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.