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Home>>East India>>Orissa



Although Orissa or Kalinga is mentioned in the epics, much of the history is obscure. A non-Aryan race is believed to have settled here in the dim past. Then came the Aryans from the north. Out of the gradual blending of the two, a new race and civilization came into being. At the dawn of history, Orissa formed part of the powerful kingdom of Kalinga that was practically coextensive with Oriyan speaking tracts and stretched from the mouth of the River Ganga to that of the Godavari.

The kingdom was a challenge to the Mauryan Empire which was founded by Chandragupta Maurya. In 263 B.C. King Ashoka sent a powerful force to subdue Kalinga which offered stubborn resistance. The carnage that followed is depicted on some of the rock engraved edicts of Kalinga. He deeply regretted being the cause of this war, embraced Buddhism and turned to a life of compassion.

In the first century B.C., under the rule of the third Chedi King, Kharavela, Jainism was restored as the faith of the people. Kharavela, the greatest king ever to rule Kalinga, launched a series of conquests, winning lands as far as Cape Comorin in the south, River Ganga in the north and Maharashtra in the west. During this time, Udaygiri and Khandagiri, 8 km to the west of Bhubaneshwar, became strong centres of the Jain faith.

The fortunes of Kalinga's Chedi dynasty declined with the termination of brief but brilliant career of Kharavela. During the first two centuries of the Christian era it has many thriving ports from where merchants, priests and others sailed to Java, Sumatra, Bali and other places in South-East Asia. The colonies established by these people eventually grow into powerful kingdoms.
About the middle of the 4th century AD, Emperor Samadragupta of Magadha invaded Orissa. In 610 AD, Orissa came under the sway of King Sasanka. Following Sasanka's death in 625 AD, his rival Harsha Vardhana conquered Orissa where he tried to propagate the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism.

About the middle of the 7th century AD the Somvamsi dynasty was established in Orissa. The first powerful ruler of the line, Mahabhavagupta Janamejaya (680 AD - 712 AD), extended his kingdom up to the modern Cuttack. He was succeeded by Mahasivagupta Yayanti I (712 AD - 744 AD ). In 795 AD Mahasivagupta Yayanti II came to the throne and united Kalinga, Kangoda, Utkala and Kosala and revived the imperial tradition of Orissa under Kharavela. He was a great patron of Brahmanism, Yayanti is said to have invited 10,000 learned Brahmins from Kannauj and settled them in Orissa. He is believed to have built a temple to Lord Jagannath at Puri. His son and successor Udyot Kesari Mahabahavagupta (840 AD - 880 AD) was a powerful ruler who espoused the cause of Saivism and built many temples.

In the year 1038 AD, Vajrahasta III of the Eastern Ganga dynasty assumed the title of Trikalingadhipati ( Lord of Trikalinga ), and after thirty years of prosperous rule was succeeded by his son Rajarajadeva Deva I. The next ruler was Anantavarman Chodaganga, who is believed to have erected the tower and assembly hall at the temple of Puri. The Vaishnava kings of the Ganga dynasty were an illustrious line, the most notable among them being Anangabhima I, Rajaraja II, Anangabhima II, and Narashima Deva I. The last emperor is believed to have built the famous Sun Temple at Konarak.

Subsequently, there were frequent Muslim incursions into the State and, about 1361, Firoz Shah personally conducted an expedition into Orissa. Muslim incursions continued with increasing strength till at last, after a period of civil strife, Mukanda Deva, the last Hindu ruler of Orissa, was overthrown by Kala Pahar in 1568 AD. The Afghans held Orissa until 1592 AD, when Akbar's General Man Singh annexed it to the Mughal Empire.

Orissa, ceded to the Marathas by Alivardi Khan in 1751, was conquered by the British in 1803. Two years later it was designated the District of Cuttack and placed in the charge of a Collector, Judge and Magistrate. In 1828 it was split up into the Regulation Districts of Cuttack, Balasore and Puri, and the non-Regulation Tributary States. Sambalpur was added to Orissa in 1905. Orissa was separated from Bihar and made a separate province in 1963 under the Government of India Act of 1935.

After Independence in 1947, the rulers of 26 Orissa States surrendered their authority and jurisdiction to the Government of India. The merger of the Orissa states was completed in 1949. At present, Orissa has 30 districts covering an area of 1,55,707 sq km.


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.


Bhubaneswar is the only civil airport in the state connected to different parts of the country through regular flights. The major cities connected to Bhubaneswar are Kolkata, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. Bhubaneswar and Puri are the major railheads for the state. The extensive railway network connects different parts of the state to the other parts of the country. The National Highways 5, 6, 23, 42, and 43 pass through the state.

By Air: The most convenient access into Orissa is a flight to Bhubaneshwar. Indian Airlines has flights from Hyderabad, Nagpur, Calcutta, Delhi, Raipur, Varanasi, Mumbai and Chennai.

By Rail: Train connections from all parts of the country exist, but are usually long and the non - availability of air-conditioned class travel is a constraint.

By Road : Once in Bhubaneshwar, road travel is the best option, to visit the other attractions in Orissa.

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