Despite being one of India’s poorest states, Odisha – formerly known as Orissa (many road signs and web addresses still carry the old name), boasts a rich and distinctive cultural heritage. The state’s coastal plains have the highest concentration of historical and religious monuments – Odisha’s principal tourist attractions. Puri, site of the famous Jagannath temple and one of the world’s most spectacular devotional processions, the Rath Yatra, combines the heady intensity of a Hindu pilgrimage centre with the hedonistic pleasures of the beach. Just a short hop off the main Kolkata–Chennai road and railway, the town is a popular destination for backpackers. Konark, a short way up the coast, has the ruins of Odisha’s most ambitious medieval temple, whose surfaces writhe with exquisitely preserved sculpture, including some eyebrow-raising erotica. The ancient rock-cut caves and ornate temples of Bhubaneswar, the state capital, hark back to an era when it ruled a kingdom stretching from the Ganges delta to the mouth of the River Godavari.
Away from the central “golden triangle” of sights, foreign travellers are few and far between, though you’ll see plenty of Bengali tourists travelling throughout coastal Odisha. In the winter, the small islands dotted around Chilika Lake, a huge saltwater lagoon south of Bhubaneswar, is good for birdwatchers. Further north, in the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary, a remote stretch of beach is the nesting site for rare Olive Ridley turtles.
From the number of temples in Odisha, you’d be forgiven for thinking Brahmanical Hinduism was its sole religion. In fact, almost a quarter of the population are adivasi, or “tribal” (literally “first”) people, thought to have descended from the area’s pre-Aryan aboriginal inhabitants. In the more inaccessible corners of the state many of these groups have retained unique cultural traditions and languages, though dam builders, missionaries, “advancement programmes” initiated by the state government, and the activities of Maoist rebels continue to threaten their way of life.Read More
Other than scattered fragmentary remains of prehistoric settlement, Odisha’s earliest archeological find dates from the fourth century BC. The fortified city of Sisupalgarh, near modern Bhubaneswar, was the capital of the Kalinga dynasty, about which little is known. In the third century BC, the ambitious Mauryan emperor Ashoka routed the Kalingan kingdom in a battle so bloody that the carnage was supposed to have inspired his legendary conversion to Buddhism. Rock edicts erected around the empire extol the virtues of the new faith, dharma, as well as the principles that Ashoka hoped to instil in his vanquished subjects. With the demise of the Mauryans, Kalinga enjoyed something of a resurgence. Under the imperialistic Chedi Jain dynasty, vast sums were spent expanding the capital and on carving elaborate monastery caves into the nearby hills of Khandagiri and Udaigiri. During the second century BC, however, the kingdom gradually splintered into warring factions and entered a kind of Dark Age. The influence of Buddhism waned, Jainism all but vanished, and Brahmanism, disseminated by the teachings of the Shaivite zealot Lakulisha, started to resurface as the dominant religion.
A golden age
Odisha’s golden age, during which the region’s prosperous Hindu rulers created some of South Asia’s most sophisticated art and architecture, peaked in the twelfth century under the Eastern Gangas. Fuelled by the gains from a thriving trade network (which extended as far east as Indonesia), the Ganga kings erected magnificent temples where Shiva worship and arcane tantric practices adopted by earlier Odishan rulers were replaced by new forms of devotion to Vishnu. The shrine of the most popular royal deity of all, Lord Jagannath, at Puri, was by now one of the four most hallowed religious centres in India.
In the fifteenth century, the Afghans of Bengal swept south to annex the region, with Man Singh’s Mughal army hot on their heels in 1592. That even a few medieval Hindu monuments escaped the excesses of the ensuing iconoclasm is miraculous, and non-Hindus have never since been allowed to enter the most holy temples in Puri and Bhubaneswar. In 1751 the Marathas from western India ousted the Mughals as the dominant regional power. The East India Company, meanwhile, was also making inroads along the coast, and 28 years after Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1765, Odisha finally came under British rule.
Following Independence, the state has sustained rapid development. Discoveries of coal, bauxite, iron ore and other minerals stimulated considerable industrial growth and improvements to infrastructure. Despite such urban progress, however, Odisha remains a poor rural state (around 55 percent of children are malnourished, for example), heavily dependent on agriculture to provide for the basic needs of its forty million or so inhabitants.
Events of recent years have damaged the state’s reputation. Violent Maoist (Naxalite) activity in rural areas has increased, drawing an often equally violent response from government forces. In March 2012, two Italian travellers visiting tribal areas in the Kandhamal area were kidnapped by Naxalites and held for almost a month, before being released unharmed. There have also been attacks against the state’s Christian minority by Hindu fundamentalists, who, in 2008, killed at least seventy people and forced tens of thousands from their homes.
An ongoing campaign by environmental and human rights groups, meanwhile, has been vociferous in its opposition to the multinational corporation Vedanta, which is pushing ahead with plans to develop a bauxite mine on Niyamgiri mountain in eastern Odisha, considered sacred by the local adivasi community.
Odishan temples constitute one of the most distinctive regional styles of religious architecture in South Asia. They were built according to strict templates set down one thousand years or more ago in a body of canonical texts called the Shilpa Shastras. These specify not only every aspect of temple design, but also the overall symbolic significance of the building. Unlike Christian churches or Islamic mosques, Hindu shrines are not simply places of worship but objects of worship in themselves – recreations of the “Divine Cosmic Creator-Being” or the particular deity enshrined within them. For a Hindu, to move through a temple is akin to entering the very body of the god glimpsed at the moment of darshan, or ritual viewing, in the shrine room. In Odisha, this concept also finds expression in the technical terms used in the Shastras to designate the different parts of the structure: the foot (pabhaga), shin (jangha), torso (gandi), neck (kantha), head (mastaka) and so forth.
Most temples are made up of two main sections. The first and most impressive of these is the deul, or sanctuary tower. A soaring, curvilinear spire with a square base and rounded top, the deul symbolizes Meru, the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe. Its intricately ribbed sides, which in later buildings were divided into rectangular projections known as raths, usually house images of the accessory deities, while its top supports a lotus-shaped, spherical amla (a motif derived from an auspicious fruit used in Ayurvedic medicine as a purifying agent). Above that, the vessel of immortality, the kalasha, is crowned by the presiding deity’s sacred weapon, a wheel (Vishnu’s chakra) or trident (Shiva’s trishul). The actual deity occupies a chamber inside the deul. Known in Oriya as the garbha griha, or inner sanctum, the shrine is shrouded in womb-like darkness, intended to focus the mind of the worshipper on the image of God.
The jagamohana (“world delighter”), which adjoins the sanctuary tower, is a porch with a pyramidal roof where the congregation gathers for readings of religious texts and other important ceremonies. Larger temples, such as the Lingaraj in Bhubaneswar and the Jagannath in Puri, also have structures that were tacked on to the main porch when music and dance were more commonly performed as part of temple rituals. Like the jagamohana, the roofs of the nata mandir (the dancing hall) and bhoga-mandapa (the hall of offerings) are pyramidal. The whole structure, along with any smaller subsidiary shrines (often earlier temples erected on the same site), is usually enclosed with in a walled courtyard.
An evolving style
Over the centuries, Odishan temples became progressively grander and more elaborate. It’s fascinating to chart this transformation as you move from the earlier buildings in Bhubaneswar to the acme of the region’s architectural achievement, the stunning Sun Temple at Konark. Towers grow taller, roofs gain extra layers, and the sculpture, for which the temples are famous all over the world, attains a level of complexity and refinement unrivalled before or since.
Olive ridley turtles
Olive ridley turtles
Every year around February or March, a strip of beach at the end of Odisha’s central river delta witnesses one of the world’s most extraordinary natural spectacles. Having swum right across the Pacific and Indian oceans, an average of around 200,000 female Olive Ridley marine turtles crawl onto the sand to nest. Almost as soon as the egg laying is complete, they’re off again into the surf to begin the journey back to their mating grounds on the other side of the world.
No one knows quite why they travel such distances, but for local villagers the arrival of the giant turtles has traditionally been something of a boon. Turtle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and extra cash from market sales. Over the years the annual slaughter began to turn into a green gold rush, and turtle numbers plummeted drastically until the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary on Gahirmatha beach, 130km northeast of Bhubaneswar, was set up in 1975 at the personal behest of Indira Gandhi. Weeks before the big three- or four-day invasion, coastguards monitor the shoreline and armed rangers aim to keep poachers at bay. For wildlife enthusiasts it’s a field day.
In recent years, however, environmental threats have impacted on the turtles’ habitat. Several hundred local families have begun to cultivate land within the sanctuary, water quality has been jeopardized by the growth of illegal prawn farms, and trawlers have been caught illegally fishing in the area without “turtle excluder devices”. The turtles are further menaced by industrial pollution and the construction of a large seaport at Dhamra, 15km from Gahirmatha. Several conservation organizations, including Greenpeace and the WWF, are monitoring the area. In January 2010, the bodies of around one thousand dead turtles (according to official estimates) were found on the beach; although this is horrifyingly high, it was less than half of the figure for the previous year.