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The Unique Dhanu Jatra of Bargarh:A Real Tourist Festival

Biranchi Mishra

Pulsating with the sprit of Indian Culture, modern Odisha comprises parts of the ancient kingdoms, which, at different periods of history were known as Kalinga, Utkala, Odra and Kosala. With a bountiful of nature and a vibrant culture, it is a fascinating state of ancient glory and modern glamour, a happy blending of old world charm and new world charity, a treasure house of unforgettable memories.

Odisha is not only a land of magnificent monuments and natural beauties but also a land of colorful fairs & festivals and dance & drama. Every season has a variety of occasions to celebrate. They unfold a vista of age-old traditions and customs, rites and rituals. The mood of the people is up beat. They put on their best of attire and ornaments, decorate their houses, get together with friends and relatives and exhibit the way they enjoy their lives. The fairs and festivals are therefore a sum total of the cultural heritage of the state. There is no better occasion to see the people in their true color, customs and pageantry, when they are involved in festivities.
In this plethora of festive occasions, there is one and only which is remarkably distinguishable from the rest, in sense and style, grace and grandeur. Organized for eleven days preceding Pausha Poornima, the full moon-day of the month of Pausha, in December-January, this is the spectacular Dhanu Jatra of Bargarh. Based on the Srimad Bhagabata and other scriptures like Mathura Bijaya, Dhanu Jatra is a theatrical presentation of a part of Krishna Leela. The mythological story – from the marriage of Devaki with Basudeva till the death of Kamsa – is re-enacted in sequence to bring the old myth alive. How the contents are presented is more remarkable than what is presented in this Jatra.

Dhanu Jatra of Baragada is unique in many ways.

i) This is conceived and presented like a serial play of several acts. However, it’s a drama with a difference as the entire story is enacted, scene by scene, on different locations, as they are narrated to have actually happened.
ii) The entire topography of Bargarh within a radius of five kilometers turns into a stage, making it the largest open air theatre in the world. Incidentally, the geography of Bargarh region totally conforms to the locales of the Puranic descriptions and makes it an ideal venue for the Jatra. The city of Bargarh is treated as Mathura. On the outskirts of Bargarh is the river Jeera, to serve as river Jamuna. On the other bank is Ambapali (popularly called Amapali), is a small village, to become Gopapura. Even there is a mango groove there to serve as Vrindavan and a pond as lake Kalindi.
iii) All scenes are enacted on the natural environment and no set is erected (except the Durbar of Kamsa) which gives the drama natural feels. Even a live elephant is engaged for the royal transport of King Kamsa and a chariot is made for Akrura’s visit to Gopa.
iv) Nowhere, a play has been made to achieve such a vast magnitude with such naturality. Elsewhere for such plays, a limited area – a vast field, a long street, an extended open space – is improvised, but herein Bargarh, a whole town, a village, a river, a pond, a mangrove, in fact the entire area spreading over a radius five kilometers, is turned into the acting arena.
v) Structurally, a drama is staged on one platform with different backdrops for different scenes or one suggestive backdrop for all scenes. In a film, different scenes are shot on different locations or against different backdrops in one studio/location and screened in a cinema hall after suitable editing. In either of the cases, the viewers are seated in one auditorium. But in case of Dhanu Jatra, the show is live from different locations where they are enacted and the viewers have to move from place to place to watch the action live; there is no repeat enactment. Some times, they have to choose the scene and/or the location of their choice to be there as more than one scene is simultaneously enacted on different locations.
vi) It is a Play on the Street (as the scenes are enacted live on the streets) but not a Street Play (in which all scenes are enacted on one location).
vii) What is also unique to Dhanu Jatra is the largest cast and the people’s participation, an element of modern technique in theaters. While the lead roles are played by a chosen few, all the local inhabitants as well as the visitors who happen to be there then are also taken as characters (in the role of the subjects of or visitors to Mathura and Gopa). There is hardly any play anywhere in which all of the spectators also participate as they do in the Dhanu Jatra. The unique extravaganza boasts of a cast of more than a lakh of participants.
viii) The visitors who come for the first time to watch the event have a pleasant surprise to find how they become part of the festival without any obligation, without any compulsion.
ix) The enactment is so lively that the people feel physically transported to Dwapara Yuga, the Puranic age. It seems for the moment as if Kamsa is the de-facto administrator. He would summon any one, impromptu, irrespective of his/her social or official position and status, to his court and issue directions. Everyone enjoys his dictates and playfully obeys him, creating a lot of laughter and humour. The elderly people are so emotionally attached that they literally accept the two children acting as Krushna and Balaram as real gods and worship their feet with all reverence as they do in the temples. The people of Amapali go vegetarian during the period. Dhanu Jatra is truly an event of the people, by the people and for the people.
x) The festival does not in any way interfere with the normal routine of the city where everything goes on as usual along with the festive mood. There is no imposition, no restriction but it is so disciplined that there is no dislocation. The district administration virtually plays a passive but vigilant role at the wings and back stage, to keep a watch on the law and order situation.
xi) This is a play with an unwritten script. There is neither any specific dialogue nor any regular rehearsal for any scene. Keeping in view the story line of the episodes, the characters speak the dialogue extempore in their own way (though the lead characters do practice to avoid miscommunication).
xii) While the main actors wear costumes befitting their roles and obviously to appear differentiated from the rest of the cast, others are in their normal dress. It can be safely viewed as a folk play with classical character.
xiii) The scenes are enacted in the afternoon and evening hours every day. However, cultural programmes continue till the wee hours for entertainment of the people. The festival thus provides an opportunity to the performing artistes (not only from the western Odisha but also from across the country and abroad) to exhibit their talent when they present their performance in the Durbar of Kamsa and on makeshift stages. The past blends with the present with ease.
xiv) Jatra happens to be an equivalent of theatre that directly relates to the sphere of enactment of the histrionic arts. It is a branch of performing art in dramatic form, defined as what occurs when one or more persons, isolated in time and/or space, present themselves to one another. The concept of theater (derived from the ancient Greek word ‘theatron’ meaning the seeing place), has been evolved since the dawn of civilization due to the human tendency of story telling. Dhanu Jatra appropriately fits in to this definition and concept.
xv) Odisha has a long tradition of theater or Jatra, evident from the Hatigumpha inscription of Emperor Kharabela (1st B.C) at Udayagiri near Bhubaneswar and from various forms of performance like Leela, Suanga, Nata, Natak etc prevalent in different parts of Odisha.
xvi) For many reasons, Jatra has remained open air though there used to be permanent Jatra halls. Massive and spectacular theatrical presentations are the specialties of Odisha’s Jatra. Dhanu Jatra tops them all in imaginative grandeur.

A schedule of the acts and the venues of performance is drawn in advance for convenience of spectators. With minor modifications, the schedule generally runs thus:
Day Event/Scene at Bargarh in brief Event/Scene at Amapali in brief
1 Wedding procession of Debaki with Basudeva; Divine warning (Daiba Vani); imprisonment of Debaki & Basudeba; Kamsa’s consultation with his aids
2 Attempt on the life of Bijuli Kanya Birth of Krushna
3 Kamsa’s consultation with his aids Nanda’s celebration
4 Kamsa’s city round (nagar bhramana) Killing of Putana by Krushna
5 Kamsa’s city round ( nagar bhramana)Pressing of Kaliya (snake)
6 Kamsa’s consultation & city round (nagar bhramana)Bakasura Badha
7 Deployment of Akrura to bring Krushna-Balaram to Mathura Krushna-Balarama’s boat ride
8 Akrura’s visit to Gopa (Akrura Gamana) Akrura’s arrival at Gopa
9 Kamsa’s consultation with his aids Akrura’s departure with Krushna Balaram from Gopa
10 Krushna-Balarama’s liberation of Kubuja,Meeting with Sudama, city tour
11 Krushna’s breaking of bow (Dhanu Bhanga) and Killing of Kubalaya (elephant), Chanura-Mustika & Kamsa

[Note:-Kamsa’s city round (nagar bhramana) is a daily routine]

Selection of the period of the Dhanu Jatra is also interesting and significant. Bargarh is an agrarian area and the people are mostly farmers. The month of Pausha is the time for harvest and the last day of the month is set apart for a celebration called “Chher Chhera”. All the people in general engage themselves in merry making including a food fiesta. The Krushna Leela provided them with a good opportunity to celebrate the occasion coinciding with the death of Kamsa. Traveling back on the time line, they were not able to enjoy this day due to the oppressive rule of Kamsa and were eagerly waiting for his end to come. There is a popular saying here in Sambalpuri language which means ‘let the dynasty of king Kamsa come to end, we shall take sweets when Kamsa dies’ (“Kamsa rajar bansha budu, Kamsa malen khaema ladu”). Pausha Purnami is therefore coincided with the day of Kamsa’s end.

The festival has a remarkable socio-economic impact on the people of Bargarh. Friends and relatives of the residents throng the city for the occasion which furthers their social relationship. The personal reputation and image of the artistes who play the lead roles socially go up. Judhisthir Satpathy, whose performance as Kamsa is still fresh in memory, was a deed writer. There was a bee line to engage him as deed writer after his stunning performance. The local traders do brisk business during this period.

The very idea of Dhanu Jatra is not only awe inspiring and fantastic but also entertaining and educative. The festival might have undergone some changes over the years in pomp and ceremony but the message of “victory of good over evil, triumph of truth over tyranny”, remains unchanged. Dhanu Jatra has become a part and parcel of the socio-cultural fabric of Bargarh. The local people have been watching it for years but they are never tired to see it again, as if it is an annual ritual.

Bargarh has remained a center of cultural activities including theaters for ages. The people of Bargarh have a reputation of not only being talented actors but also disciplined spectators.

Dhanu Jatra is a fascinating festival for anyone who watches it for the first time. The subject may not be new but the way it is presented is definitely rejuvenating. This is perhaps the only festival which the tourists can enjoy not only as spectators but also as participants. In many such events, tourists are either onlookers (like during Dussehra) or partial participants (like in Rath Jatra where they can pull the chariots) but in case of Dhanu Jatra, they are inseparably associated as full participants, knowingly or unknowingly. Hence, it is truly a tourist festival in real sense of the term. To be in Bargarh during Dhanuyatra means to be a part of the festival which is a life time experience, a rare occasion to peep into the local culture in its entirety. Visit Bargarh during Dhanu Jatra; you will be amply rewarded with unforgettable memories.

Travel Info

Bargarh is the headquarter of the district by the same name in the western part of Odisha on the National Highway No 6.

How to reach

By Road- Bargarh is on the NH 6, (59 km from Sambalpur, 220 km from Raipur, 360 kms from Bhubaneswar)
By Rail- Bargarh is on the trunk line between Kolkata and Chennai via Jharsuguda and Sambalpur with direct or convenient connection to major cities of India.
By Air- Nearest and convenient airport is at Raipur (220 Km) and Bhubaneswar (360km)

Where to stay

There are a few reasonably good hotels at Bargarh and Sambalpur.

BARGARH: (STD Code 06646)
Hotel Ganapati (Ph. 231401), Oriental (Ph.231087), Maharaja (Ph.230074), Meera (Ph.230081), Maa Sarala (Ph.231157), Abhinandan (Ph.232868), Lucky Lodge, Bargarh Lodge etc.

SAMBALPUR: (STD Code 0663)
Panthanivas,OTDC (Ph. 2411282/2411296), Hotel Sheela Tower (Ph.240311),
Saket (Ph.2402345), Harjit Residency (Ph.2520055), Upahar Palace (Ph.2400519), Upahar (Ph.2403078) Sujata (Ph.2400403), Laxminivas (Ph.2400775), Krishna Lodge (Ph.2522384) Orissa Inn (Ph.2403747), Triveni (Ph.2403024), Li-N-Ja (Ph.2548401), Chandramani (Ph.2402783), Apasara (Ph.2521366), Natraj (Ph.2533720), Ashok (Ph.2521010), Sheetal (Ph.2404717), New Bombay Lodge (Ph.2520422), Konark (Ph.2545845), Nanda Lodge (Ph.2533199), Archana Lodge (Ph.2403818), Chandan Guest House (Ph.2522433) etc.

Weather: The weather during the period of Dhanu Jatra (December-January) is extremely pleasant with the temperature hovering around 15 degree Celsius.
Clothing: Light Woolen/ Light Cotton
Food: Indian food is available in all hotels/restaurants while
Chinese & Continental food is also available in select hotels.

What to Buy: Bargarh is the centre of Sambalpuri Textile (Saree, Dress Material, Curtains, Bed Sheets/ Covers, and Gamuchha & Lungi).
What to See around

Nrusimhanath- Temple of Marjara Keshari with a cat as the presiding deity and a series of waterfalls (100 kms)
Hirakud- Resoirvoir on the Mahanadi (40 kms)

Debrigarh Wild Life Sanctuary on the edge of Hirakud Reservoir (40 kms)

Sambalpur- Seat of Goddes Samaleswari and a mini temple town (59 km)

Huma Leading Temple (like the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy) on the bank of river Mahanadi (90 kms)

Information & Assistance: Government of Odisha Tourist Office, Bargarh and Sambalpur (Ph 0663 2411118).

1. Dash, Dhiren. 1976. “Jatra-Odisha’s Indegenous Theater”, in Souvenir- Third Purba Bharat Sanskrutik Sammelan, published by Home(PR) Department, Govt of Odisha, Bhubaneswar, 96-111.
2. Purohit, Minaketan. 1996-97. “Mo smruti O Anubhutire Dhanu Jatra” in Souvenir- Birat Dhanu Jatra Mahotsav Samiti, Bargarh, 1-3.
3. Personal experience and direct observation, study & analysis

Travel Writer, Tourism Consultant
& Guest Faculty (Tourism Studies)
(Ex- Joint Director, Odisha Tourism)
Contact :Email
Cell : + 91 9437004627

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