The Saga of Odisha – Tale of an ancient land

The Saga of Odisha

Odisha… a state that is a perfect blend of modernity and heritage. Today it is a hub of Information Technology in Eastern India, home to the smartest city in India and occupies pride of place in the industrial and digital revolution of a rising India. Yet even today, you do not encounter only Odisha as you traverse its cities and towns. The heritage and beauty of Kalinga (as Odisha was known historically) accompanies you every step of the way with its culture steeped in spirituality, a rich legacy of performing arts and a treasure trove of artisanal handicrafts. A glimpse into the past shows how monarchs of different eras vied and fought bitter battles to keep the erstwhile state of Kalinga within their grasp. Amongst all the battles fought to assume control over this tranquil state, perhaps the one that catches the imagination the most is the Kalinga war, not only for its devastating consequences for the state but also for the way Odisha changed the life of the most brutal of all kings.

Wars amidst Peace

The seeds of the Kalinga war were sown when the Nanda rulers assumed charge of the Magadha empire. Until the time of Chandragupta Maurya, Kalinga was not a part of the Magadha empire. But when emperor Ashoka came to the throne, he decided it was time to rewrite history. In what turned out to be one of the goriest battles of all times, Ashoka subjugated Kalinga, but not before the fertile soil of Kalinga had turned red with the blood of valiant soldiers.

As the story goes, the sight of the disaster inflicted on this most peaceful of all lands was the turning point in Ashoka’s life. From Chandashoka (Monstrous Ashoka) he became Dharmashoka (Spiritual Ashoka),rewriting the religious history of the land and embracing Buddhism. He propagated the teachings of Gautama Buddha throughout India and even in neighbouring countries. Rock edicts and stupas carrying Buddhism philosophy were constructed in many places of Odisha, the most famous ones being at Dhauligiri and Jaugada.

After this major tumult in the history of Odisha in 261 BCE, the peace-loving state continued its serene existence. The next significant monarch who laid claim to the rich history of the state, albeit with less destruction, is Kharavela of the Mahameghavahana dynasty in the 1st century BCE. Jainism flourished in the state under his patronage. He was responsible for resurrecting the statue of KalingaJina in the state and constructing several Jain caves for the monks. The Khandagiri and Udaygiri caves stand in mute testimony to the propagation of Jainism in the state.

In 1568 CE, disaster struck again in the form of Kalapahada. Leading the Sultanate of Bengal, he almost annihilated this territory. An iconoclast himself, he destroyed everything associated with religion – temples, sculptures, gardens, and entire cities. After his death, the locals rebuilt their lives and their land to bring in a semblance of normalcy to the war-ravaged state torn apart by hatred. The invasion of the Marathas in 1751 was one of the final wars fought here, with the mantle finally passing to British hands in 1803.

The Temple State

Apart from the Buddhist and Jain architecture that had its roots during Ashoka and Kharavela’s reigns, Odisha is also home to the famous Kalinga style of temple architecture which flourished under the patronage of several Hindu kings who ruled over the region during various intermittent periods in the history of the state.

While Somavamshi ruler JajatiKeshari built the famous Lingaraj temple in 11th century AD, the foundation of the epic Srimandira or Jagannath temple at Puri, was laid by Ganga ruler Chodagangadev and completed by Anangabhimadev, giving birth to the Jagannath culture. The Sun temple at Konark was built by Narasinghadev, also of Ganga dynasty, and is considered to be one of the greatest sculptural marvels of all times. Even today, there are temples galore in every city; with mesmerizing architecture that gives visitors a glimpse into the past.

Awe-inspiring craftsmanship

The creativity of the temple architecture and sculptures gradually evolved to create gorgeous masterpieces in the form of handlooms and handicrafts. The serenity, beauty and spirituality of the land transcended into art forms. And so exquisite weaving on silk, cotton and tussar thrived. Intricate carving on stone and wood, delicate filigree work on silver, breath-taking painting on palm leaf, tussar, silk, paper and grass, stunning metal casting (dhokra) to create jewellery and artefacts – Odisha became a treasure trove for art and craft lovers. Besides these, there were the smaller scale craft industries like paddy crafts, solapith, paper mache, bamboo, applique, brass work etc.

These age-old crafts of Odisha are still one of the biggest attractions of Odisha. With a growing consciousness of the need for adapting their designs to today’s audience, the artisans are embracing new-age techniques and modern designs to create pieces that are an amalgamation of modernity and ethnicity. Yet, the techniques are still true to the time hallowed traditions, the material still completely local and the work ethic and craft passed down through generations.

Perhaps no other state in India has been as battle-scarred as Odisha, and perhaps the indomitable spirit of the state is what helped it rise over adversities every time while retaining its innate sense of calm dignity. No wonder then, that Odisha is now called the soul of incredible India.

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