SAH MKK230027: The History of Orissa: An Introduction

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 16th C.

(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.

Later, Cuttack became the centre for lace-like exquisite silver filigree work, (known as Tarakashi) when Orissa was brought under Mughal rule.

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 Buddism.

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.

Yogini Cults

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 and Ranipur-Jharial.

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.

Popular 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 coastal belt.

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 rule.

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 of Bengali.

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.


1. History of Oriya Literature: Mayadhar Mansinha (Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi)

2. Bulletins of the Indian Historical Review (Indian Council of Historical Research) and issues of Social Science Probings (Ed. R. S. Sharma)


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