Tourists at Mukteshwar Temple, or Mandir. The Hindu temple, located in Bhubaneswar, India, is adorned with ornate carving

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Despite being one of India’s poorest states, ORISSA boasts a rich and distinctive cultural heritage. The coastal plains have the highest concentration of historical and religious monuments – Orissa’s principal tourist attractions. Puri, site of the famous Jagannath temple and one of the world’s most spectacular devotional processions, the Rath Yatra, combines the heady intensity of a Hindu pilgrimage centre with the hedonistic pleasures of the beach. Just a short hop off the main Kolkata–Chennai road and railway, Puri is a popular destination for backpackers. Konark, a short way up the coast, has the ruins of Orissa’s most ambitious medieval temple, whose surfaces writhe with exquisitely preserved sculpture, including some eyebrow-raising erotica. The ancient rock-cut caves and ornate temples of Bhubaneswar, the state capital, hark back to an era when it ruled a kingdom stretching from the Ganges delta to the mouth of the River Godavari.

Away from the central “golden triangle” of sights, foreign travellers are few and far between, though you’ll see plenty of Bengalis travelling throughout coastal Orissa. In the winter, the small islands dotted around Chilika Lake, a huge salt-water lagoon south of Bhubaneswar, is good for birdwatchers. Further north, in the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary, a remote stretch of beach is the nesting site for rare Olive Ridley turtles.

From the number of temples in Orissa, you’d be forgiven for thinking Brahmanical Hinduism was its sole religion. In fact, almost a quarter of the population are adivasi, or “tribal” (literally “first”) people, thought to have descended from the area’s pre-Aryan aboriginal inhabitants. In the more inaccessible corners of the state many of these groups have retained unique cultural traditions and languages. So-called “ethnic” tourism is the latest encroachment on the adivasis’ way of life, following in the wake of dam builders, missionaries and “advancement programmes” initiated by the state government.

Getting around presents few practical problems if you stick to the more populated coastal areas. National Highway 5 and the Southeast Railway, which cut in tandem down the coastal plain via Bhubaneswar, are the main arteries of the region. A branch line also runs as far as Puri, connecting it by frequent, direct express trains to Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. Elsewhere, buses are the best way to travel.

Brief history

Other than scattered fragmentary remains of prehistoric settlement, Orissa’s earliest archeological find dates from the fourth century BC. The fortified city of Sisupalgarh, near modern Bhubaneswar, was the capital of the Kalinga dynasty, about which little is known. In the third century BC, the ambitious Mauryan emperor Ashoka routed the Kalingan kingdom in a battle so bloody that the carnage was supposed to have inspired his legendary conversion to Buddhism. Rock edicts erected around the empire extol the virtues of the new faith, dharma, as well as the principles that Ashoka hoped to instil in his vanquished subjects. With the demise of the Mauryans, Kalinga enjoyed something of a resurgence. Under the imperialistic Chedi Jain dynasty, vast sums were spent expanding the capital and on carving elaborate monastery caves into the nearby hills of Khandagiri and Udaigiri. During the second century BC, however, the kingdom gradually splintered into warring factions and entered a kind of Dark Age. The influence of Buddhism waned, Jainism all but vanished, and Brahmanism, disseminated by the teachings of the Shaivite zealot Lakulisha, started to resurface as the dominant religion.

Orissa’s golden age, during which the region’s prosperous Hindu rulers created some of South Asia’s most sophisticated art and architecture, peaked in the twelfth century under the Eastern Gangas. Fuelled by the gains from a thriving trade network (which extended as far east as Indonesia), the Ganga kings erected magnificent temples where Shiva worship and arcane tantric practices adopted by earlier Orissan rulers were replaced by new forms of devotion to Vishnu. The shrine of the most popular royal deity of all, Lord Jagannath, at Puri, was by now one of the four most hallowed religious centres in India.

In the fifteenth century, the Afghans of Bengal swept south to annex the region, with Man Singh’s Mughal army hot on their heels in 1592. That even a few medieval Hindu monuments escaped the excesses of the ensuing iconoclasm is miraculous, and non-Hindus have never since been allowed to enter the most holy temples in Puri and Bhubaneswar. In 1751 the Marathas from western India ousted the Mughals as the dominant regional power. The East India Company, meanwhile, was also making inroads along the coast, and 28 years after Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1765, Orissa finally came under British rule.

Since Independence, the state has sustained rapid development. Discoveries of coal, bauxite, iron ore and other minerals have stimulated considerable industrial growth and improvements to infrastructure. Despite such urban progress, however, Orissa remains a poor rural state (55 percent of children are malnourished, for example), heavily dependent on agriculture to provide for the basic needs of its 38 million inhabitants.

Events of recent years have damaged the state’s reputation. Violent Maoist (or Naxalite) activity in rural areas has increased, drawing an often equally violent response from government forces. In 2008, there was a wave of attacks against the Christian minority by Hindu fundamentalists, who killed at least seventy people and forced tens of thousands from their homes. An ongoing campaign by environmental and human rights groups has been vociferous in its opposition to the multinational corporation Vedanta, which is pushing ahead with plans to develop a bauxite mine on Niyamgiri mountain in eastern Orissa, considered sacred by the local adivasi community.

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