Odisha-Indonesia Relations: A Cultural Symbiosis

Prof. Udayanath Sahoo

March 31, 2019

Odisha’s ancient ties with Indonesia are glaring testimony to centuries of fruitful relationship between India and Indonesia. As India seeks to engage Indonesia more and more, history should be brought back to life to energize the bilateral ties.

On March 7, 2019 the royal couple of Indonesia paid a visit to the Jagannath temple at Puri. After saying her prayers to Lord Jagannath, the queen said, “Jagannath is our Lord. I sought his blessings for the wellbeing of my nation and my people.” She mentioned the relationship between Indonesia and India and stressed on the fact that Odisha played a significant role in the age-old relationship between the two countries.

Jagannath symbolizes the culture and religion of Odisha, and all festivals, customs and traditions in Odisha centre around Him. In a word, Jagannath means everything to the people of Odisha. On the other hand, the Indonesian culture is inextricably linked to the genesis and antiquity of Odisha and Sri Jagannath. Sri Jaganath is the very life-blood and spirit of Odishan life. In Bali three deities are worshipped who have close resemblance with the trinity, Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. There are 21 Jagannath temples in Indonesia.

In the past, Odisha had various names such as Utkal, Kalinga, Udra, Kosala and Kangoda. But its unique cultural heritage and glorious tradition speak of its greatness. Going by the myths, we find in the Sanskrit Mahabharat (Adi Parva-Sloka-21-25) an interesting account of a queen called Sudenshna being united with a Rishi called Dirghattama who gave birth to three heroic sons, Anga, Banga and Kalinga. Kalinga is mentioned also in Ramayan (Kiskindhya Kanda), Skanda Purana, Brahmand Purana, Kapil Sanhita, Koutilya’s Arthasastra and in Megasthenes’ book on India, Indica as Calingae (3rd BC).

Through maritime activities of traders of Odisha (Ancient Kalinga) played a significant role in spreading Odishan culture to other parts of the world. Even the Chinese records have documented the flourishing Hindu Kingdom around 3rd – 4th century A.D. in Indonesia, especially in Bali and Java. The Brahmana Odia emigrants are called “Brahmana Buddha Kalinga” by Balinese. It is said that the Prince of Kalinga (Odisha) sent twenty thousand families to Java who settled there. Unfortunately, few people in Indonesia know that Kalinga is the ancient name of modern Odisha.

Ancient Kalinga had very good relationship with Indonesia not only in the fields of trade and commerce but also in the socio-cultural segments. Khudurukuni Osha, Nisha Mangala Osha, Boita Bandana on Kartika Purnima and historic Bali Yatra ceremony on the bank of the river Mahanadi, Cuttack, imprint clear testimony of our glorious maritime heritage. On the full moon day in the Hindu calendar of Kartik people float tiny vessels made of Banana peels or Cardboard, burning wicks, betel leaf and betel nut on it in the memory of the days of their maritime prosperity and their voyage to Java, Sumatra and Borneo. Bali Yatra means a ‘Voyage to Bali’ and it is a celebration of our ancient maritime tradition. ‘Loi Krathong’ festival of Thailand, ‘Bon om Touk’ water festival of Cambodia and ‘That Luang’ festival of Laos are observed around the same time of the year. Indonesia comprises five main islands, such as Sumatra, Java, Borneo (known as Kalimantan in Indonesia), Sulawesi and New Guinea. In early days Indians came mostly from the ancient kingdom of Kalinga, on the south-eastern coast of India. Indians in Indonesia are still known as ‘Kalings’, a word derived from Kalinga.

The food habits of the Balinese are almost the same as that of the people of Odisha. Their food consists of Sag (spinach), banana flowers, banana pith and betel after a meal. Due to the trading activities by the Sadhabas in ancient times our Odia literature was also influenced by the culture of Indonesia. The term ‘Bou’ (Mother) is originated from Indonesia which is extensively used in most parts of Odisha. Similarly the Balinese, while answering a query in the affirmative, say ‘inge’, the equivalent of ‘ajna’ in Odia. The most salient feature of a common heritage is the old practice of writing on palm-leaf with an iron stylus. The ancient Balinese manuscripts are all written in palm-leaves like those of Odia. Some folk tales of Odisha are also found in Indonesian literature. Several people of Kalinga (Odisha) established their settlement colonies and lived in Indonesia. The names like Talaing, Telinga, Kling, Keling and Kalinga are the examples of the influence.

On 22 July, 1947 Biju Patnaik rescued Sultan Sjahrir from Java islands in his Dacota on 24th July to India via Singapore. He was given an honorary citizenship and awarded ‘Bhoomi Putra”, the highest Indonesian award for saving the life of the Sultan Sjahrir. According to Bouddha literature Kalinga was an independent country and its capital city was known as Dantapur. Maritime trading activities of Kalinga played a significant role in the spread of Odishan glorious cultural heritage to Indonesia. On the basis of manuscripts, inscriptions and marine archives more research can be done about the history of the overseas trade activity of the Sadhabas which will reveal many new facts of the relationship between Odisha and Indonesia.

*** The author is a Professor at the Centre of Indian Languages, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***