Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > Reflections on the Identity of Odisha | Radhakanta Barik

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 39 September 23, 2023

Reflections on the Identity of Odisha | Radhakanta Barik

Saturday 23 September 2023, by Radhakanta Barik


It is tradition that contributed in constructing identity of Odiyas and modernity shapes it. Tradition has energy which reflects in intercommunity relations. The best example is this that two individuals belonging to different communities plant peepal tree and offer a feast to village people and create a bond among them. This bond can be called as social capital among diverse castes and communities in Odisha. Social capital turns into active capital which transforms a society and its tradition in a positive sense as it brings cooperation among these groups. In such a hierarchical society this tradition of constructing social capital erodes the power within the hierarchy. Any conflict arises needs to be settled in a moral and ethical framework based on some form of equality. This has been happening in a traditional society. Modernity starts with print culture bringing new journals and periodicals to speak of role of state vs civil society. This turned into a platform where intellectuals from various corners of Odisha start writing letters where they criticize the role of colonial state in handling famine. This got investigated by the British Parliament and found the death of millions of people because of the 1866 famine. The state felt remorseful to take some preventive actions to strengthen agriculture with the help of digging modern canals. Furthermore they established a college for Higher education known as Ravenshaw college for a place for learning. Learning helps students to be political in constructing a modern society by bringing reforms in patriarchy and caste relationships. Such activities reflect in the stories, novels and plays and political journalism in Odisha. Here tradition and modernity complement each other in constructing the identity of Odisha.

Introduction: The public intellectuals moved with an agenda which got evolved slowly on their long journey. They first defined the confrontation between civil society vs the colonial state. They defined the agenda of reform derived from the society itself. They questioned the hierarchy and they confronted the practice of untouchability. They confronted the patriarchy. They confronted obscurantism and irrational practices. They moved to rational thinking and to the path of scientific temper. In the journal Utkal Deepika they confronted the colonial state and forced the state to compensate in exchange of millions of deaths due to famine. The administrators repented of their mistakes and went for building the Ravenshaw college which turned into a place of learning and political awakening.

They floated in 1904 the Utkal Sammilani the first civil society organisation carrying the agenda of demanding an independent state for Odiyas living in the social space. On the way three classes of people took leadership. They were the kings, the Brahmin intelligentsia and Karan intelligentsia. It is basically negotiation and capacity building of the intellectuals to manage the state. This got discussed in Utkal Sahity. Fifty years of journal carried stories related women freedom, sense of equality among all castes and communities, some form of scientific temper. On the way they got the support from the Indian National Congress who accepted the resolution on linguistic-based state in India. They supported the demand for independent state of Odisha. The national movement carried the sufferings of peasantry which got articulated in a poem on Kanika kisan crying by Gopabandhu Das. Some of them joined the movement and most of them belonging to Chasa Kandhayata caste. The movement went further with the demand for equality with Dalits which strengthened the political movement. Dalits and tribals created momentum for the independence struggle and on the way the colonial state conceded the demand for state of Odisha.

Modernity: Modernity is a grand project. It is an intellectual and enlightenment project. In the project the most educated urbanised communities like Bengalees and Telugus played a positive role with Odiya intellectuals. Its number is small but took the challenging job. They all took up to challenge and questioned the colonial state on intellectual plane. Three important journals like Utkal Deepika, Sambalpur Hiteshi and Utkal Sahity shaped these public intellectuals into a creative voice. They looked at the underlying reasons behind the great famine of 1866 which resulted in death of millions. Novels are written over the tragic event. Poems and short stories and scholarly works have been published over the gory stories related to famine. People questioned the role of state. British Parliament instituted an Inquiry Commission into the failures of the state. Unrecoginised intellectuals played decisive role in shaping public opinion against the state.

Identity of Odisha: Identity has been constructed by the people themselves in terms of social groups. Each group has contributed which clarifies the doubt that only modernity creates an identity. Modernity shapes the formed identity. Education, communication and print culture sharpens the identity. It is wrong to presume that printing of Utkal Deepika creates the identity. No rule can erase it. History turns into part of public imagination. Public remember the each rule in terms of their social and political experience. They remember the Moghul rule as Todarmal who brought the land settlement.

They remember the Maratha rule as fearsome which is a part of the lullaby that Bergies are coming Oh children go to sleep. Behind this lullaby the hidden memory of these rulers are there. They had to pay high land rent with the oppressive Amil system who came down to plunder the urban rich which made into collective memory. The British rule bought some missionaries who produced the first Odiya grammar, They helped in establishing the first printed text into public memory. This had been carried further by the leading Odiya writers and poets wrote books and stories. All these play a role in shaping Odiya consciousness but the consciousness has been already constructed by diverse social groups living in the same geographical space.

Communities and their contribution towards formation of Identity:

In a community individual shares his personal identity with his or her kinship than towards community. His personal identity is turning complex as he lives in community.

Trading castes:

The castes like Teli, Sundi etc have played a creative role in the construction of identity of Odisha.They took the goods to Far East Asia. They have carried the dried fish, cloth to these parts of the world. In their name a festival gets celebrated. Tapoi the darling sister of the merchants get harassed by their wives. They punish these women into Dhinki Sal where the hand made rice hall works. The festival gets celebrated in the Monsoon for the whole month.

It brings the memory of conflict between Nananda vs Nuabou in cultural sense. These communities are still in business and losing their space to Marwaris and Gujaratis in Odisha. Traditional trading communities with Odiya Muslims are getting ravaged by the forces working for the Marwaris and Gujaratis. One study conducted on Sahus of Ranihat of Cuttack town shows that the Marwaris came first to work in their shops and they lend money to them and make them indebted which forcing them to sell their shops to the later.


Dalits constitute almost 25% people of Odisha. They are culturally vibrant and literate people. They played a very important role in language movement of Odisha. During the national movement one finds people belonging to Dalits were active in politics and they turned into popular leaders of the state. Anthropologists find the Bauri and Kandara are the most active and creative people in cultural domain of the state. They carry the Buddhism with them as a living tradition. Dasia Bauri questions the priests and the discrimination policy of the Jagannatha temple by sending a Coconut to lord Jagannath without visiting the temple and without mediating by the priests of temple. This symbolizes the power of the Dalits who made a long march to the temple during British rule who faced the attacks from the priests and police of colonial state. Some died in police firing. Such an active community stands as the backbone of Odiya culture. Most of the festivals get celebrated by these communities including some Buddhist festivals in the month of Baisakh and many of them do not get celebrated by the Brahmin community according to Mahapatra and Kunj Behari Das.

Within Dalits there is a militant group working for their freedom. Doms rebel openly against the Hindu tradition of not eating beef. They enjoy beef and they eat other non vegetarian food. For centuries they have maintained their cultural autonomy where their marriage tradition and dance and music are integral part of it. They beat drums and play on Shahanai in the marriage festival and in the festivals of the temple. They make dholaki for dance and odishi music. They get discriminated but they do not bother of these caste Hindus and they laugh at their behavior.

Cultivating communities:

Chasa Khandayat, Kulta and Pradhan in Ganjam are a farming community and they sustains the traditions of Odiyas be Nua Khai to Raj which are unique festivals of Odiyas. Today they lose their land and they got education in late. After Independence they went to schools . They reimagined themselves as Odiyas working for the welfare of state. Agricultural prosperity today has come up because of their hard work.

Brahmins :

Study shows that the priestly class of Puri sided with the Britishers when they came to Odisha.( Dash 1979)Brahmins played a positive role in Independent Odisha as they got educated first and moved to rural Odisha to educate the children of other communities. They played a positive role in shaping the concept of Odisha as a state and a cultural community. They are in literature and art and politics and social reform that created an image of moderniser in Odisha


In constructing the identity of Odiyas has got contribution from each community. The Muslim Community plays a major role. It has contributed in every field from traditional education to culture to modern society. In modern economy they are there. It is a small community whose egalitarianism shaped Odiya as a non discriminatory society. Ahe Nila Saila as a prayer to Lord Jagannath has not beaten by any other prayer with such depth, images of Jagannath and bowing down to the all- mighty. A leading poet in Modern Odiya literature Rabi Hussain Gandhi has written his autobiography and reimagined themselves as the children of Salbeg.

Land and community:

Odisha society have constellations of castes and communities. All of them embedded in Odiya outlook as they accept the common food like rice and fish and all the major festivals. Out of them the Karan remains the most important caste. They are 1.5% but holding major portion of land after the Brahmins. In public perception they are intelligent and shrewd community.

People perceive them as the people who can count the waves of Ocean and earn money. Possibly they took leadership in ancient time to move on trade with South East Asian countries. They control land and also turn into small landlords who in right time moved to education and they got into state sector. They played a positive role in taking leadership with the Brahmins under the leadership of Rajput and worked hard to earn a state for Odiyas.


Buddhism is a living religion that defends people from attacks of Brahminism. Brahmins came down from 10th century. They killed some Buddhist monks. (Mishra2009 ) They came in a big number during the Maratha rule and they snatched the land of Dalits and backward which made them richest community in Odisha. They share fifty percent of land.

They invested the surplus in education and acquired more than fifty percentages of jobs. But they created a social framework to bow down to the popular culture where all thirteen festivals are organised without the mediation of the priests. This makes them sober and they claim that they are ’poor. On the contrary they all claim as the ’ poor Brahmins’ which explains many things in Odiya culture. They cannot dominate people’s culture which define the Odiyas as a cultural community. There is low level of discrimination among various castes because of domination of Buddhism till 10th century but unofficially it continues as a living religion in every day habit. The month of Baisakha when Buddha was born and there are many festivals associated with it till today. ( Das and Mohapatra 1979) This is what happening in their kitchen which is the most sacred space in the family. They offer the raw mango instead of cooked food. This brings out truth that Buddhism is a living religion. Although Brahminism does practice the untouchability but it could not be a dominant ideology in society today.

Furthermore their study shows that Jagannath temple is a compromise between Buddhism and Hinduism as the Rath yatra when deities are driven in chariots for all. The vernacular architecture in rural Odisha explains the big verandahas represent the congregation of the monks from Buddhism. We live in peculiar society where Hindutva version of Hinduism cannot work without creating riots in a society.

Ecological experience of local people:

This is Chitau Amabasya getting celebrated in Odisha. It reminds them that they are a part of river based civilisation where they need to stand with the fishes and other animals like snails to be protected. They offer the Pitha made of rice powder and coconut boiled over the mithi handi and offered to the river based animals. A civilisation needs to be protected for which people of Odisha have to think boldly rather than leaving fishes in the month of Kartika where the Brahmin widows suffer. Odiyas engage with nature in a romantic manner. They worship fruit trees like Jack fruit and mango tree by offering cakes in the month of Magha. They plant trees as symbol of friendship specifically planting of two peepal trees or Bara or Ostha together in one place. Sometimes it is done among two individuals belonging to different castes and different villages and on that occasion a feast is getting organised. It seems that it helps in cementing the friendship among them. It encourages the development of social capital.

The birds like crow, Maina and pigeon and parrots are part of everyday life of Odiyas. They get off with the sound of crows in the morning and with the sound of crow they find someone dear to them coming to their home. Song on crow has entered into Odiya premier two hundred years back. Maina makes people happy as one searches their food and feed them. They welcome you. Parrots speak and create welcome and goodbye. All these birds move with people of Odisha which enter into public imagination. Crow has rough tone which is similar to our language which makes it highly friendly. Folk tales have created collective memory of Odiyas as cultural community.

The folk tales are told through the animals like Tiger and lion and elephant which are the totems of various ethnic groups. In folk tale of Tiger and two brother and sister they caricature the Tiger uncle. Perhaps rulers are compared with the tigers and but people create jokes about them. Elephant comes in the festival time of Raj when people celebrate the worshiping the earth with meat. They celebrate the festival of Nuakhai with new rice and new cloth. It is interesting they fear the wolf not tiger or lion or elephant as it attacks the cowherds as they speak lies and lair gets punished. A cultural community has been imagined in context of animals and birds. Speaking truth and not worried of the rulers are integral part of the public imagination.

Transition from tribe to community:

From the time Odra tribal community starts living in this geographical region on the bank of Bay of Bengal so many things have happened in the cultural domain and in political economy which shape the construction of the concept of Odisha. Although Odiya language turns into mother tongue of millions of people living here and there are many linguistic groups share the same space accept the state of Odisha. It changes with every twenty miles but people accept broadly the Odiya. We will examine the construction of the state in cultural domain. Folk tales play a creative role in entering into public imagination which is peculiar to Odiya community. There are written texts which shape the construction of the state. Poetry of Mahabharata by Sarala Das gives due important states in Indian Federation. It gives recognition to Kalinga living side by side with Bengalees and Telengas. In his poetic imagination there has been no tension among these cultural groups. Literary texts of Bhanja define the cultural community aesthetically. There is no concept of fair as a dimension of beauty. In his description there are many dimensions like rounded face and her gait and her gaze are specially mentioned for telling her a beauty

Geography and poetic imagination:

Idea of Odisha gets captured by the poets in their poetic imagination. The rivers, Ocean and lakes and jungles all get captured in poetic imagination. That creates a concept of territorial unity gets reflected in the formation of state. Poets like Radhanatha Ray to Gangadhar Meher both worked hard to capture these cultural nuances in their poetic works. Those ideas turn so beautiful and charming that people cite while working in the field or working in the factory. Look at the poem Mahanadira Jyoshna Vihar by Mayadhar Mansigh which brings the river Mahanadi flowing from one end to the other turns into a poetic idea. The river sees its glory of past and ruination of the present creating hope that history can teach their children to reimagine Odisha as a cultural unity. It inspires each to work hard to construct the idea of Odisha where tribe or Dalits or backwards or forward all merge together to its world. Let the poetry works as a romantic idea motivates all of us.

Poetry matters to people as they remember in their good times and bad times. Architectural wonders:

How local artisans with their labour created Konark temple? With their talent and skills they created an architectural model of temple known as Kalinga model. Furthermore these local artisans are busy in producing beautiful sculptures. It seems their talent has not got crushed by the feudal royalty or by caste hierarchy. It is gift of Buddhism which does not believe the social hierarchy perhaps which explain the no social hegemony by any high caste in local society. It is freedom to create something beautiful depends on the local artisans or weavers who weaved world class Saris known as Sambalpuri Sari. Their creativity has not been destroyed and they flower in political democracy which does not recognize the discrimination.

Odiyas are a unique cultural community whose identity has been constructed with the labour contributed each community. Tribals, backwards, and Dalits all of them successfully created a cultural identity located in anthropological, sociological and historical framework. We tried to study this uniqueness of a small community that stands on its feet boldly and bravely.

Let us examine the aesthetics of Odishi Dance which is internationally recognized. At the same time, it integrates various communities in forming a style of its own. Tribals contributed to the bending and movement of the waist which transformed into the Gotipua dance accepted by the village community. Slowly it has got transformed into stylistic dance with the background of Odishi music and instruments like Dholaki and Gungur.


  • Das, K and LK Mahapatra (1979) Folklore of Orissa, National Book Trust., New Delhi
  • Dash, G N (1979)Janasruti Kanchi Kaveri (in Odiya)Berhampur
  • Mishra, U (2009) Varyayana Buddhism: Study in Social Iconography, Praibha Prakashan, New Delhi
ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.