Despite being one of India’s poorest states, ORISSA boasts a rich and distinctive cultural heritage. The coastal plains have the highest concentration of historical and religious monuments – Orissa’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, Puri is a popular destination for backpackers. Konark, a short way up the coast, has the ruins of Orissa’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 Bengalis travelling throughout coastal Orissa. In the winter, the small islands dotted around Chilika Lake, a huge salt-water 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 Orissa, 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. So-called “ethnic” tourism is the latest encroachment on the adivasis’ way of life, following in the wake of dam builders, missionaries and “advancement programmes” initiated by the state government.
Getting around presents few practical problems if you stick to the more populated coastal areas. National Highway 5 and the Southeast Railway, which cut in tandem down the coastal plain via Bhubaneswar, are the main arteries of the region. A branch line also runs as far as Puri, connecting it by frequent, direct express trains to Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. Elsewhere, buses are the best way to travel.
Other than scattered fragmentary remains of prehistoric settlement, Orissa’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.
Orissa’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 Orissan 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, Orissa finally came under British rule.
Since Independence, the state has sustained rapid development. Discoveries of coal, bauxite, iron ore and other minerals have stimulated considerable industrial growth and improvements to infrastructure. Despite such urban progress, however, Orissa remains a poor rural state (55 percent of children are malnourished, for example), heavily dependent on agriculture to provide for the basic needs of its 38 million inhabitants.
Events of recent years have damaged the state’s reputation. Violent Maoist (or Naxalite) activity in rural areas has increased, drawing an often equally violent response from government forces. In 2008, there was a wave of attacks against the Christian minority by Hindu fundamentalists, who killed at least seventy people and forced tens of thousands from their homes. An ongoing campaign by environmental and human rights groups 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 Orissa, considered sacred by the local adivasi community.Read More
The chances of coinciding with a festival while in Orissa are good, since the state celebrates many of its own as well as all the usual Hindu festivals.
(mid-Jan). Pilgrims descend on a tiny island in Chilika Lake to leave votive offerings in a cave for the goddess Kali.
(Jan 26–Feb 1). Bhubaneswar’s “tribal” fair is a disappointing cross between New York’s Coney Island and an agricultural show, though it does feature good live music and dance.
(Jan & Feb). During the full-moon phase of Magha, a small pool at Chandrabhaga beach, near Konark, is swamped by thousands of worshippers in honour of Surya, the sun god and curer of skin ailments.
(early April). In various regions, on the first day of Vaisakha, saffron-clad penitents carrying peacock feathers enter trances and walk on hot coals.
(mid-April). Santals (the largest of Orissa’s many adivasi groups) perform Chhou dances at Baripada in Mayurbhunj district, northern Orissa.
(April & May). Bhubaneswar’s own Car Festival (a procession of temple chariots), when the Lingaraj deity takes a dip in the Bindu Sagar tank.
(May & June). Commemorating the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, celebrated in Sambalpur and Bhubaneswar.
(June & July). The biggest and grandest of Orissa’s festivals. Giant images of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra make the sacred journey from the Jagannath temple to Gundicha Mandir in Puri.
(Nov & Dec). Commemorates the voyages made by Orissan traders to Indonesia. Held at full moon on the banks of the River Mahanadi in Cuttack.
(early Dec). A festival of classical dance featuring Orissan and other regional dance forms in the Sun Temple at Konark.
Orissan temples constitute one of the most distinctive regional styles of religious architecture in South Asia. They were built according to strict templates set down a thousand or more years 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 Orissa, 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 in a walled courtyard.
Over the centuries, Orissan 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.
Orissan art and artists
Orissan art and artists
Few regions of India retain as rich a diversity of traditional art forms as Orissa. While a browse through the bazaars and emporia in Puri and Bhubaneswar provides a good idea of local styles and techniques, a trip out to the villages where the work is actually produced is a much more memorable way to shop. Different villages specialize in different crafts – a division that harks back to the origins of the caste system in Orissa. Patronage from the nobility and wealthy temples during medieval times allowed local artisans, or shilpins, to refine their skills over generations. As the market for arts and crafts expanded, notably with the rise of Puri as a pilgrimage centre, guilds were formed to control the handing down of specialist knowledge and separate communities established to carry out the work. Today, the demand for souvenirs has given many old art forms a new lease of life.
- Stone sculpture With modern temples increasingly being built out of reinforced concrete, life for Orissa’s stone sculptors is getting tougher. To see them at work, head for Pathuria Sahi (“Stonecarvers’ Lane”) and the famous Sudarshan workshop in Puri, where mastercraftsmen and apprentices still fashion Hindu deities and other votive objects according to specifications laid down in ancient manuals.
- Painting Patta chitra, classical Orissan painting, is closely connected with the Jagannath cult. Traditionally, artists were employed to decorate the inside of the temples in Puri and to paint the deities and chariots used in the Rath Yatra. Later, the same vibrant colour-schemes and motifs were transferred to lacquered cloth or palm leaves and sold as sacred souvenirs to visiting pilgrims. In the village of Raghurajpur near Puri, where the majority of the remaining artists, or chitrakaras, now live, men use paint made from the local mineral stones. Specialities include sets of ganjiffa – small round cards used to play a trick-taking game based on the struggle between Rama and the demon Ravana, as told in the Ramayana.
- Palm-leaf manuscripts Palm leaves, or chitra pothi, have been used as writing materials in Orissa for centuries. Using a sharp stylus called a lohankantaka, the artist first scratches the text or design onto the surface of palm leaves, then applies a paste of turmeric, dried leaves, oil and charcoal. When the residue is rubbed off, the etching stands out more clearly. Palm-leaf flaps are often tied onto the structure so an innocent etching of an animal or deity can be lifted to reveal Kama Sutra action. The best places to see genuine antique palm-leaf books, however, are the National Museum in New Delhi or the State Museum in Bhubaneswar.
- Textiles Distinctive textiles woven on handlooms are produced throughout Orissa. Silk saris from Brahmapur and Sambalpur are the most famous, though ikat, which originally came to Orissa via the ancient trade links with Southeast Asia, is also typical. It is created using a tie-dye-like technique known as bandha, also employed by weavers from the village of Nuapatna, 70km from Bhubaneswar, who produce silk ikats covered in verses from the scriptures for use in the Jagannath temple.
- Appliqué The village of Pipli has the monopoly on appliqué, another craft rooted in the Jagannath cult. Geometric motifs and stylized birds, animals and flowers are cut from brightly coloured cloth and sewn onto black backgrounds. Pipli artists are responsible for the chariot covers used in the Rath Yatra as well as for the small canopies, or chhatris, suspended above the presiding deity in Orissan temples.
- Metalwork Tarakashi (literally “woven wire”), or silver filigree, is Orissa’s best-known metalwork technique. Using lengths of wire made by drawing strips of silver alloy through small holes, the smiths create distinctive ornaments, jewellery and utensils for use in rituals and celebrations. The designs are thought to have come to India from Persia with the Mughals, though the existence of an identical art form in Indonesia, with whom the ancient Orissan kingdoms used to trade, suggests that the technique itself may be even older. Tarakashi is now only produced in any quantity in Cuttack and is becoming a dying art-form.
Most of Orissa’s adivasi groups live in the remote southwest of the state, and once over the pass above the hot springs of Taptapani, the appearance of pots attached to sago palms and windowless mud huts with low thatched roofs indicates that you’ve arrived in the traditional land of the Saoras. Further west around the Koraput and Jeypore area live the Dongria Kondh, the Koya and the Bondas.
Officially, you’re not allowed into the district without first obtaining a permit from the local police superintendent: concern about Naxalites hiding out in the forests along the Andhra Pradesh border, coupled with a marked reluctance to allow foreigners into tribal zones, make these notoriously difficult to obtain. This, alongside the minimal infrastructure, rudimentary accommodation and unreliable public transport around the region, means that if you’re really keen to visit adivasi villages, the best way is to arrange a tour (from around Rs1000/person/day) through a specialist travel agent in Bhubaneswar or Puri, who will take care of all the arrangements. Grass Routes (t09437/029698, wwww.grassroutesjourneys.com) in Puri is considered by some NGOs to be one of the more culturally aware operators. Discover Tours (t0674/243 0477, wwww.orissadiscover.com) in Bhubaneswar has guides with many years’ experience and similarly makes every effort not to intrude where outsiders are not welcome.
That said, adivasi villages see little or no share of the spoils of such tours, a situation they feel justifiably angry about, and you may receive a very frosty reception. Whichever way you look at it, turning up in an isolated and culturally sensitive place with a camera has got to be a pretty unsound way of “meeting” the locals, and a glance from a car is hardly likely to enlighten you on traditions that have existed for centuries.