Odisha and its People : the Unknown, the Unique and the Ugly

Where is Odisha?

To write about unknown Odisha is a difficult proposition because, for someone not from Odisha everything about Odisha may be unknown. In my interactions with common men during my travels in India I have found that the North Indians think it is somewhere in South India and the South Indians think it is somewhere in North India. Some typical conversation may run like this:

‘Where are you from?’


‘Odisha? Oh, I remember, it is in Puri. The land of Sri Jagannath’.

‘Sorry Sir. It is the other way round. Puri is in Odisha.’

‘Oh, is it?’

If the person is of secular mindset it may run like this:

‘Where are you from?’


‘Odisha? Oh I remember. Your Chief Minister is Biju Patnaik. Isn’t it?’

The politician who was also upright and a daredevil

Biju Patnaik was the Chief Minister of Odisha twenty five years back. He was a multifaceted personality. His uprightness, flamboyance and dare devilry elevate him to the status of a Super Hero in Odisha. Even though he played key roles during India’s freedom struggle, he is more celebrated in Indonesia than in rest of India. When Indonesian President Suharto was facing a coup and needed to be rescued, Biju Patanaik played Rambo. Coincidentally his native village G. Nuagan is three kms from my native village Nua Mahulia

wikipedia entry

One thousand years of glory

No doubt Subhash Chandra Bose was a Bengali and he spent his preparatory years as a freedom fighter in Kolkata. But Odisha has its claim over his legacy since he was born in Cuttack and had his early education there. In Cuttack there is a museum dedicated to his life and works. Apart from this museum, the 1000 year old city has plenty of historical connections to vouchsafe for its own legacy. Known for the intricate sliver filigree work, the famous annual Bali Jatra is held here.

Tourists on a short visit to Odisha usually skip Cuttak even though it is just 30 kms away from Bhubaneswar. In spite of losing its state capital status to Bhubaneswar in 1948, Cuttack continued to be the intellectual, entertainment and financial capital of Odisha. As a child quite often I woke up or went to bed with the signature tune of All India Radio followed or preceded by “Akashvani Cuttak”. Those days if you are standing in front of one of those popular street food shops in Cuttack, chances are, you could rub shoulder with a popular film actor.

That was what happened when we had gone to watch a cricket match in Barabati stadium, Cuttak way back in 1987. After the match we went to a small non- descript hotel for evening snacks. A bunch of popular film actors entered the hotel and sat next to us. They did not play lead roles. But I don’t think even in those days Asrani or Pran could have such a luxury of entering a street corner hotel and leaving it without getting mobbed. We were surprised by the unassuming and the as usual attitude of the actors and the people around.

kahan gaye woh log?

Those days the film directors and the actors were not professionals in the sense that they were not dependent upon the movies for a living. Most of them had day jobs. But the movies they made had distinctive artistic quality to it. They reflected Odia society and the marks of originality was distinct. Over time actors and others became professionals. The result is that today, I find hardly any Odia movie that is watchable or has any mark of originality. I am not generalizing it as old vs. new. But I wonder whether barring Bollywood and the South Indian movies, this is the case with other regional movies.

I feel that sometimes professionalism takes away the passion. As a result it is possible that instead of evolution we witness devolution and degeneration.

The man who kicked stardom to become a monk

My alma mater Khallikote college, Brahmapur cannot boast of a Nobel laureate. But during college days we used to feel proud to be associated with someone who did not have any distinctive academic credentials. His name is Sriram Panda, Odia superstar of the 80s and presently an ordained monk of Bihar School of Yoga. He used to do modelling for Cavenders Cigarettes and perhaps for indirect marketing had a lot smoking scenes in his movies.

According to him this was also a reason for him to become a monk as he wanted to redeem some of the damages he might have caused by inspiring his fans to smoke. If this is so, then it is a rare gesture of social responsibility in an age when celebrities hardly bother about the harmful impact of the brands they are promoting.

Why is Odisha so underdeveloped?

During my interactions many people ask me ,”Why is Odisha so poor and underdeveloped? ” Many of of them even don’t know that Odisha has a glorious past, that its kingdom once spread from the Ganges to Godavari.

Odisha’s present day predicament has both historical and geographical roots. After the fall of Mukunda Deva, the last Hindu King of Odisha in 1568, the main rulers of Odisha were never based in Odisha. It met with the same fate as that of any remote province which is away from the main power centre. To make matters worse, the British divided the region into three for administrative convenience. The southern districts were merged with Madras Presidency, the northern parts with Bengal, and the western parts with the Western Province. Odisha became further neglected since the representation of Odias in governance was negligible.

The odia regions of the Bengal province were the worst effected during the great famine of 1866. Then the Odias realised the extent of neglect they have been subjected to. The demand for a separate state based on language grew. After long and protracted struggle, Odisha became a separate province officially on 1st April 1936.

Barring the plain coastal districts, which constitute about 20% of Odisha, other regions are mountainous and full of forests. Approximately 80% of Odisha’s agricultural produce and other economic activities happen in the 20% of plain coastal areas. The coastal districts are also the areas which are developed educationally and have higher population density. Unfortunately these coastal districts are the ones that have been regular victims of cyclones and floods. Before 1990 cyclones were occasional. But in the last two decades these have increased in frequency and severity pulling Odisha back in terms of development.

In spite of the increase of cyclones and floods over the years, the Odisha administration has been doing remarkable job in minimizing the loss of life. Even though in India such things get less publicity, the efforts of Odisha administration has not gone unnoticed by the international bodies who have expressed their surprise over such efficient management.

Odisha’s Unique temple architecture

Odisha’s huge old temples in Puri and Bhubaneswar have escaped the fury of cyclones so far in spite of being the tallest structures in the area. Most of these old temples were built from eleventh to fourteenth century.

Odisha had its own unique style of building temples which was quite different from the styles found in other parts of India. If you have visited temples in various parts of India including Odisha, you must have noticed this.

In case of the Sun Temple at Konark, the details of planning and the progress of construction were recorded in detail in palm-leaf manuscripts and luckily these were discovered from a nearby village during the previous century. It is one of those few instances where records were maintained and have been discovered.

Odisha – a treasure house of pristine places

Odisha’s tribal and other areas of non-coastal districts can be heaven for those seeking non touristy places where nature is at its best. Of course you have to put up with certain inconveniences in terms of infrastructure. Then, that is what keeps pristine places pristine.

In this series I have covered some aspects of Odisha’s culture and history. I have tried my bit to highlight many lesser known aspects of Odisha. It is not possible to cover all of them in a blog post or even a book. Fact is that even I am yet to experience many aspects first hand. In this series I have highlighted those aspects I have been connected with or experienced. In spite of staying out of Odisha for the last three decades I have tried my best to keep in touch with its culture and literature. Let me see if in the coming years I am able to have more such first hand experiences.

PS : This is alphabet U post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.

All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.

31 thoughts on “Odisha and its People : the Unknown, the Unique and the Ugly

  1. Odisha has come a long way from its glory days of yore. Or maybe, our expectations have risen to levels not commensurate with our capacities. We need to evolve and develop our educational system, infrastructure and planning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. About two years back, my mother and my mausi visited Odisha. They were impressed by the complete upkeep of the tourist places as well as by the facilities provided by Odissa’s tourism department.
    I was equally impressed by the Odissa government in tackling the recent cyclone.
    Odisha, for me is now a destination high on my list to be visited at the earliest!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Odisha is a lovely state. I have known it for a long time, but I do know the feeling “Oh it is in Puri” very well. Unfortunately there are a select few other states with same ignorant comments welcoming them. I really liked being introduced to this amazing place through your descriptive and informative post. Thankyou so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Simply loved your post…very informative and well portrayed for those who don’t know about Odisha. Even though I belong to Odisha and to Cuttack.. I still read every word of this post of yours just to feel good and feel closer to my native place :)!Yes, but I was not aware of Sriram Panda becoming a monk… That’s news to me!!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve never visited Odisha but I do see Naveen Pattnaik as a great leader there. As you said during the fani cyclone last year their preparedness was praise worthy.
    I do have a few friends from Odisha and they are truly wonderful. I am also the proud owner of a sambulpuri sari and silver filigree ornaments.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This post will help to those who have the impression that Odisha is poor and underdeveloped. Odisha is rich in culture and history behind it. Puri is one of the four Dhams. Jagannath culture is not so easy to understand by outsiders. I hope you will highlight Jagannath culture in your next post. All the best Durga.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. The article is beautifully written. Odisha has some wonderful hidden tourist destinations. When travel the world and come across few 100 year old temples and churches. Some temples of Odisha are more 1000 years old and maintained in excellent condition.
    Apart from that the food of odisha is something to relish about. Be it sea food, street food or any other food, it is something on the bucket list of every traveler.
    Thank you for posting this!!

    Liked by 2 people

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