Odisha is considered as the land of colourful fairs and festivals. There are 13 festivals in 12 months of a year. In this plethora of festivals, Dhanu Yatra of Bargarh in Odisha is remarkably distinguished from rest in sense, style, grace and grandeur. It also happens to be a great mass festival. Every year in the month of Sagittarius, it is celebrated for eleven days of the month from the 5th day of the bright fortnight till the full moon day. It is believed to have started after harvesting season of 1947-48 soon after India's independence as a reflection of joyous atmosphere in the society for the end of British misrule. Since then it has become more popular all over the world with every passing year.
During the Dhanu Yatra, Bargarh city, about 330-km from Bhubaneswar, becomes Mathura, the river Jeera becomes river Yamuna and Ambapalli situated on the other side of Jeera becomes Gopapura. For all the eleven days, Bargarh city is transformed into a very big stage. The story of Maharaja (king) Kansa, his death and different acts of Lord Sri Krisha are enacted in 14 main places in Mathrua and 4 main places in Gopapura. Various episodes are organised at various places from sacred centres like temples to public places like ponds, rivers, cultural and commercial centres, transforms the entire locality into an open-air stage for the live show. All the people, including lakhs of outsiders, paying visit to the festival, become actors of the drama either assuming or pretending to be the subjects of Maharaja Kansa at Mathura and as friends or devotees of Lord Sri Krishna at Gopapura.
The social attachment of the people with Dhanu Yatra can be adjudged from the obedience of the orders of Maharaja Kansa not only at the erected stages of Raj Durbar, but everywhere the royal procession of Maharaja Kansa moves at conqueror. Everyone obliges to pay monetary fines or accepts mild physical punishments as a token of obedience. Similarly, Krishna and Balaram including their charioteer Akrura, whether at Gopapura or Mathura, are worshiped by the people in general as idols of God. Love of virtue springs up while thronging to welcome the chariot of Krishna-Balaram as if the God himself incarnated temporarily in the body of the actors.
The special factor about Dhanu Yatra is the enactment of the story of Lord Krishna in the form of drama by real actors and actresses. They deliver their dialogues of their own without any written script. Here Maharaja Kansa does not remain confined to a character of arrogance. He moves around the city on the elephant from afternoon till evening. In the evening, he holds the court and the entertainment. Maharaja Kansa tries to mitigate the suffering of his citizens while moving around his kingdom, the Mathura. But once he comes to the court, he remains occupied with discussions with ministers to find ways to avert his prophesied death. He makes all kinds of plans to kill Sri Krishna. He dispatches various demons to Gopapura to eliminate Sri Krishna.
As all the demons were killed by Sri Krishna in Gopapura, Maharaja Kansa organises Dhanu Yatra in Mathura and his ex-minister Akrura is sent to Gopapura to bring Sri Krishna to Mathura. Finally, Sri Krishna comes to Mathura, kills all the wrestlers and the all powerful Maharaja Kansa. Maharaja Ugrasena regains power and becomes the king of Mathura, thus ending the eleven day long Dhanu Yatra. The actor playing the role of Maharaja Kansa visits Lord Jagannath (avatar of Sri Krishna) at Puri in Odisha after the Dhanu Yatra and ask the Almighty to forgive him for scolding him for all the eleven days of the fair.
In the age of modern society, when most of the old myths are losing power, Dhanu Yatra of Bargarh is considered to be an extension of the devotional religion of the traditional cult to a democratic mass culture.
Prakash Dash, AIR correspondent, Bhubaneswar