Baitarani – The Sacred River

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    Since the dawn of civilization, majestic rivers have served as the cradle of great societies. Along their lush banks, bustling cities and holy sites have flourished, shaping the very fabric of human history. While rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna, and Narmada have been venerated for ages, the story of one of Eastern India's most sacred rivers - the Baitarani - remains to be told. This is the captivating tale of the Baitarani, its profound spiritual significance, and the legends that surround its sacred waters.

    “Vaitarani Papahari Gangayah Pratirupini snane, paphari devi vaitarani namostute”

    For aeons, pilgrims have reverently intoned this sacred hymn to the River Baitarani as they immerse themselves in its waters. This timeless chant bears witness to the profound sanctity of the Baitarani river – as a divine conduit that has long served as a gateway to purification and ultimate liberation.

    The Path of the Sacred River

    The River Baitarani is one of the six major rivers of Odisha , which along with rivers like Mahanadi and Brahmani forms a fertile delta. Emerging from the Gonasika (“Cow Nose Shaped”) Hills in Kheojhar district of Odisha, it flows through Mayurbhanj, Balasore and Jajpur and finally enters the Bay of Bengal near Dhamra Fisingh Port.

    The geography of the region is characterized by lush green forests, rolling hills, and sprawling farmlands, all of which owe their vitality to the life-giving waters of the river. The Baitarani is fed by several tributaries along its journey, the most prominent among them being the Brahmani and the Salandi rivers. These tributaries lend their own unique character to the river's flow, creating a tapestry of colors and sounds that is a feast for the senses. The river passes through several small towns and villages in Jajpur district, providing a lifeline to the local communities that depend on it for sustenance and livelihood.

    The whole course of the river is sacred for Hindus with numerous religious places dotting its banks. But the region around the river, while flowing through Jajpur district is considered the most sacred.

    River Baitarani in the Epics and the Puranas

    Interestingly, the Baitarani river also finds mention in Hindu epics like Mahabharata, Ramayana as well as in the Puranas. We find reference to the river in Ramayana as

    Santaryah manan Vaitaranim Vahusah Santodhikam . Valukasu cha taptasu tapyamanan muhurmuhu”

    It is translated as the river on whose banks “the sages perform penance by walking on hot sand”. There are several references to the river in Mahabharata as well. In the Vana Parva of Mahabharata, Rishi Lomas advises the Pandavas to prayers at the Viraja Tirtha on the banks of Baitarani –

    ‘Tato Vaitarani Gacchet, Sarvapapa Pramochainim Virajah’

    Later, there is a reference to Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas expressing an opinion that the waters of River Baitarani liberates men from sins and leads to Moksha. Similar references are also found in two of the most important Puranas – the Vayu Purana as well as the Brahma Purana.

    The Vayu Purana, one of the most revered texts in Hinduism, exalts the River Baitarani for its power to liberate ancestors from sin. According to the Vayu Purana, those seeking to perform ancestral rites must offer Pindas to their forefathers, take a dip in the sacred waters of the river, and pay homage to the great Srivaraha or the Varaha avatar of Lord Vishnu. Similarly, the Brahma Purana extols the virtues of the Baitarani in grandiose language, proclaiming that those who bathe in its holy waters are absolved of all sins.

    References to the sacredness of the Baitarani river are also found in medieval texts like the Kapila Samhita and Viraja Kshetra Mahatmya. The Baitarani is hailed as higher in sanctity than even the Ganges, for it is on its banks , in the Viraja Kshetra (modern day Jajpur) that Shiva, Vishnu, and Parvati dwell together. As a result, the entire stretch of the river along the Jajpur district of Odisha, is dotted with temples and ghats.

    Baitarani Tirtha – A Historical context

    To understand the historic context of why did river Baitarani emerge as the ‘Sacred river’ , we need to understand the emergence of ‘Tirthas’ in Hinduism. The belief in the ritual holiness of water and rivers , which are a factor contributing to the historic rise of the tirthas finds mention ,not only in the Rigveda but dates back to the Harappan times. But the ‘Tirthas’ along the banks of the rivers, only began to gain religious importance with the revival of Hinduism under the Gupta empire in the 4th century CE.

    Noted historian Diana Eck in her research paper ‘India's Tīrthas: Crossings in Sacred Geography’ (1981) looks very closely at the emergence of the Tirthas from 4th century onwards. The word ‘Tirtha’ is derived from Sanskrit word ‘Tarati’ which means ‘to cross over and generally refers to either a ‘river ford’ or a bathing place. These places were considered sacred connections between the heaven and earth. Over time , this ‘Heaven-Earth’ connection led to emergence of Tirthas’ like Haidwar, Gaya, Prayag and with Viraja (Jajpur) as places for performing Pindadaan rituals for ancestors.

    The fertile lands around the Baitarani’s banks led to the emergence of Human settlement in Jajpur since the Neolithic period. As the forests were clearing and stable agriculture emerged, River Baitarani’s importance grew for local inhabitants. Over centuries, the locally important River Baitarani and the Viraja Tirtha on its banks became incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. In the medieval period, dynasties like the Bhuamkaras, Somavanshis and the Eastern Gangas built a number of temples and ghats on its banks, solidifying the river’s sacred reputation.

    Thousands of years of climate change and river patterns have meant that River Baitarani is no longer the great river that it once was. Infact, there are references that by the end of the 19th century, the river had run dry and pilgrims could not bathe at the sacred Dashashwamedha Ghat. A series of embankments had to be constructed by the British administration between 1892-92, to divert the water back to the river and revive it.

    Even in modern times, the River Baitarani retains its sacred allure. Every year, devotees in the hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage to Jajpur, for a purifying dip in its hallowed waters. The very essence of sanctity and transcendence is embodied in the River Baitarani, beckoning believers to immerse themselves in its pristine currents and transcend the mundane world for a fleeting moment of spiritual grace.

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