The Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated for the Khmer Empire in the 12th century in present-day Cambodia

How Odisha’s Sea Traders Created Empires Around The Globe

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Bali Yatra, an Odisha’s Sea Traders annual festival, is celebrated annually in Cuttack. This festival is celebrated during Kartik Purnima, which occurs in late October to early November. It marks the turn of the southeast monsoon winds. The time when ancient traders from Bengal, Odisha, and mariners would embark on their almost six-month long voyage to distant places, such as Bali, Java Sumatra and Sumatra. Families would meet at the shore and wish them safe travels on high seas or in foreign lands.

Presently, people gather on the Mahanadi River banks to float paper boats, sing songs and remember Orissa’s maritime heritage. As a sign of good will for sailors, they light sky lanterns. Tapoi also associates this festival.

Tapoi is the legend of a famous folk ballad. According to the legend, a group of sailors had seven siblings and a loved youngest. They got married in due course. While they were away, their wives would often mistreat their sister and she long for them all to be back home. The brothers caught the wives and made them disowned. Tapoi therefore acknowledges those family members that suffered while their loved one went abroad.

A toy boat symbolic of the giant ships of ancient Odisha at the Bali Yatra
A toy boat symbolic of the giant ships of ancient Odisha at the Bali Yatra

More than 1,000 years of maritime history have been commemorated by this festival. They are remembrances of adventurous sailors who set sail to new lands, mainly for trade. But, they were also there for the excitement and adventure of the high seas and to get to know people from different cultures. Many works of literature, folklore and poetry have been written about these sailors and the many misadventures and adventures they had.

Odisha’s Sea Traders: A mixture of bravery and ballads

Folklore, for many reasons, is often overlooked as a source of historical information. History was transmitted in a country like India by word-of mouth, via folk theatre and bard stories. shlokas. Over thousands of years, Kings, Merchants, Sages, and Courtesans have been mythologised and eulogized, making it difficult to distinguish fact and fiction. These people are still important when we examine our ancestors.

Supriya Sahoo, historian, stated that stories are what create reality. Stories of people by people must be considered for an accurate understanding of every community.

Folklore provides important clues in the confusing, winding roads of history.

A carving of a rowing festival, Indian Museum
A carving of a rowing festival, Indian Museum

Kalinga had been a powerful empire that was influential for centuries. It is even mentioned in the Ramayana. Kalinga’s grip on ocean trade was well known — in Kalidas’s monumental play Raghuvamsa, he refers to the king of Kalinga as Mohodadhipati (king of the Ocean). In fact, he is called the king of the seas in several ways in various texts — Sarala Das’s Odia Mahabharat and Yosawant Das’s Tika Govind Chandra are just a few examples.

Poets as well as practical traders created travel writings that enliven ancient trade routes by sharing stories, insights, and practical advice. Odia literature is especially rich with accounts of travel — the famous epics Lavanyavati and Vaidehi Vilasa (Upendra Bhanja) speak about voyages.

Rasakallola is a story by Dinakrushna Das about shipwrecks caused by storms. Kavya Parimala, by Narasimha Sinha refers to Kalinga’s trade relations with Sri Lanka. In the Odia Mahabharata, there are also accounts about ship-building. Tapoi’s ballad is perhaps the most touching tale about Odisha’s rich mercantile past. The ballad of Tapoi is not only a touching story about filial love, and the loss of separation but it also contains a wealth of information on the culture, trade methods, and general exposure that was prevalent at the time.

Why is Odisha considered a superpower in the maritime realm?

Odisha’s coastal geography is ideal for maritime trade. Many natural harbors and deltas are available that can be used to establish ports. It was much more convenient to bring goods in from the interior via rivers like Mahanadi, Ganges, and Godavari than it is by land.

Also, the western Odisha mountains were rich in semi-precious and precious stones that were exported as valuable commodities. Some of India’s most bustling ports were located along the coasts of Kalinga — Tamralipti and Chandraketugarh (in modern-day West Bengal); Nanigaina (modern Puri), Katikadarma (modern Cuttack), Kannagara (modern-day Konark); and Salihundam and Dharanikotam located in modern Andhra Pradesh.

A map of South and South-East Asia
A map of South and South-East Asia

Some ports experienced periodic ups and downs, while others lasted for many years. They were both used for trade with the rest of the world, and some were also used along India’s coast for intra-trade.

Travel was mainly contingent on the strength and direction of the monsoon winds, which is why merchants set off when the monsoon winds turned to the southeast — their departure marked by the Bali Yatra.

Periplus of India and accounts of Chinese monks visiting India to study Buddhist scriptures provide detailed documentation of their routes. Orissa ships heading towards Southeast Asia stopped in Sri Lanka and the Andaman Nicobar islands to pick up supplies, rest or trade.

The journey from Tamralipti, to the Nicobar Islands took approximately a month according to I-Tsing. The southern monsoon winds took them to Sumatra, where they sailed through open water. From Sumatra, they had three options — sail down the coast of Sumatra, all the way to Java and Bali; trade along the coast; or cross the narrow Malacca Strait, and then either go north towards Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Japan, or south to Borneo, which was famed for its spices and a closely guarded secret by Indian merchants.

Location of Kalinga in eastern India
Location of Kalinga in eastern India

A few Odia-Bengali merchants also travelled to the eastern coast of Africa and Rome — the west Indian ocean trade was, however, dominated more by the Tamils and the Gujaratis. The journey was dangerous, with many shipwrecks and storms. Indian merchants developed cordial relationships and settled down with locals. Many of these merchants won favor with the local rulers and were appointed advisors. Others started royal dynasties by getting married into royalty. These were their stories. dharmic Indian culture was incorporated harmoniously into the culture of local cultures, creating a rich tapestry which is still part of the nation consciousness in the current nations of Southeast Asia.

These are the links that unite

Many evidence points to trade between India (and Southeast Asia) in the past. The region was also known as Suvarnabhumi, or “land of gold” by Indian sailors. Suvarnabhumi’s lands were fertile, and their culture was rich.

The main trade between Kalinga and Suvarnabhumi were spices, ceramics and cloth — especially Kalingam, speciality blue cotton cloth of very high quality. Many items were made specifically to meet the requirements of overseas customers. This shows that not all craftsmen only manufactured goods for export and have a deep understanding of local culture. Bronze bowls that have a knob on the bottom and are used for burial ceremonies in Thailand are, in some ways, similar to ones found in coastal Odisha.

Rouletted ware, for example, is a special type of ceramic that was fairly common during ancient times and has been found all along the Indian Ocean rim and Southeast Asia — all the way from Vietnam, to the coastal areas of India, to the Middle East till Rome. Arikemadu (Andhra Pradesh) seems to be the main manufacturing area for these wares. They were shipped from Kalinga’s ports in Java, Vietnam, Bali.

Also, the semi-precious gemstone and beads trade were very active. These items were used mainly in jewellery and decoration all over Asia. Large quantities of beads, as with all items that are popular among women, were shipped across the Indian Ocean. There have been many similar-looking glass, camelian and agate beads found in Odisha and other parts of the country, including Thailand, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Camelian beads most likely come from India as there were plenty of chameleon at that time.

All along the coastlines of Odisha and Bengal, coins bearing images of ships were found. All over India’s east coast, coins with images of ships have been discovered. Chinese coins with Hanzi characters and an indented hole in the middle have been discovered in old commercial centers. This indicates a vibrant trade relationship with the Far East.

Terracotta seal showing an Indian ship, found in the ancient port of Chandraketugarh
Terracotta seal showing an Indian ship, found in the ancient port of Chandraketugarh

Indians living abroad since ancient times

Indians have settled all over the world, including in Indonesia and Thailand. Suvarnabhumi’s merchants seamlessly blended their culture with that of the local population, and they quickly gained the attentions of the kings. These merchants rose to power and became a popular figure in both the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Sanskrit became a popular language among scholars and Suvarnabhumi’s ministers. It is important to mention, however that none of these exchanges in culture was forced upon people. Instead they adopted different religions, languages, and traditions and created something that lasts until today.

Kharosthi script is found on pieces of pottery and seals discovered in Chandraketugarh, which indicates they were from Gandhara (present day Afghanistan). These pieces have shells and carvings depicting ships, and they may be representative of those ships which set sail from east subcontinent ports. Ashoka mentions trade voyages to Kalinga from the East in Ashoka’s edicts.

The Kling is a name given to a group of people in Malaysian and Indonesian epigraphic evidence. They may have been referring to Kalinga. Also, the tablets mention that Kling’s king sent 20 thousand people to this area. They settled down and enjoyed good fortune. Inscriptions in Indonesian Telaga Batu also mention the bravery and skill of Indian sailors such as Vaniyaga (sailors), Puhawang (“ship captains”), and Sthapaka (“sculptors”). Banigrama could also be used to describe offshore branches or Indian merchant guilds operating at all major Southeast Asia commercial centres.

The Odia Kings of Cambodia

Kalinga may also be responsible for the history of Southeast Asia’s first Hindu-Buddhist kingdom.

Funan, a kingdom in Cambodia that was founded by Queen Soma (Neang Neak) and Kaundinya I (Preah Thong), was one the first major empires in South-East Asia to have strong Indian links in trade, culture, administration. The Funan empire was established by Queen Soma of Naga (Neang Neak), and Kaundinya I (Preah Thong).

The Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated for the Khmer Empire in the 12th century in present-day Cambodia
The Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated for the Khmer Empire in the 12th century in present-day Cambodia

Chinese records show that Kaundinya was an Indian merchant ship captain, who died after being shipwrecked off the coast Cambodia. Queen Soma was afraid of the crew and tried to stop them, but she fell for Kaundinya. She proposed marriage. The House of Kaundinya inherited matrilineal succession.

The lineage of most Hindu-Buddhist Empires is traced back to Kaundinya. Kaundinya being a Shaivite made Shaivism the official religion of Funan Empire. Many Shiva temples in the Funan region have Sanskrit-inscribed Sanskrit texts. Jayavarman was the 17th and most prominent of these rulers.

Rudravarman is the last king to rule the Empire. It is unknown if King Kaundinya Cambodian has been recorded in India. Sanjeev Sanyal (respected economist and historian) suggests that Kaundinya is more closely related to King Kaundinya of Cambodia. gotra Kaundinya I. The Kaundinya family had settled in Bengal and Odisha at the time. Odisha was a major trade partner with Cambodia and Vietnam. It is probable that Kaundinya was from Odisha.

Untold history

The central narrative of Indian history, or at least Indian schools, has a clear bias toward Central India’s happenings, particularly around Delhi, which is the capital.

One might have the mistaken impression that India has a fairly linear, uncomplicated timeline of history — the supposed and mostly mistaken “Aryan Invasion”, the Mauryan Empire, the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal Empire, the British and then Independence. Kalinga is only a footnote to the tale of King Ashoka’s transformation.

India’s past is a messy mess. It is all the more fascinating, beautiful, and glorious for it. It is important to highlight India’s coasts and its strong cultural influence on Asia and Rome for over a thousand years.

Important reminder that Indian settlers didn’t force their culture onto anyone. In fact, Indian culture was adapted in unique ways by locals from all parts of Asia. And that was what made India’s influence and power so enduring — the ability of the ancients to embrace the entire world as a family, Vasudheiva Kutumbakam The world is one family

Somdatta Majumdar, a Management student at Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai, is also a History enthusiast. You can follow Somdatta Majumdar Instagram @thegeekhistorian. The following article can be viewed: Medium Original Article.

Edited and authored by Divya Sextu  

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