Bargarh, a town situated in western part of Odisha is widely acknowledged as the rice bowl of the state and is also home to the world-famous Sambalpuri sari. The town is of historical importance because of its contribution to India’s struggle to achieve Independence. And Bargarh is unique in the fact that it hosts one of the largest open air theatre in India, which is known as the ‘Dhanu Yatra’.
Having originated somewhere in 1947, the Bargarh Dhanu Yatra is the tale of Lord Krishna and his maternal uncle Kansa. The tale starts from the birth of Lord Krishna (who is the son of Kansa’s sister) till he goes on to vanquish Kansa. The defeat of Kansa is celebrated as an allegory to the fall of the British Raj in India in the year 1947.
The source material of the drama traces its roots to the ‘Harivamsa Purana’, an ancient scripture which chronicles the early life and times of Lord Krishna. Composed by Acharya Jinasena in 783 AD, Harivamsa Purana is divided into 66 cantos containing over 12,000 shlokas or verses.
During the eleven days of Bargarh Dhanu Yatra, the entire Bargarh town functions as Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna while the adjacent village Ambapali becomes Gopapura. Entire Ambapali rejoices with the birth of Krishna and the townsfolk submit themselves to Krishna’s divinity and regale in the glory of his name. The neighbouring river Jeera which lies between the two areas is designated as Yamuna, thus alluding to the original mythology.
Bargarh Dhanu Yatra kicks off after the harvest season and lasts till the end of the harvest festival of ‘Puspun i’ when the labourers and farmers become free after reaping the crop. Organisers had thus set the timeline to coincide with ‘Pausa Purnima’ (full moon) or ‘Puspuni’ so that the masses could participate in the festival.
Another interesting facet of the Bargarh Dhanu Yatra is that there is no written script or a designated director for the eleven-day long drama. Most of the action is impromptu and dialogues have been memorized by the actors by enacting their roles over the years.
Kansa is the central character of the Bargarh Dhanu Yatra. Though he is a negative character in the scriptures, for the people of Bargarh he is their supreme ruler. They abide by his regulations and bow down their heads before him as if they live under a king and not in a republic. Such is the persona of Kansa Maharaja in the Bargarh Dhanu Yatra that he is revered not only during the act but also at other times of the day.
Kansa Maharaja sits on an elephant and tours the city all through the eleven days in the afternoon to take stock of the situation and to address his subjects’ grievances. He even summons government representatives like the District Magistrate, Police Superintendent and senior political leaders to school them in the art of governance and public administration and directs them (albeit in a lighter vein) to redress his people’s suffering. He even fines and reprimands petty criminals and violators of law.
Apart from elephants, camels and horses too form an important part in the largest open air theatre tradition of Odisha. The local fair or Meena Bazaar which features shopkeepers from all over the town and outside selling trinkets and items of daily use, crafts, art and other such novelties is another big hit among the masses and the visiting tourists.
The Bargarh Dhanu Yatra is so big and famous that it features in the annual calendar of Odisha Tourism and attracts many foreign and inland tourists who visit Odisha to witness this grand event.