Cultural Mapping Of Orissa: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Professor Dr. L.K. Mahapatra

    Culture is not a bounded entity - not even in prehistoric times. Perhaps, ever since the primeval millennia, when culture - that is, the man-made part of the environment, emerged and defined man as a special animal. As you know, presumably traded marine objects were discovered in the Swiss lake dwelling remains high up in the Alps in Neolithic times. Orissa, lying as it is in the eastern seaboard of India, has received cultural influx, obviously along with human influx, both from North India and South India, when their respective typical lithic tools: pebble – chopper complex and Madras biface complex, mingled and coexisted here right in early palaeolithic times. When populations and cultures coexist and mingle, there is invariably a ferment, some mutual adaptation, and even innovation and carrying forward by hybrid vigour and adaptive success. Of course, we do not have solid evidence of these primeval processes, But the cultural and social adaptations of populations in historic times might be pointers to that. For example, marriage of cross -cousins among the Gond and other tribal and non-tribal peoples of western Orissa, or for that matter, the marriage of cross-cousins and of the elder sister’s daughter in the border-region of South Orissa - Andhra Pradesh among castes, even among the Utkal Brahman caste in line with the Telegu castes including the Brahman, go back to such deep-lying cultural forces. 

    The deltas of large rivers in eastern India and the mountain regions in the hinterland in eastern India must have formed the basic bio-natural resource bases for cultural development and specialization of this region as against other regions, and common cultural heritage within this region. The story may also go back to the days of the spread and migration of Aryan hordes into eastern India, as formulated by Prof RP. Chanda in the first years of Anthropolgical teaching in India at Calcutta University. Supported by linguistic findings of Grierson, he hypothesized on the earlier Aryan hordes of brachycephalic (round—headed) type being pushed to the margins of India’s Indo-Gangetic valley regions by the later long- headed Aryan groups speaking the Inner Aryan languages. Grierson divided Indo-Aryan languages into Outer Aryan and inner Aryan groups, Oriya. Bengali, Assamese. Maithili and the western coast Gujarati falling in the Outer Aryan group. The deltaic region was colonized by Aryan groups and others who were pastoralists and agriculturists, and the hills and forests sheltered the hunters, gatherers and shifting cultivating tribes. Further, the cultural and linguistic continuities between Orissa and other parts of Eastern and Northeastern India with peoples, languages and cultures of Southeast Asia lent other complexities in visualizing Orissa’s culture as a distinct entity, ever since the prehistoric movements of peoples from the Homo Sapiens cradle land in east Africa into Asia and Southeast Asia. (cf Mahapatra, 2003).

    Orissa has been a part of India’s civilization at least since the Mahabharata days when Kalinga’s army fought for the Kaurav in the Mahabharata war. No description of the polity and society of ancient Kalinga has come down to us. Even Emperor Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga did not leave much historical information on the land and society, except the fact that there were forest peoples who were not conquered and who were assured the protection of the emperor. This land was called Kalinga, Oddisa, Kongada, Utkala, Koshala etc. in various parts and in various periods. Orissa of modern times comprised  many chiefdoms, which were often integrated into a larger kingdom, and which fell apart after several decades. Again there was some consolidation of the chiefdoms under another large kingdom in a cyclical process of flux. This part of the country was inhabited since time immemorial by what are known today as tribes of ‘Adivasi’, but who were generally referred to as ‘Savara’ in the epics and Puranas. But we know that for several centuries Orissa was peopled not only by what are today Savara-allied tribes, speaking Munda group of languages, but also by those who were speaking Dravidian group of languages, notably the Gond in western and central areas and the Kondh or Khond in the southern areas. In south Orissa there were also some Savara-allied Munda-speaking tribes. We also know that there were several tribes like Bhuiyan, Bathudi, Purana, and Poroja etc. who were speaking local Oriya dialects.

    However, if we take the more recent history of Orissa since the times of Ganga Dynasty  as our relevant background of study when Oriya script was established, we may describe Orissa as a cultural region with the following: a centralized feudatory states of Kalinga, tribes predominating the population in many of the feudatory states, prevalence of quasi-feudalism in the polity, several religious sects in the Hindu as a religion, the villages characterized by interdependent castes or Jati and patron client relationships, and the central king’s court, royal priests, estates and services paralleling those of the state deity, Lord Jagannatha. Besides a large number of monasteries and temples, small towns and markets comprised the major features of Orissa’s society in those days. To these are to be added the minority groups and their institutions based on Islamic and Christian religions, dating back to the rule of the Mughals and Nawabs of Bengal and to the British. (cf Mahapatra, under publication).

    Since prehistoric days the land of Orissa has been inhabited by various peoples. Stone Age remains have been discovered along the Burhabalanga, the Brahmani, the Mahanadi and its tributaries like the Tel. Recently, prehistoric remains have also been found in the interior of western Orissa and in the river valleys and plateaus of southern Orissa. Although the prehistoric communities cannot be identified, it is well known that Orissa had been inhabited by tribes like the Saora or A Sabara ("Suari" according to Pliny, the Roman historian) from the Mahabharata days. To this day the Saora in the hills and the Sahara and Sabar of the plains continue to be an important tribe distributed almost all over Orissa. In the earlier centuries the proportion of the tribals to the general population in Orissa must have been much greater. As can be seen from census to census during the British rule, more and more tribal people have returned themselves as Hindus and have adopted Hindu manners, customs and rituals.

    The racial differences among the people are not insignificant. Most of the tribal people and much of the population in Orissa belong to the long-headed Australoid group in racial history, while most of the general population belong to the broad-headed Alpinoid type. Besides this, a sprinkling of Mediterranean type with long-head is also found in the general population. But these racial barriers or the more powerful linguistic barriers as between the Aryan speakers, Dravidian speakers and Austric- Munda speakers have never stood in the way of cultural communication borrowing.

    The scheduled tribes (62 communities with distinctive cultures) are concentrated in two belts. The northern belt comprises the old districts of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh, the southern belt consists of the old districts of Koraput, Ganjam and Phulbani. A large percentage of the tribal population in these districts have their own oral tribal languages and they do not know Oriya. The most important of these languages are Munda, Santali, Saora and Kui/Kuvi. The numerous Gond tribe speaks Oriya, though originally they spoke their Dravidian language.

    However, remote the habitat of the tribal people may be in the recesses of the jungles and hills, the influence of Hindu religion, mythology and even the Hindu concept of ritual purity and pollution have reached them. A classic example of this penetration of Hindu influence may be given from the very primitive Bonda Paraias of Malkangiri district, whose women tonsure themselves since infancy. The explanation offered for this custom has been that it was due to Sita Devi’s curse in the Ramayana days. And these Bonda Paraias have always been infamous as aggressive raiders in the hill abode, and had therefore no intimate contact with the Hindus of the valleys around. Similarly, the Munda-speaking Juang in Keonihar district were so much isolated in their hilly abode that in 1951 only 41.22% of their population knew the regional language, Oriya. They were eating beef. However, by 1928, N.K. Bose had noted the use of sun-dried rice in the Juang rituals and the worship of Lakshmi as the goddess of fertility, though accompanied with blood sacrifice (Bose, 1967). The influence of Hindu society was not restricted to the fields of religion and customs. It extended to the formation of caste-like social and occupational differentiation on the lines of the local caste system. But the interaction between Hindu society and tribal society was not a one-way affair. In language, and perhaps in many customs of marriage and funeral ceremonies, the strong influence of the tribal neighbours, particularly in those regions where thy constituted the politically dominant society, may be perceived on the non-tribal society. As a matter of fact, it is always difficult for the ethnologists to find out which are purely tribal customs, traditions and myths and which are not. More often than not, they come across a syncretistic amalgam, or even integrated synthesis of elements drawn from tribal cultures, scriptural instructions of the Aryan traditions and from the systematized forms from the Dravidian traditions. In the nature of cultural development of any region or of any people at any time in its history, such cultural inflow and outflow in many directions is the rule rather than the exception.

    In order to properly comprehend the cultural complexity in Orissa, we have to consider at least two types of socio-cultural facets. At the outset, we may consider the particular castes, which have a traditionally ascribed occupation and an ascribed ritual and social status in a hierarchy of castes. Between themselves they insist on certain social distance, whether in marital taboo or in food and drink taboos. There are also other types of taboos, like approaching a person of higher rank or the manner in which one enters a house belonging to a man higher in rank. Besides the restrictions on accessibility to public facilities and institutions, like public tanks, wells, temples or centers of prayer and recitation of religious texts, there were others on participation in village festivals also. In addition there was also a ban on certain modes of dress like footwear or turbans, on certain manners of sitting or movement (for example, ban on riding horses and elephants or on bullock carts while passing through the main street of a Brahman shasan village). Each caste practically had its own cultural world and social milieu, with its peculiar festivals and rituals, its own tutelary deities and sacred centers, its peculiar marriage. funeral and other customs, and its own level and limitations of social interaction with members of other castes and religious communities in the village society. In day-to-day life people of various castes had to come into close contact for achieving certain ends, like cultivation and harvesting, house building, fighting diseases in epidemics or meeting other daily or seasonal necessities. But these inter-caste relations were usually limited to social necessities. In other words, necessities of living together in the same area and occupational specialization in most of the castes had compelled them to depend on one another. Some cementing bonds were established through a peculiar social institution called ritual kinship and friendship (Mahapatra, 1968). Ritual friends, god-fathers, god-Mothers, god-brothers and god-sisters quite often cut across castes and ethnic groups and religious communities. This institution ensured a semblance of social interaction between the families of persons so related. 

    However, this interdependence did not ensure intimate social relationship for two main reasons. Firstly, the so-called untouchables and most of the lower castes lived in their own sections or neighbourhoods away from one another. This did not encourage children of various castes mixing, playing together or adult men and women of various castes mixing and gossiping together. Secondly, there were the marriage, food and other taboos restricting social intimacy. Only on occasions of certain common festivals or certain village crises like epidemics or quarrels with other villagers, or the visits of a roving sanyasi or on the performance of folk operas, dances or other entertainment programmes, were there occasions for the various castes participating in the same activities. Taboos on religious instruction, specially of the Vedas and Puranas for most of the castes, and the rare opportunities to go to a village school, automatically restricted knowledge of the sacred texts and other books to the highest castes in the village. Even the minimal literacy was very rarely met with among the scheduled castes/tribes. These communities did not boast of literate persons, until the British administration opened schools for them and made them eligible to study in the common village school. An overwhelmingly large village population under these circumstances continued to be illiterate for ages. The tribal communities had their own exclusive settlements in the hills and jungles. They were visited on rare occasions by officials of the state or some petty traders and at times by some Hindu sanyasis, and in later years, by Christian missionaries and contractors. When not living in the plains, or in the valleys dominated by their non-tribal neighbours, the tribal communities led their almost autonomous cultural existence, and maintained their social exclusiveness.

    The higher traditions of Hindu civilization, the epics, the sacred myths and the regional legends never reached the majority of the population directly. The channels for spread of these myths and legends were various and were not restricted to the Brahman or higher caste agencies. The Brahman usually recited the Bhagabata and other Puranas to the village mass through special institutions, like that of Bhagabata Tungi, a centre of recitation where villagers assembled in the evening. Through the mechanisms of folk operas, folk dancing, folk singing of peripatetic entertainment troupes, the scheduled castes relayed in their own dialects and with their own emphasis what they had learnt orally and informally from others belonging to the higher castes. Therefore, the oral means of communication and tradition were not only strong, but were often the only means of participating in the civilization and cultural heritage of India. The oral traditions not only incorporated the bits of knowledge, wisdom and instruction from the sacred literatures, but also reinterpreted and synthesized them with the local tradition into a harmonious whole. Besides this, the oral tradition transmitted from generation to generation the purely local stories, myths, legends and songs, etc., which the anthropologists identify as the "Little Tradition”, distinguishing it from the "Great Tradition" of the Vedas, Epics, Puranas and other classical literatures. These facts should convince us of the crucial importance of oral tradition and folklore in the cultural life of the people of Orissa, not only in the past but also during the recent centuries.

    The second facet of the cultural life of Orissa which adds to the complexity and brings in another dimension of cultural differentiation is the regional differences within Orissa. Broadly speaking, we may think of four cultural sub-regions within the present boundaries of Orissa. The north-eastern areas bordering on Bengal have been influenced in dress, food habits, language, social customs and festivities by Bengali culture and language. The southern parts of old Ganjam and Koraput districts have a sizable Telugu-speaking population and have been influenced in language, food habits, dress and marriage customs by the Andhra culture and language. The western districts of Sambalpur, Deogarh, Baragarh, Jharsuguda, Bolangir, Sonepur, Kalahandi and Nawapara may be said in many ways to lie in a cultural and to some extent, linguistic continuum with the region of Chhatisgarh of Madhya Pradesh just beyond the border, where many Oriya-speaking castes live even at present. The fourth region may be said to be the distinctive or typical, or at least the tone-setting one, in both cultural institutions, social customs and linguistic and literary sophistication. This region comprises roughly the coastal districts of Balasore, Bhadrakh, Kendrapara, Jajpur, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack, Puri, Khurdha and Nayagarh and portions of adjoining districts. The remaining areas of the state extending from the northern (undivided) districts of Sundargarh, Keornhar and Mayurbhanj to the southern tribal areas of Kondhmal-Phulbani, Boudh, Ganjam, Gajapati and Koraput; Rayagada, Nawarangpur and Malkangiri districts, to a large extent, can hardly be pressed to the confines of more or less homogenous cultural regions. The only common feature of these areas (except Ganjam, Boudh district in the south and southern parts of Keonjhar district) is that these are inhabited by tribals who account for more than 50 percent of the total population. Each of the tribal communities has its own language, whether Mundari, Dravidian or in several areas, the dialects of the regional language, Oriya. Each of them, again, has its own tribal religion, assimilating to a larger or smaller degree the local cults of Hinduism. Besides, in the pattern of dress, food habits, drinks, house, architecture, village organization and other social and economic characteristics, they differ from one another. Some of the tribes, like the Kond and Saora have developed internal social differentiation along occupational specializations, as potters, weavers and basket makers etc. Some of these tribes like the Bhuiyan, the Bathudi, the Gond and the Binjhal (Binjhawar) of northern and western Orissa, have been very much Hinduized and their status is equivalent to that of the clean Hindu castes from whom water is accepted by the Brahman. 

    The opening up of opportunities to migrate to the industrial areas of Calcutta and Jamshedpur or to the Assam tea gardens and even to Burma in colonial days have loosened many tradition-anchored customs and institutions or brought down many social and economic barriers. The hill Saora, Kondh, and even the Hill Bonda have been affected in their cultural moorings through such work outside their habitat or even when jailed for criminal activities. Orissa has been predominantly a rural society, with barely 13.43% of its population (in 1991) living in towns of various categories. Its culture is overwhelmingly village-centred.

    The cultural centerpiece in Orissa has been the Jagannath cult, the worship of the supreme deity of the Hindu at Puri, known as Shrikshetra for ritual/sacred purposes. It has become a cultural, religious and even secular/political base of the royal dynasties beginning with the Ganga dynasty in the eleventh century. Lord Jagannath, His associated gods and goddesses, local cults and regional spread of His cult to almost all the feudatory princely states under the Orissan emperor has imprinted the cultural and social life of Orissa since at least 11th century. The association of the tribal people, Sabara, their descendants Daitapati, not only in this all pervasive Jagannath cult, but also in the Shaivite cult of the Lord Lingaraj of Bhubaneswar at Ekamrakshetra, gives the religious orientation of Orissa a distinctive character. Besides, Lord Jagannath has been in Vaishnava conceptualization equated with Lord Vishnu’s divine reincarnation as the penultimate avatara of Lord Buddha. That during the days of Ashokan Kalinga war, this region was a great Buddhist base is highly plausible and this avatara-ascription to allegedly tribal Nilamadhaba stone deity of the Sabara in the vicinity of Puri is therefore easily understandable. Lord Jagannath is also conceived as a Jaina godhead. Orissa has also been the land of Shakti, Pashupata, Ganapati and Natha cults, and the saints and mystics of various faiths, including Islam, have made this their abode. Orissa has also been a great center of Sun worship, to which the Black Pagoda or Sun temple at Konark is a cultural monument of world fame.

    Literature, varieties of food, sculpture, wall paintings, lacquer work, patta paintings, temple architecture, brass, appliqué work, wood work, music and dancing have centred round these religious cults, especially in relation to the Jagannath and associated cults. The 19th century Mahima cult of Shunyavada, in many ways a heterodox cult, aniconoic, anti-hierarchic, egalitarian, against Brahmanic domination and animal sacrifices etc. has been thriving in Orissa as partly parallel and converging in relation to Jagannath cult.

    Cultural specialization had taken place in Orissa contributing to the diverse arts and crafts: cire perdue casting of images in iron or brass, artifacts of brass and bronze, pottery, applique work, puppetry, pattachitra painting and wall-paintings (jhoti), body decoration (tattooing), horn work, masks, ivory work, wood work, silver and gold filigree and brass ornaments, exquisite textile weaving especially of ikat (tie-dying) special effect, lacquer work, bead work, etc. speak volumes on the age-old cultural heritage of Orissa. In a sense, in India only Kerala can come upto Orissa level in virtuosity in myriad arts and excellences. The classical Odissi dancing and varieties of folk music, folk dancing, folk opera and drama, Odissi music with infusion of South Indian, North Indian and tribal and indigenous folk raga and rhythms have enthralled audiences in India and abroad, and added substantially to our Indian repertoire. Evolving a unique Orissan school of architecture has been a great example of cultural innovation in medieval Orissa.

    Fairs, festivals and fasting and vow-fulfilment penances and ritual tortures of the body are another dimension of cultural expressions. The temple gods and goddesses of numerous locations, the village goddesses in the village sacred groves and caste gods and goddesses have their cults and festivals enriching the culture of Orissa. (cf Das and Mahapatra, 1993). 

    What were once upon a time only sacred arts, crafts and embellishments or services like Mahari devadasi dancing for Lord Jagannath, have often become secular pastimes or art-creations, Odissi dance, for example, has become differentiated into secular Odissi dance of various non-sacred themes, catering to the tastes of richer and educated classes. Similarly, the chhow dance, which as a ritual performance while worshipping Lord Shiva in the spring, cult, otherwise known as Danda Nacha, came to be nurtured by the courts of Mayurbhanj and Seraikela princes, attained sophisticated secular heights of world fame. Only recently anthropological research has brought out the various chhow traditions in the ethnic groups in villages and regional (Sardar) levels, which were the ultimate building blocks of courtly chhow. (cf N. Mohapatra, 1990). 

    We may note a special development in the culture and society of Orissa. The paramount Raja of Orissa, at least since the days of the Ganga dynasty in about the twelfth century, had made the Jagannath cult a state cult. It may be that this was gradually superimposed on the prevailing state cults of the princely chiefdoms, where usually some form of Shakti (goddess) was the presiding deity protecting the dynasty and the kingdom. The institution of a state deity is perhaps as old as urban civilization itself and we learn of it in the civilizations of Babylonia and Egypt. The Pharaohs were notably the children of the Sun. So are many Rajput chiefs, as are also the chiefs in Orissa, who are "descended" from the gods, the sun, the moon, the ritual fire-god, ‘Agni’ and even from the serpent-god, Naga. Such a conception of divine kingship was also quite widely prevalent for a long time in Southeast Asia where Shiva, Vishnu, Harihara, Shiva-Buddha, Bodhisatva Lokeswara of Mount Meru, or Indra were represented in the king on earth, his palace being the sacred microcosm of the kingdom. (cf Heine-geldern, 1942: 22ff). In ancient Cambodia, the king was a divine incarnation the God-King Devaraja who was Lord Shiva himself (cf Heine-Geldern, 1942:22ff). Similarly, the Raja of Puri, the descendant of the paramount sovereign of Orissa, is referred to as Thakur-Raja (God-King), so much so that the pilgrims used to have a darshan (audience) of the king before proceeding to the Lord’s temple. As such, he also functioned as the head ritual functionary of the Jagannath temple; "in the absence of other functionaries in cases of emergencies, (he can)....perform all ritual services except cooking.... and offering food to the Images" (Patnaik, 1970,80). Patnaik refers to the similarities between the rituals of the temple and those of the palace. The palace was considered as a sacred place, the abode of the God-King, Mobile Vishnu; because of this none were allowed to enter the palace with leather footwear as in the case of a temple. (cf Patnaik: l970). In the painted reliefs on the temple walls, the king is seen performing the twelve important festivals just as they are conducted for Lord Gagannath. (cf. Mishra, l97l: 1l4—l15).

    This widely varying and historically intermingling cultural mosaic of Orissa is hardly amenable to cultural mapping into discrete and distinct cultural units. Even the tribal cultures had been in flux, and in recent decades in ferment; they have long since lost their pristine. exclusive, inward-looking existence, imbibing from various streams of Hindu religion and civilization, and Christianity and westernization impact. Even at the beginning of nineteenth century when the British conquered Orissa, it would have been extremely risky to carve out distinct cultural regions and tribal cultural space in Orissa. Prof. N K Bose, who had highly developed anthropogeographical sensibilities, had tried to actualize his concepts by undertaking the study of distribution of some basic cultural trait-complexes, such as, housing, cooking oil medium, pottery and some other crafts in India in his book on Peasant Life in India. It was not a very satisfying or definitive enterprise. The primary hurdles were there: in the classical culture-region studies of the American Indians in the U.S.A., western coasts and mountains, the tribal groups were more or less segregated and exclusive in their tribal reservations and the cultural traits could be traced and identified as belonging to specific tribal groups, albeit often tentatively; and there was no large-scale borrowing from the white civilization and the remotely located American Indian groups.

    Coming to Orissa, it had several tribes which were very much integrated into the polity, society and culture of the princedoms in which they sometimes played crucial roles in establishing or even providing ruling families. (cf L.K. Mahapatra, I987). The artificial districts and provinces created by the British were hardly the bio- natural resource-bases for cultural stereotyping through the two centuries of their existence. If there is any chauvinism, clannishness or exclusivism today, it is not on basis of Orissans, or people of` Bengal or Madhyapradeshis or Andhraites, but on basis of the old ethnic groupings based on old loyalties of princedoms, Kin groups, language, history and ethnic roots of tribes, castes etc. which can be played upon with political, economic and cultural props provided under the modern welfare state. However, if cultural mapping of regions has to be meaningful or feasible at all, it may be worthwhile to search for the phenomena in northeastern border states. There tribal immigrations continued well into the twentieth century from neighbouring countries, and there was for long a distinct geo-cultural divide between the plains people and the hill tribes, on the one hand, and between one hill tribe and another in their respective homogeneous, often uniethnic, habitat, on the other.


  • Bose, N.K.: 1967 Culture and Society in India. New Delhi.
  • Das, K.B. and L.K. Mahapatra: 1993 Folklore of Orissa. New Delhi. National Book Trust,India (Third Edition). 
  • Heine-Geldem, Robert : 1942 "Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia" in Far Eastern Quarterly, 2:1.
  • Mahapatra, L.K.: 1968 “Ritual Kimhip in Orissa" in Proceedings of the 8th International Congress of Anthropological Sciences. Tokyo/Kyoto.
  • Mahapatra. LK.: 1987 "Ex-Princely States of Orissa : Mayurbhanj. Keonjhar and Bonai in Tribal Polities and State Systems in Pre-Colonial Eastern and Northeastern India (ed.) S.C. Sinha. Calcutta.K.P. Bagchi & Co.
  • Mahapatra, L.K.: 2003 State, Society and Religion; Culturehistorical Comparative Perspectives of Southeast Asia. Chennai. Emerald Publishers. 
  • Mahapatra, L.K.: People and Cultural Traditions of Orissa; Civilization, Society and Worldview. (under publication).
  • Mohapatra, Nagendranath : 1990 Chhau Nrutya-Eka Sanskrutika Adhyayana. Ph.D. Thesis. Utkal University. (unpublished).
  • Mishra, K.C.: 1971 The Cult of Jagannath. Calcutta. Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay.
  • Patnaik, N.: 1979 “The Recent Rajas of Puri : A Study in_Secularization" in Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society, 5:1-2.

Keynote address for the National Seminar held on 26-July-2003