Baseli Puja is also known as Chaiti Ghoda. In the month of Chaitra there is an exclusive festival for the bonafide fishermen community of Orissa who are popularly known as Keuta (Kaivatra). This festival is held for a full month beginning from Chaitra parba (Full moon of Chaitra in March) and ending with Baisakh Purnima (Full moon in April). During this festival Baseli, the horse-headed deity of the community is propitiated. She is considered to be the tutelar deity of the community. She may be considered as a form of Mother Goddess who was earlier formless. Later she took various forms according to the conception and needs of the various communities living all over the country.
By 5th-6th century A.D., worship of Shakti had gained tremendous prominence in Orissa. One of the four celebrated ‘Peethas'(centres) of Buddhist Tantricism in India was located in Orissa. The Peethas had not only the support of a number of Sadhakas to go ahead with their spiritual pursuits but also gave an impetus to the people in general to appreciate the Tantric practices. Rigorous religious practices involved in the Tantric way of worship became wide-spread.
It is believed that this festival originated during 10-11th centuries when Hindu Tantra and Buddha Tantra merged into one. Baseli is one of the various deities of Tantra culture which evolved during this period. The horse-headed deity is seated on an earthern platform. She wears a blood-red cloth in her full feminine form. In temples and places of worship She is propitiated on each Saturdays and Tuesdays throughout the year. During the festival period where there are no such images; only the horse-head made out of wood is worshipped. Peculiarly the worshipping takes place in a house and that is Dhinkisala (the place where paddy is husked). It is because, the subsidiary profession of the community is to prepare and sell flattened rice(chuda).
Worship of Baseli or Basuli and the Dummy-horse dance inexplicably connected with its rituals and celebrations is the most important festival of the fishermen who observe it with great devotion and austerity. The details for the worship have been enunciated in ‘Kaibarta Gupta Geeta’ by Achyutananda Das, a mystic Oriya poet of 15th century A.D. Various legends prevail about the birth of the community and their tutelar deity and this particular text records one. According to this Geeta, when the world was in a deluge Vishnu Bhagwan could not find a place to rest. So, He by His spiritual power reduced his form and rested on a floating Banyan leaf. As it was all the while dwindling on the stormy waves of the ocean He created a man out of the dirt of His ear-zone and asked him to hold the leaf still with the help of a row (kandiara). But, soon he fell into deep slumber. In the meantime a huge demoniac fish Raghab swallowed the man. Again the leaf began dwindling and God’s sleep was disturbed To His utter surprise He found the man missing. By intuition He could know everything and at once killed the Raghaba and got the man out. Then God transformed the banyan leaf in to a horse. He summoned Biswakarma and asked him to build a boat immediately. Then He said to the man “Hence-forward you and your community will be known as Kaibarta and you would be the king among them. Go to the country of Simhala and rule there happily. Make this horse your carrier and use this boat for trading. As you were swallowed and almost got killed by a fish, generation by generation you would kill the species and live on them.” Baseli, became the name of the horse and God asked the man to worship him as his tutelar deity on the full-moon day of Chaitra. Since then the tradition is followed.
The Dasa king sailed to Simhala with the horse by boat. There he ruled for many years. The horse died at the age of one lakh years and out of his carcass came out a damsel as beautiful as Lakshmi. She approached the king and lamented that no longer the name of Baseli would be associated with her. Taken by surprise the king was terrified. He then prayed Vishnu for His counsel. The God again directed, “This woman will be known hence-forth as Aswini Baseli whom you would propitiate for generations. Then only you can attain Baikuntha”. Since then the woman became Goddess Baseli with a horse-head and continued to be venerated by the fishing community.
Another legend is associated with the worship of the horse-head and the horse-headed deity. It is said that after the death of Baseli, the sacred horse God distributed his limbs among fishermen, confectioners (Gudia), oil-merchants (Teli) and cobblers (Mochi). They continued to worship the limbs. Some time after an idea struck to them. All of them agreed to assemble the limbs and have the full form of the deity (horse) and worship him commonly. This was done. At one time the Kaibartas and the Gudias vied with each other. A communal riot ensued, Gudias being rich and powerful locked the deity in a house and deprived the Kaibartas from worship. The helpless Kaibartas simply prayed the deity with utmost devotion for His return. Moved by the prayers of the Kaivartas he crushed the wall with the force of his hoofs and escaped to their camp. Being enraged the Gudias chopped of his head and even then, the head lived to accept worship and offerings from the Kaivartas. It is, therefore, the Kaivartas who worship the horse-head separately.
Inexplicably connected with the festival is Dummy-horse dance of the community. On the auspicious day of Chaitra Purnami, the Kaibartas worship a Bamboo with vermillion, candle-paste, butter-lamp etc. Then the bamboo is split ceremonially into pieces out of which only twelve are taken out for preparation of the frame of the dummy-horse. The frame is dyed red with red clay and then covered with a Pata (indigenous silk cloth). Then a painted horse-head made out of wood is fixed to the frame. A garland of Mandara (Hibiscus) flowers is placed on the neck during worship. This particular garland is always intended for mother goddess. Thus the dummy-horse is worshipped till the eighth day of the dark fortnight after which it is taken out for dance. A man enters the cavity and hangs the frame on the shoulders and then dances to the rhythm of Dhol (country drum). Mahuri is the only wind-instrument played during the dance. Songs are sung intermittently in votive dedication to the deity. Sometimes the dancer gets possessed and falls in to trance. Then somebody else replaces him. Two other characters Chadhua-Chadhuani or Rauta-Rautani also sing and dance. The male character dances with a long staff in his hand symbolising the profession of fishermen’s rowing of boats. The female character is played by a man. Both of them sing songs of love and daily household chores. Then a song combat ensues which lasts for the whole night. During this portion of the dance the dummy horse is ceremonially placed in the centre and the performance is held in front of it, people sitting all around.
There are regular amateur as well as professional groups for this dance. They perform on payment. Sometimes they move dancing from door to door and collect money. There are five to seven persons in all in a group including dancers and musicians. They continue to dance till Baisakh Purnami when they make a grand finale and then part for the next season.
Now-a-days the votive dancers are not confined only to the Kaivarta community. Since the dummy-horse dance is attached to many Shakti shrines of Odisha also, people of other communities have also taken interest to join the votive dancers.
The dummy-horse dance is mainly prevalent in the coastal districts of Cuttack and Puri. In Puri the dummy-horses are profusely decorated with flowers and the ‘Tahia’ (Archaic head-gear of flowers) presents a magnificent show during dance. When the festival ends the horse-head is taken out ceremonially from the frame and is preserved in a temple. Next year during the festival it is again brought out and repainted for worship and use during the dance.