The history of Orissa makes an interesting case-study in that it's history is in many
ways atypical from that of the northern plains and many of the common generalizations that are made about Indian history do
not seem to apply to the Oriya region.
The word Oriya is an anglicised version of Odia which itself is a modern name
for the Odra or Udra tribes that inhabited the central belt of modern Orissa. Orissa has also been the home
of the Kalinga and Utkal tribes that played a particularly prominent role in the region's history, and one of
the earliest references to the ancient Kalingas appears in the writings of Vedic chroniclers. In the 6th C.
BC, Vedic Sutrakara Baudhayana mentions Kalinga as being beyond the Vedic fold, indicating that
Brahminical influences had not yet touched the land. Unlike some other parts of India, tribal customs and traditions played
a significant role in shaping political structures and cultural practices right up to the 15th C. when Brahminical influences
triumphed over competing traditions and caste differentiation began to inhibit social mobility and erode what had survived
of the ancient republican tradition.
Very early in Kalingan history, the Kalingas acquired a reputation
for being a fiercely independant people. Ashoka's military campaign against Kalinga was one of the bloodiest in Mauryan
history on account of the fearless and heroic resistance offered by the Kalingas to the mighty armies of the expanding Mauryan
empire. Perhaps on account of their unexpected bravery, emperor Ashoka was compelled to issue two edicts specifically calling
for a just and benign administration in Kalinga.
Unsurprisingly, Mauryan rule over Kalinga did not last long.
By the 1st C. BC, Kalinga's Jain identified ruler Kharavela had become the pre-eminent monarch of much of the sub-continent
and Mauryan Magadha had become a province of the Kalingan empire. The earliest surviving monuments of Orissa (in Udaigiri
near Bhubaneshwar) date from his reign, and surviving inscriptions mention that Prince Kharavela was trained not only in the
military arts, but also in literature, mathematics, and the social sciences. He was also reputed to be a great patron of the
arts and was credited with encouraging dance and theater in his capital.
Although the bravery of the Kalingas became legendary, and
finds mention in the Sahitya Darpan, it is important to note that a hereditary warrior caste like the Kshatriyas
did not take hold in the region. Soldiers were drawn from the peasantry as needed and rank in the military depended as much
on fighting skills and bravery as on hereditary factors. In this (and other) respects, Oriya history resembles more the history
of the nations of South East Asia, and may have been one of the features of Oriya society that allowed it to successfully
fend off 300 years of raids initiated by numerous Islamic rulers untill the 16th century.
Metallurgy, Crafts and Trade
Owing to it's vast mineral resources, metallurgy developed
quite naturally in ancient Orissa and may have been an additional factor in catapulting the region to considerable importance
during the iron age. Iron tools were used in agricultural production, digging irrigation canals, stone-quarrying, cave excavation
and later monumental architecture. Rice cultivation got a particular fillip and during the iron age irrigation works from
Orissa spread to the regions of ancient Andhra and Tamil Nadu around 300 BC (See
M.S. Randhawa: A history of agriculture in India, Vol. 1. New Delhi.) Orissa also became a major steel producing centre and steel beams were extensively used in the monumental temples
of Bhubaneshwar and Puri.
Being a coastal region, maritime trade played an important
role in the development of Oriya civilization. Cultural, commercial and political contacts with South East Asia, particularly
Southern Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia were especially extensive and maritime enterprises play an interesting part in Oriya
folk-tales and poetry. Historical records suggest that around the 7th C. AD, the Kongoda dynasty from central Orissa may have
migrated to Malaysia and Indonesia. There is also evidence of exchange of embassies with China. Records of Oriya traders being
active in the ports of South East Asia are fairly numerous and in his descriptions of Malacca, Portuguese merchant Tome Pires indicates that traders from Orissa were active in the busy port as late as the
(There is evidence to suggest that trade contact between
Eastern India and Thailand may date as far back as the 3rd or 4th C BC. Himanshu Ray (The Winds of Change - Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia) suggests that at least eight oceanic
routes linked the Eastern Coast of India with the Malayan pensinsula, and after the Iron Age, metals (such as iron, copper
and tin), cotton textiles and foodstuffs comprised the trade. She also suggests that the trade involved both Indian and Malayo-Polynesian
ships. Archealogical evidence from Sisupalgarh (near Bhubaneshwar) in Orissa suggests
that there may also have been direct or indirect trade contacts between ancient Orissa and Rome dating to the 1st-2nd C AD
(or possibly earlier). The chronicles of Huen Tsang refer to Orissa's overseas contacts in the 7th C, and by the 10th C, records
of Orissa's trade with the East begin to proliferate.)
Adequate agricultural production combined with a flourishing
maritime trade contributed to a flowering of Orissan arts and crafts especially textiles. Numerous communities of weavers
and dyers became active throughout the state perfecting techniques like weaving of fine Muslins, Ikat, Sambalpuri
and Bomkai silks and cottons, applique and embroidery. Orissa was also known for it's brass and bell metal work, lacquered
boxes and toys, intricate ivory, wood and stone carvings, patta painting and palm leaf engraving, basket weaving and numerous
other colorful crafts. Often, decorative techniques relied on folk idioms as in the painted, circular playing cards known as Ganjifas.
became the centre for lace-like exquisite silver filigree work, (known as Tarakashi) when Orissa was brought under
Philosophy, Language and Idealogy
Both Buddhism and Jainism played an important role in the
cultural and philosophical developments of early Oriya civilization. Most Buddhist
and Jain texts were written in Pali-Prakrit and the Prakrita Sarvasva, a celebrated Prakrit grammar text was
authored by Markandeya Das, an Oriya. Kharavela's Hatigumpha inscription is in Pali, leading to the speculation that Pali
may have been the original language of the Oriya people.
By the 7th C. AD, Brahminism had also become influential,
especially in the courts and Hiuen Tsang (the well-known Chinese chronicler) observed
how Buddhist Viharas and Brahminic temples flourished side by side. And although royal inscriptions of this time were
in Sanskrit, the most commonly spoken language was not, and according to Hiuen Tsang appeared to be quite distinct from the
language of Central India, and may have been a precursor of modern day Oriya.
But even as the Bhauma Kings of the 6th-8th C issued edicts
in Sanskrit, they patronized numerous Buddhist institutions and the art, architecture and poetry of the period reflected the
popularity of Buddhism in the region.
Later, Orissa's Buddhism came to be modulated by strong Tantric
influences, while a more traditional Vedic and Brahminical version of Hinduism was brought to Orissa by Brahmins from Kannauj.
Shaivism from the South was institutionalized in Puri. In addition, the majority of Orissa's adivasis continued to
practice some form of animism and totem-worship. Unifying all these different traditions was the Shiva-Shakti cult
which evolved from an amalgamation of Shaivism
(worship of Shiva), Shaktism (worship of
the Mother Goddess) and the Vajrayana, or Tantric form of Mahayana
What made possible this fusion was that apart from the formal
distinctions that separated these different religious and philosophical trends, in practical matters, there was a growing
similiarity between them. Whereas early Buddhism and the Nyaya school within Hinduism had laid considerable stress on rationalism
and scientific investigation of nature, later Buddhism and the Shaivite schools both emphasized philosphical variants of concepts
first developed in the Upanishads, along with mysticism and devotion. Tantrism had also developed along a dual track - on
the one hand it had laid emphasis on gaining practical knowledge and a clear understanding of nature - on the other, it too
came steeped in mysticism and magic.
At the same time, the Buddhist ethos had created an environment
where compromise was preferred to confrontation. This allowed tribal deities and gods and goddesses associated with numerous
fertility cults to be integrated into the Hindu pantheon. Tantric constructs also met with some degree of approval.
Since Tantrism emphasized the erotic as a means to spiritual
salvation, the culture of austerity and sexual abstinence that had pervaded early Buddhism was replaced with an unapologetic
embrace of all that was erotic.
Unlike some other parts of India, Oriya society had not yet
been deeply differentiated by caste, and egalitarian values remained well-ingrained amongst the peasant masses. Hence, any
idealogy that championed a hierarchical division of society would have been unacceptable. The Shiva Shakti cult was
a compromise in that while it did not exclude social inequality, it did not preclude social mobility either. In fact, the
cult became popular precisely because it articulated the possibility of upward mobility through the acquisition of knowledge,
skill or energetic personal effort.
Tantric influences were of particular import for the survival
of the Yogini cults in Orissa. The Yogini cults concentrated on
worship of the shakti (female life force), with a belief in the efficacy of magic ritual. In ancient texts, Yoginis are depicted as consorts of Yogis, and like their male companions practiced
yoga to gain mastery over science and acquire magical powers. Some tantric schools associated with the Yogini cults
such as the Kaula Marga prescribed Maithuna
(sexual intercourse) with outcast women or women of low caste as the most consummate soul-lifting experience. Although
Yogini cults were not unique to Orissa, two out of four surviving Yogini temples are to be found in Hirapur
The Hirapur temple is ascribed to the Bhauma and Somavansi
rulers of Orissa (mid 8th - mid 10th C. AD) who were known for their eclectic liberalism and noted for their patronage of philosophy, art, architecture and literature.
While the literature of the court and the intelligentsia was
primarily written in Sanskrit, and included a variety of commentaries and theoretical treatises on religion, politics, art
and literature as well as reworks of the epics, popular literature in Oriya initially focused on folk tales, ballades, creation
myths, devotional songs, love poetry and erotica.
But in the 15th century, the Gangas who were patrons
of many of Orissa's monumental temples were defeated by Kapilendra Deva, who rose from the ranks to found the Surya dynasty.
It was in his reign that Sarala Das wrote a popular Oriya version of the Mahabharatha. Sarala Das arose from
a peasant family and took his name from the goddess Sarala who was worshipped in his village in the district of Cuttack.
He described himself as an unschooled 'Shudra' and became popularly known as Shudra-muni. Although the broad
themes his Mahabharatha match other traditional versions, there is much that was original and written with a popular
sensibility. His version knitted in local folk tales and ballads, and incorporated the ethical and moral values then embraced
by the artisan class and peasantry.
The Chandi Purana,
also written by Sarala Das referred to Yoginis as forms
of the Devi or the Supreme Goddess illustrating the continued popular appeal of the Yogini cults in Orissa's
Thus what emerged in Orissa from the 9th century on was a
heady cocktail of mystical and practical currents that allowed for a certain degree of social mobility and provided space
for ordinary peasants to make contributions to popular literature and poetry.
This stimulated the popularity of reading and since there
were no taboos against learning Oriya, literacy spread in the villages and such popular literature developed a wide mass following.
A network of village libraries housed popular texts in neatly transcribed versions. Illuminated manuscripts and illustrated
epics also became popular. By some accounts, literacy in many villages reached 40% or more before the onslaught of colonial
Decline of Oriya Civilization
The first signsof decline in Oriya society came as the administrators
of the Ganga and Surya kings began to usurp undue privileges and acquire a greater number of hereditary rights.
At the same time, religious affairs began to be dominated by the Puri Brahmins who were instrumental in promoting ever increasing
ritual and unprecedented ceremonial pomp during religious festivals. Tribal deities were slowly edged out as Brahminical gods
acquired supremacy. Social mobility declined and the first concrete appearances of a formalized caste system began to appear.
The Patnaiks, Mahapatras, Nayakas
and others who had played a major role in the royal adminstration, along with the Brahmins comprised the upper-caste elite
as social stratification crystallized.
The silting up of Orissa's major rivers in the 16th C. led
to a severe decline in maritime trade and may have further aggravated socially regressive trends. Orissa also suffered decisive
defeats at the hands of Raja Man Singh (Akbar's military general) and the Marathas, leaving it dismembered and particularly
vulnerable against the British who colonized it soon after the victory in Bengal.
Orissa during Colonial Rule
Like much of India, colonial rule had a devastating impact on the economic and social life
of the Oriya people. Numerous categories of crafts workers, especially weavers and dyers were bankrupted and reduced to abject
poverty. The peasantry suffered under the burden of back-breaking taxes and forced unpaid labour. But the Oriyas did not accept
subjugation without putting up heroic resistance. Just three years after British occupation, Jayakrishna Rajguru - hereditary
priest of the Gajapatis (or the Rajas of Khurda) organized a revolt that ended in tragic defeat and his public hanging at
the hands of the British. In 1818 there was another revolt when the entire state rose up under the leadership of Bakshi Jagabandhu
Vidyadhara of Khurda. For six months the people of Southern Orissa were practically freed from British rule but in the end
the rebellion was ruthlessly quelled and the aftermath was to be disastrous.
The nobility was systematically decimated, the Paikas - the national militia
were disarmed and disinherited, and the peasantry already reduced to virtual slavery. All administrative posts not directly
handled by the British were assigned to Bengalis who were perceived to be more loyal to British rule. From local police constables
to assistant school teachers - Bengalis were hired but Oriyas excluded. Bengali chauvinists in Calcutta defended such a regime,
some even going to the extent of demanding that all Oriyas be taught in Bengali since Oriya was nothing but a minor dialect
Even as urban Bengal received a few concessions like the founding of universities
and cultural societies - Orissa was reduced to a minor outpost of the colonial empire - a cultural wasteland. Orissa's future
was now inextricably linked to the growth of the national struggle in Bengal and the rest of the country, and any hint of
growth in the national movement naturally drew enthusiastic support from nationalist-minded Oriyas.
Although independence brought about dramatic improvements in the lives of all sections
of the population, two centuries of damage wrought by colonial rule could not be easily undone after independence. As evident
from recent census results, high levels of poverty and illiteracy continue to dog the state.
For Orissa to regain it's ancient vitality, it will require not only greater sympathy
from other Indians but a conscious programme of affirmative action from the centre that promotes mass education and employment
opportunities so that Orissa can fully join the Indian mainstream as a vibrant and equal member of the Indian union.
Note: References to ancient Orissa may well include parts of Jharkhand, Southern
Bengal, Chhatisgarh and Northern Andhra - which at various times were politically integrated into the different kingdoms of
ancient and medieval Orissa.