals it is called raising the standard of Indra, the lord of gods (Indradhvaja). There is a detailed description of it in the Aiteraya Brahmana (VIII). A whole chapter known as Indradhvaja Sampad is devoted in the Brihat Samhita (ch-43) of Varahamihira. The ceremony in the days of yore was performed by kings to become Samrat or Chakravarti which also continued for a number of days. In the cases of a festival where there would be theatres and performances the earth is purified (bhumi shodhana), the ten Dikpalas, of who Indra is the leading one and the guardian of the east, are invoked so that there would not be any untoward happening. Further Brahma or Nada Brahma is invoked through various stages of beating on mridanga. Bargarh becomes Mathura since the ritual. It is an instance of beautiful blending of Shastric rituals with folk festival.
Dhanu Yatra performed through eleven days, on different stages, in musical, theatrical performances, with local dramatis personae in colourful costumes and appealing dialogues and songs is, in fact, a Yatra or folk festival which draws people from various corners of the country and abroad to the hinterland of Odisha.
Last but not the least was the association of Dhanu Yatra with the Independence of India in 1947 or the end of the harvest season. Both the occasions, of course, brought jubilation among the masses. The first appears to be a coincidence which was later interpreted as an association. The end of the British rule has been made symbolic of the end of the rule of Kamsa. The other view based on view that Balarama and Krishna – the first’s attribute being plough-share and the latter’s name is associated with cultivation (Karshana) may also appear to be a later interpretation. The third view that the annual bonded labour force (goti) conclude their tenure of bondage with their land holders on the full moon day of Pausha and, that day has been one of eating meat, drinking , enjoying various types of delicacies like pitha, manda. It is called chher chhera which may be given various meanings as eating so much that it leads to indigestion and consequent passage or, a carefree, non-working and festive day which they call their own. The only addition was they wanted to celebrate it through some yatras which they could enjoy at their best. The Yatra related with Krishna’s childhood which has been very popular in the region was chosen as the medium of enjoyment. The most colourful part which centres round the miraculous feats of child Krishna plus the royal extravaganza of Mathura Kataka’s Kamsa activities – which has already become a tradition of music, play and devotion, got the uppermost in some people’s mind. Starting its career like a finger-shaped Yamunotri through ups and downs it became the Yamuna whose banks have become the congenial soil for the growth of a Krishnite civilization.
It is heartening to learn that of late Dhanu Yatra is going to get the status of a National Festival. The aspirations of the people have come to be fulfilled. Thus it has become an epitome among its kind which is a matter of great joy. In times to come, it will be more comprehensive, ramified bringing peoples of different parts of the country together for a few days and exchanging ideas among themselves, which will strengthen National Integration. On the eve of Dhanu Yatra 2014-15, we wish it godspeed.
Acharya B (Translated) : Natya Sastra of Bharata Muni, 2 vols.
Odisha Sahitya Academy, 2003
Dhar, S.S. (Edited) : Paschima Odishara Prasiddha Yatra o Parva Parvani, Sambalpur, 2002
Nayak, B.K. (Edited) : Konarka, Odisha Sahitya Academy, February-April 2014
Birttia, P (Collected) : Dhanu Yatra, Bargarh
Dasa, Jagannath : Bhagavata, X (i) (Odia), Dharma Grantha Store, Cuttack
Rai – Choudhury, H.C. : Political History of Ancient India, Calcutta 1968
Bhatta, M.R. (Edited) : Brihat Samhita
Interviews with S.N. Sarangi, A. Panigrahi, Duaru Birttia of Ambapali, Surendra Hota – Press Reporter (The Samaj), P. Birtia, Ms. Minu Hota of Bargarh.
Sri Surendra Hota supplied relevant photographs, oral information and written materials, Ms. M. Hota accompanied the scholar and helped taking interviews of local people, Sri A.K. Manik- Collector, Bargarh for encouragement and Dr. P.K. Singh, Member of Parliament, Bargarh for patronage. For which the scholar is beholden to them.
Major Research Project (H.R.P.)University Grants Commission New Delhi
J-4/A, Lane R/3, J.M. Colony At/P.O. – Budharaja, Sambalpur-768004Odisha