Bargarh, the District Headquarters of Bargarh District, a flourishing town in the western part of Odisha occupies an important place in the cultural map of India for its eleven- day extravaganza in the month of Pousa (from lunar fifth to the full- moon day) that usually falls in December- January period. This spectacular event is nothing but the celebration of ‘Dhanuyatra’ which is considered to be the World’s Largest Open Air Theatre. Rarely there has been such a colorful vision of an Open Air festival in any other part of the country comparable to this fair in terms of length and tenure. This carnival includes emotional as well as devotional participation of the masses. The venue of the festival spreads over more than 30sq km and comprises the whole of Bargarh township along with the nearby village Ambapali.
The word ‘Dhanuyatra’ has been based on the root word “Dhanu”. Dhanu, the bow is not only the symbol of gallantry but also it is the paraphernalia of the warrior. The conceit of Demon king Kansa, that no one would be able to break his Dhanu, has been crumpled down one day. Thus the Yatra or the festival celebrated on this context is named as “Dhanuyatra”. It is the festival of the triumph of good over evil.
It is said that as a way to celebrate the liberation of the newly formed independent India after British rule, the hemalis or the labour class people of Bargarh commenced the festival in 1948. The death of Kansa symbolizes the end of the British Rule. From religious context, Bargarh was then experiencing a synthesis of Vaishnavism and Shaivism which led the concept of Dhanuyatra. Moreover, Sanchar or the Bahak- Gahak dance form of Western Odisha was quite synonymous to this fair. The Sanchar artistes were performing Krishnaleela to assemble and fascinate the throng over the night and played a pivotal role in this festival. To commemorate this, the Subha Stambha (the Auspicious Pillar) is elevated at the centre of the Sanchar Mandali near Hatpada on any auspicious day of lunar fortnight of Margasira, around one month before the commencement of Dhanuyatra. On this occasion rituals are performed for the successful preparation of the festival.
Like many traditional festivals in India, Dhanuyatra is also associated with the agricultural cycle. It is observed just after the harvesting season of paddy, the major crop of this locality.
The plot of Dhanuyatra has been brought from innumerable Hindu scriptures like Haribansa, Krishnaleela, Gopaleela, Raasaleela, Baalaleela etc. All the parts of the drama are enacted by the local actor. It seems as if Dhanuyatra is a perfect blending of myth and reality .As it is an open air theatre, each part and every member of Bargarh town, even a visitor becomes a segment of the natural stage. Thus various episodes are organized at various places from sacred temples to public places like ponds and the entire locality transforms into an open air secular stage of live- show. The geographical setting of Bargarh town approximately conforms to Mathura, King Kansa’s dominion. The river Jeera is considered to be Yamuna and Ambapali, the village across it is assured as “Gopapura” where Baala Krishna grows up. All the people are apprised to be the companions and devotees of Krishna at Gopapura( Ambapali). The whole setting of Ambapali is such that incomparable religious feeling ripples around. When Krishna and Balaram arrive at Bargarh (Mathura) people eagerly receive them and worship them everywhere.
The great drama begins with the marriage of Devaki- Basudeva and culminates after the death of Kansa and ascending the throne by Ugrasen. The Mythological activities of around eleven years are neatly compacted to eleven days.
Conventionally, Krishna is considered to be the hero of the mythological events, but Kansa, the villain plays the most significant role in Bargarh Dhanuyatra. His royal tour (Nagar Parikrama) on his royal elephant is the most attractive part of this fair. Accompanied with his assistants this demon King visits various parts of the township and becomes well- informed with the current problems of his subjects. He also orders the concerned authorities to mitigate the problems. Punishing the offenders is an inevitable part of Bargarh Dhanuyatra. King Kansa summons the wrongdoers to his royal court (Raj Darbar) and punishes them by imposing monetary fine or mild physical punishment. For the entire eleven days festival, the people of Bargarh and visitors oblige to the dictation of King Kansa. Even the district administration is pledged to carry out the orders. What makes the entire drama lively is that Kansa Maharaj has the authority to haunt up anyone irrespective of social, political or official status. He seems to be the real monarch, but to some extent his system symbolizes good governance.
Bunde Rath of Deogaon performed this role with much perfection in the first Dhanuyatra. Similarly,Bhimsen Tripathy Yudhisthir Satpathy, Radheshyam Dash, Debendra Biswal, Nilanchal Dash, Sanjeeb Kumar Dash, Gopal Sahu, Hrusikesh Bhoi, Bhubaneswar Pradhan etc, have exhibited their brilliant performance as King Kansa. By the same token the most adorable role of Krishna is played by various young artistes . Pranabandhu Kar acted as Baal Krishna in the first Dhanuyatra. All the artistes of the great drama perform their parts flawlessly and due to their unwavering effort the eminence of Bargarh Dhanuyatra has touched the pinnacle.
Dhanuyatra of Bargarh makes a hit with lakhs of people every day and provides ample of opportunities to all the performers. This stage has also brought many eminent personalities who have excelled in their respective fields. People of different class, caste, sects and religions unite here and their togetherness helps in the betterment of a better secular social system. This festival is a main promoter of socio-cultural development of the locality.
The economic importance of Bargarh Dhanuyatra is undeniable. As it is the harvesting season the rural folk are agreeable to spend. So they throng not only at the entertainment points but also at the commercial centres. The artisans of far and near get an opportunity to sale and display their products. This fair attracts tourists from round the country and even from foreign lands.
Bargarh Dhanuyatra is one of the most popular folk-fairs performed in the largest possible open-air-stage with an obligation to the social involvement and has been transmitting the socio-cultural substantiality from generation to generation.