Bargah (Orissa), Jan 17: In an unique and rare form of festivity, the remote Bargah town in Orissa is transformed into the world's largest open-air theatre as episodes from the life of Lord Krishna enthrall audience.
The town celebrates the "Dhanu" (Bow) festival, which marks the triumph of Lord Krishna over his tyrant uncle-king "Kansa", who had imprisoned his parents and forced him to live in exile for years. While Bargah has been redone as the Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, the town's million-odd people are literally living life back in time. People not only dress up in styles dating back to the mythological times but different places, settlements and even rivers are addressed by classical names adopted from the Mahabharata.
According to scholars, the origin of "Dhanu Yatra" is obscure. Some say it was very popular in the 18th century while others argue that it started in the 16th century. Although the festival celebrated its official golden jubilee in 1999, there is evidence to believe that the Yatra was instituted during the British regime.
The increasing popularity of the festival, is earning rich dividends to artisans and weavers. "One thousand actors participate in these eleven days. Actors utilize the stage to perform their art. Weavers and artisans utilize the occasion to sell their products. Every year the popularity of this is rising, more and more tourists are attracted, including foreigners," said Shyam Sunder Raghav, President of the Dhanu Yatra Committee.
Ironically, the hero of the entire drama is Lord Krishna but it is Kansa whose characterization dominates the festival.
Hundreds compete to play one of Indian mythology's most hated characters. Kansa was a very dominant king of his time and playing his part literally means that the subjects bow before him.
Gopal Sahu, a police officer who has been playing the coveted part, is overwhelmed by the attention.
"Nobody can dare to defy the orders of King Kansa. If one gets corporal or monetary punishment, he accepts it with obedience. I like the character of king Kansa," he said.
The joy ride doesn't end here, Kansa, astride a decorated elephant, goes on a city roundup every morning. During the tour, he imposes fines on anybody he chooses to.
In 1994, the then chief minister Biju Patnaik, who attended the yatra, was summoned to Kansa's Durbar. Patnaik not only obliged but also deposited a fine for a punishment served on him.
Visitors enjoy the occasion and flock in along with their children. "We enjoy here a lot. By seeing stalls of balloons, ice candies and swings, we feel as if we are back to our childhood days," said Anjana Debta, a visitor.
Apart from the history what adds real interest to the festival is the visual impact and mingling of mythology and modernity.