Tuesday, January 3

Bali Yatra

I am at the old Buleleng harbor in Singaraja, a day before the new moon of the month of Kartika (when Diwali is traditionally celebrated in India.)

In the historical Kalinga or Orissa, the subsequent full moon (Kartika Purnima) is celebrated as Bali Yatra -- the day the boats left for Bali. (More here. Above, Bali Yatra 2010 being celebrated at Cuttack's Gadagadia ghat on the Mahanadi river.)

As the sun retreats south throughout September, the northern part of the Indian subcontinent begins to cool off. With this, air increases in density and pressure begins to build up over northern India, while the Indian Ocean and its surrounding atmosphere still hold heat, making the air over the sea lighter. Cold winds start to sweep down from the Himalayas and Indo-Gangetic plain, towards the vast heat-sink of the ocean. This is known as the Northeast or Retreating Monsoon.

The Sadhabas (or Sadhavas) were the ancient mariners of Kalinga. Around Katrika Purnima (late Oct/early Nov), the winds from the Retreating Monsoons would waft their wooden boats over the waves of the Indian Ocean to Nusantara. During Bali Yatra, toy boats are floated in the rivers and beaches of Orissa.

The connection between Kalinga and the spice islands finds mention in Kalidasa's Raghuvamsa. The princess Indumati -- she whose navel is as beautiful as an eddy -- is to choose her own husband from amongst the assembled princes at a swayamvara. Indumati is the sister of the king of Vidharbha, and her old nurse Sunanda chaperones her, explaining the strengths of each suitor. King Hemangada of Kalinga is described as the master of the Indian Ocean, who enjoyed the fruits of trade with the islands therein:

यमात्मनः सद्मनि संनिकृष्टो मन्द्रध्वनित्याजितयामतूर्यः|
प्रासादवातायनदृश्यवीचिः प्रबोधयत्यर्णव एव सुप्तम्॥
yamātmanaḥ sadmani saṁnikṛṣṭo mandradhvanityājitayāmatūryaḥ |
prāsādavātāyanadṛśyavīciḥ prabodhayatyarṇava eva suptam ||

There is a great Ocean in the vicinity of the mansion of this king (of Kalinga) whose waves can be seen from the windows of that mansion… the Ocean-god himself gives watch and bugles with the sounds of his waves to wake up this king...

अनेन सार्धम् विहराम्बुराशेस्तीरेषु तालीवनमर्मरेषु|
द्वीपान्तरानीतलवङ्गपुष्पैरपाकृतस्वेदलवा मरुद्भिः॥
anena sārdham viharāmburāśestīreṣu tālīvanamarmareṣu|
dvīpāntarānītalavaṅgapuṣpairapākṛtasvedalavā marudbhiḥ ||

With such a king you can take pleasure trips in the groves of palm full with the murmur of leaves, on the seashore whereto breezes waft fragrance of clove flowers from far-dispersed islands of the Ocean.

Kalidasa, generally accepted to have written in the 4th century AD, has left vivid pictures of the civilization that reached those far-dispersed islands.

In the Raghuvamsa, Dilipa, the father of Raghu, begets his son through prayer and sacrifice. Once Raghu comes to the throne, he finds his father's vassals restive. Raghu, though young, determines to show them that no disloyalty will be tolerated. He decides on a show of strength in the form of a war-march. Starting from his capital Ayodhya, he first marches eastward to the Bay of Bengal; then to the south along the eastern shore to the tip of the Indian peninsula as far as Kanyakumari; from there, north along the western shore until he comes to the mouth of the Indus and the badlands under the depredations of the Hephthalites (White Huns); then, finally, through the outlying portions of the Himalayan plateau he enters Assam and thence returns to Ayodhya. In the end, Raghu performs a sacrifice declaratory of universal sovereignty, in which he distributes everything he has in his treasury, leaving himself a beggar.

The passages of Canto 4 (in which most of the above action happens) are full of interesting ethnographic observations. After the defeat of the 'Hunas' in Transoxiana:

तत्र हूणावरोधानां भर्तृषु व्यक्तविक्रमम्|
कपोलपाटलादेशि बभूव रघुचेष्टितम्॥
tatra hūṇāvarodhānāṁ bhartṛṣu vyaktavikramam|
kapolapāṭalādeśi babhūva raghuceṣṭitam ||

Raghu's valor expressed itself amongst the husbands of the Huna women, and it became manifest in the scarlet color of their cheeks.

The 6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes wrote that the Western Huns, upon the death of Attila, "disfigured their faces horribly, with deep wounds, so that the gallant warrior should be mourned not with the lamentations and tears of women, but with the blood of men." Similar customs have apparently been observed amongst the Kutrigurs, Turks, Magyars, and Tajiks.

विनयन्ते स्म तद्योधा मधुभिर्विजयश्रमम्|
आस्तीर्णाजिनरत्नासु द्राक्षावलयभूमिषु॥
vinayante sma tadyodhā madhubhirvijayaśramam|
āstīrṇājinaratnāsu drākṣāvalayabhūmiṣu ||

Raghu's soldiers removed their fatigue of victory by means of wine, while sitting on excellent antelope skins spread on the grounds of grape-orchards.

After crossing the River (Oxus?), Raghu and his army encountered the Kambojas, an ancient Indo-Scythian people often mentioned in Indian texts:

काम्बोजाः समरे सोढुं तस्य वीर्यमनीश्वराः|
गजालानपरिक्लिष्टैरक्षोटैः सार्धमानताः॥
kāmbojāḥ samare soḍhuṁ tasya vīryamanīśvarāḥ|
gajālānaparikliṣṭairakṣoṭaiḥ sārdhamānatāḥ ||

Along with the walnut trees that bent their tops unable to withstand the pull and push of the elephants tied to them with halters, the kings of Kamboja, too, bent their heads down before Raghu in token of their submission.

Many centuries later, of course, the name Kamboja would find another home in SE Asia.

Raghu's son is Aja. It is he who Indumati -- she of the banana-stem-like thighs -- garlands at the swayamvara. (It turns out they were two dancers from the heavens who had been cursed to go stay on earth.) The couple are fated to pass away soon (rejoining the celestial dance-halls of Indra) -- a flower from Narada's garland falls to the earth, crushing Indumati, an incident that also survives in the Javanese kakawin Death By Sumanasa Flower. Aja follows his beloved into death, leaving behind a year-old orphan. This is Dasaratha, father of the future avatar Rama.

Interestingly, the marriage ceremonies described in the Raghuvamsa match the traditional marriages of old Javanese texts -- the tying of clothes, the circumambulation of fire seven times, the offerings consigned to the flames in specific order - are the same and occur in the same sequence. See here for more.

Before the 1990s, the earliest direct evidence for contact between India and Indonesia indeed pointed to a start around Kalidasa's time. The evidence consisted of stone and metal inscriptions dating from the fourth and fifth centuries AD, found in West Java and Kalimantan.

Indirect evidence (cloves were known to Pliny The Elder, c. 70 AD), had, though, pointed at an earlier contact.

A few miles east of us is Sembiran. Recent excavation at Sembiran (undertaken by Universitas Udayana and the Indonesian National Research Centre of Archaeology) has established that the significance of this site is a very considerable one for Southeast Asian history.

Sembiran has recently yielded the first securely stratified evidence of Indian trade contact with Indonesia (dated to c. 2000 years ago), during the period of Rouletted Ware manufacture and Roman trade in southern and eastern India, as represented by the famous site of Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu. Neutron activation analysis has showed that the Sembiran specimens of Rouletted Ware have identical pastes to samples from Arikamedu, and certain shards have on them Brahmi or Kharoshthi characters.

I Wayan Ardika and Peter Bellwood have assessed the date range for the Sembiran materials as most likely in the AD 1-200 range, in terms of the chronological overlap between use of the Kharoshthi script and the Rouletted Ware.

From an article "An Indian Trader In Ancient Bali" by Lansing et al:

The site of Sembiran itself was located at the head of a small sheltered bay that no longer exists. Several inscriptions in the Old Balinese and Old Javanese languages were discovered in the vicinity. These inscriptions, written nearly a thousand years later (AD 896-1181), refer to long-distance or seafaring merchants (banyaga; banyaga saking sabrang); a merchant guild (banigrama; Sanskrit vanigrama); a market officer (ser pasar), and other aspects of seaborne trade. Ardika and Bellwood observed that in contemporary East Java the term banigrama is associated with foreign traders, and further that inscription Sembiran C (Old Javanese, 1181 AD) mentions that the term juru kling may be a specific term for Indians or the descendants of Indians. Ardika and Bellwood interpreted these inscriptional finds to indicate that this region of north-eastern Bali was the scene of intense maritime trading activity about 1000 years ago, with archaeological evidence pushing this activity back perhaps a millennium further. At that time, the Sembiran site likely consisted of a settlement located inside a small and shallow bay in the coastline, peopled by native Balinese who were presumably in contact with visiting traders who were able to bring in large amounts of Indian trade pottery sometime between 200 BC and AD 200.

Below, the old Buleleng Harbor of Singaraja, the few miles of coast through where Indian influence seems to have entered Bali in its early history.


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