“Of all the regions on earth Bharata Khand, is the most distinguished, and of all the countries of Bharata Khand, Utkala boasts the highest renown. Its whole extent is one uninterrupted tirth. Its happy inhabitants live secure of a reception into the world of spirits, and those who can even visit it, and bathe in its sacred rivers, obtain remission of their sins though they weigh like mountains. Who shall describe adequately its sacred streams, its temples, its kshetra, its fragrant flowers and fruits of exquisite flavor, and all the merits and advantages of a sojourn in such a land. What necessity indeed can there be for enlarging in the praises of a region, which the Devatas themselves delight to inhabit?” – Kapila Samhita1
“In Utkala (Orissa) there is a kshetra of Lord Krittivasa (Shiva). It removes all sins, and such regions are extremely rare. It has a crore of Shivlings and is equal in merit to Varanasi. Known as Ekamra, it has eight principal tirthas.” – Brahma Purana2
The region of the present Odisha (earlier Orissa), with varying geographical limits, was variously known as Kalinga, Odra or Utkala during ancient and medieval period. The earliest reference of Kalinga is found in Ashoka’s edicts, Kandhar Edict of Shar-i-kuna and Shahbazgarhi Edict . Both the edicts mention the war of Kalinga and its subsequent inclusion into the Mauryan empire. This was is placed in the latter half of the third century BCE. Conquest of Kalinga is one of the most important episode in Ashoka’s life. It is believed that after witnessing the bloodshed in this battle, Ashoka turned towards Buddhist faith and dharma or religious victory.
Kalinga is also mentioned in the famous inscription of Kharavela in which he is referred as Kalingadhipati or the overlord of Kalinga. This inscription is dated in first century BCE. Reference of Kalinga is also found in Pliny’s Natural History as Calingae3, situated on eastern coast of India. Bhishma Parva of Mahabharata mentions Kalinga and Utkala among the provinces of Jambudwipa (India). Sabha-Parva of Mahabharata mentions an ivory gift from the king of Kalinga. In Drona-Parva of the same epic, we understand that the prince of Kalinga fought on the side of the Kauravas in the great war. Xuanzang, the famous Chinese pilgrim of seventh century CE, visited the capital of the kingdom of Kie-ling-kia identified with Kalinga4.
The earliest reference of Odra is found in the Book VI of Pliny’s Natural History which mentions a nation, Oratae5, whose king had only ten elephants but a large infantry. It also mentions two tribes, Monaedes and the Suari, in whose domain was Mount Maleus. Cunningham6 identifies Oratae with Odra, mount Maleus with Mahendra and Monaedes and Suaris with Munda and Suar tribes. On Xuanzang’s travels, Cunningham mentions that Wu Ch’a of Xuanzang was Odra. Origin of word Odra is not very certain, however the widely accepted theory is that the name was derived from the race inhabiting the region. Mitra7 mentions Oda race who inhabit various parts of Orissa and are the descendants of the aboriginals.
Chapter 10 of Harivamsha Purana mentions the story of Utkala. It tells that when Vaivasvat Manu performed a sacrifice to Mitra and Varuna, it beautiful lady named Ila appeared from it. When Ila was not ready to go with Manu, Mitra and Varuna transformed her into two, one as man, Suddumnya and one as female, Ila. Ila with Budha produced Pururava. Suddumnya got three sons, Utkala, Gaya and Vinata. Utkala got his capital at Utkalaa.
Only few references are provided above and there are many more scattered in different texts, inscriptions and other materials. It is not the place nor the time to look into all of these, as we only want to highlight few of the earliest ones. All what we quoted above indicate that the antiquity of the present Odisha region goes back to the Mauryan times and it is attested by the two Ashokan edicts found in the state.
Coming to legends and anecdotes, there are many narrated by early explorers. Stirling8 mentions, Cuttack pandits believe that upon the decline of the great monarchy of upper India at the dawn of the Kaliyuga, four principal thrones of Hindu princes ruled over the country. These were the Narapatis, the Aswapatis, the Chatrapatis and the Gajapatis. Narapatis were the sovereigns of Telingana and Karnataka country, Aswapatis were in the Maratha country, Chatrapatis were the Rajput rulers of Jaipur and the last, the Gajapatis, was the title for the rulers of Orissa.
Puri in Orissa has long been a very famous Hindu pilgrimage site. Steirling was told that Utkala-desa contains four pilgrimage centers, each one for a specific sanctity. These were Hara-kshetra, Vishnu or Purshottam-kshetra, Arka or Padma-kshetra and Vijayi or Parvati-kshetra. Hara-kshetra is modern Bhubaneswar, Purshottam-kshetra is Puri, Arka-kshetra is Konark and Parvati-kshetra is Jajpur. On Bhubaneswar Stirling9 writes,
“At Balwanta, on the new road, sixteen miles from Cuttack, the attention of a traveler is attracted by a lofty massive tower of stone, rising from amidst the thickets which skirts the adjoining frontier of khurda. A path leads through the woods towards the object of curiosity, and conducts, at the end of about six miles, to a gently swelling rocky elevation or Tangi formed of beds of the iron clay, on reaching which you will find yourself, with astonishment, in the center of a ruined city, consisting entirely of deserted and dismantled towers and temples sacred to the worship of Mahadeo, under the innumerable titles, which absurd legends or he fancy of his votaries have assigned to that deity. From amidst the whole, the great pagoda of the Ling Raj, or Lord of the Lingam, lifts its singular form, eminently conspicuous both for size, loftiness, and superior style of its architecture.”
Bhubaneswar is the present capital city of Odisha. During the British rule over India, Odisha became a separate province, taken out of Calcutta Presidency, in 1936, with its capital at Cuttack. After independence, and after the reorganization of states in 1956, Odisha was one among the 14 states. It’s capital was shifted to Bhubaneswar from Cuttack in 1946.
Bhubaneswar boasts of highly rich and continuous heritage of more than 2000 years. While it carries us back to the dawn of the dated Indian history, it also brings us back to the last heydays of the Hindu supremacy. The earliest known history of the place can be traced to Sisupalgrah10, antiquity of which is established back to the period of 3rd-4th BCE.
Sisupalgarh was a prosperous town before and during the Mauryan period. After conquering Kalinga, Ashoka divided it into two divisions, Toshali and Samapa. To earn faith and trust in his newly conquered territory, Ashoka set up two edicts, one at Dhauli and other at Jaugada, instructing his officers on the expected conduct. The division mentioned in the Dhauli edict is Toshali. Panigrahi11 identifies Sisupalgarh as Toshali explaining that Dhauli does not exhibit any antiquity prior to Mauryan reign. Buddhism would have been the religion in vogue during the Maurya rule, however apart from the Asokan edicts and few remnants of pillars and capitals, nothing much of that period have survived.
Kalinga did not stay with the Mauryas for long as it was soon wrestled back by King Kharavela, of Chedi dynasty. Kharavela is said to be its sole sovereign during the first century BCE. Kharavela was ruling from the capital Kalinga-Nagara which may be safely identified with Sisupalgarh. During the rule of the Chedi dynasty, Jainism outgrew over Buddhism and many cave shrines were excavated in the vicinity of Bhubaneswar, at Khandagiri and Udayagiri hills.
After the rule of Kharavela, Odisha went into obscurity as its political history is very dark for that period. We get to see some light once the Guptas started their rule over major parts of India. We do not clearly know what political significance Bhubaneswar enjoyed during the Guptas however it is suggested that Vigraha dynasty was ruling over Kalinga under the patronage of the Guptas. While all of India witnessed a Brahmanical revival under the Guptas, Bhubaneswar came out of the yolk of Buddihsm and Jainism and embraced Shaivism. This movement was highly influenced from the Lakulisa sect. From this time onward, Bhubaneswar started to be known as Ekamra-kanana, Ekamra-vana or Ekamra-kshetra or Ekamra.
The earliest epigraphical reference of Ekamra comes from an inscription dated in 280 years of the Gupta era, corresponding to 600 CE. The inscription belongs to Vigraha dynasty and mentions Ekambaka which can be identified with Ekamra12. With increase in the religious activities, Bhubaneswar soon attained the status of a celebrated tirtha. A Bhaumakara period, 9th-10th century CE inscription13 mentions that a certain ruler names Santikaradeva visited Ekamra-tirtha paying homage of Bindusarovara with land donations. Many later inscriptions in Bhubaneswar retains the name of the region as Ekamra whose presiding deity was Krittivasa. On its presiding deity, the place was also known as Krittivasa Kataka.
Reference to Ekamra region is found in Kapila-Samhita, Purushottama-Mahatmya, Ekamra-Chandrika and Tirtha-Chintamani. Kapila Samhita is the oldest among all and its name occurs in few puranas. It is considered among 18 Upa-puranas and can assigned to 11th century CE. Kapila Samhita describes the tirthas of Utkala region, Hara-kshetra, Arka-kshetra, Purshottam-kshetra and Parvati-kshetra. Ekamra Purana professes to be an upa-purana and is a Shaivite work. Purushottama Mahatmya is shorter than Ekamra Purana however it claims to be part of Skanda Purana. This claim is not a genuine as Narada Purana does not count it as a part of Skanda Purana. This work is dedicated to Jagannatha and praise of Puri. Ekamra Chandrika is a pilgrimage guide describing temples, holy pools and water bodies of Bhubaneswar and religious merits in visiting these places and performing religious duties at these places. It does not contain much legends and anecdotes but focuses on religious mantras etc. Tirtha-chintamani14 of Vachaspati Mishra is a work of 13th CE. It contains brief description of all principal pilgrimage places of India which a pious Hindu must visit at least once in his lifetime.
In Kapila-Samhita, in a reply to a request from king Shalyajit for an account of all holy places, Kapila says, “Among continents, that of Bharata, and among countries, that of Utkala, are the noblest, and nowhere on the face of earth is there a country like unto it. Its holy places were, in a former age, described by the great sage Bharadvaja for the edification of the sages assembled near the sacred waters of Pushkara, and I shall relate to you what I have heard of it.” The work then describes successively the origin of the four sacred ksetras of Orissa, Sankha ksetra or Puri, Arka ksetra or Konarka, Viraja ksetra or Jajpur and Padma ksetra or Bhubaneswar. Later authorities add a fifth ksetra, for Ganesha in Darpana however it did not rise to much importance in later period15.
On the foundation of the place, Kapila Samhita16 mentions, “It was in the Treta Yuga that Shiva wishing to retire from the din and sin of over-crowded Benares, sought the advice of Narada, and, at the suggestion of that sage, took up this quite, secluded, delightful retreat for his abode.” Mitra tells that it appears that nothing was omitted in the way of details to make it (Bhubaneswar) the exact counterpart of its prototype (Varanasi). Every temple, every sacred poll, every rivulet, every ceremonial, every observance and every legend of Varanasi were reproduced at Bhuvanesvara.
On the origin of the name Ekamra, Kapila Samhita mentions, “In a former age there existed on this spot a mango tree of great merit, and because there was an only tree, the place is called the grove of one mango tree (ekamra vana), a lofty tree with magnificent branches, decked with gem-like leaves, and bearing fruits which bestowed the fourfold blessings of virtue, wealth, desirable objects and salvation.”
Shiva Purana17 narrates a story that in a reply to a query from Durga on which place is most sacred to Shiva, the lord replies, “O daughter of the king of mountains, o Devi, you have much adored me; I will, therefore, describe to you my Ksetra on the earth for your gratification. In the grand Utkala Ksetra, near the southern ocean, there lies a fine river that takes its source from the foot of Vindhya mountain, and run towards east. From it has proceeded a charming stream by name Gandhavati, which is the very same as Ganga, and flows northwards here. On it sports flocks of geese and Karandavas (wild ducks)amidst golden lotuses: and its water destroys all sins, and unite with the southern ocean. On its bank stands a forest, sacred to me, which removes all kinds of sin. It is the holiest of all holy places and is known by name Ekamra. It is filled with grandeur, and the six seasons are ever present there. O Parvati, that is my ksetra : it is as even as Kailasa itself.”
It is not clear when the town started to be known as Bhubaneswar. An inscription in Lingaraja temple18, dated in 12th century CE, mentions the presiding deity as Tribhubaneswara. The name Bhubaneswar was evidently derived from Tribhubaneswara and it soon became popular than Krittivasa.
Bhubaneswar was not only celebrated for its Shaivite character but also as a sacred shakti tirtha. Its chief goddess was known as Kirtimati, reference of whom is found in Matsya Purana. Another tantra text, Tantrasara, names the chief goddess as Bhagavaha. Utkala Khanda of Shiva Purana mentions four shakti pithas, Kedara and Gauri as Bhava pitha, Uttaresvara and Uttaresvari as Mahasmasana pitha, Gopalini in Lingaraja as Sva pitha and Vaidyanatha as Brhat pitha19.
Andrew Stirling was the earliest European explorer who left his account about Orissa region, geography and culture. He writes, “At all events, the European observer will soon discover, that notwithstanding its Puranic celebrity, the soil of the country is generally poor and unfruitful, all its natural productions of an inferior quality, and that its inhabitants rank the lowest, in the scale of moral and intellectual excellence, of any people on this side of India.”
W W Hunter19 was the next European who wrote about Orissa, and he writes, “The people of whom it treats have fought no great battle for human liberty, nor have they succeeded even in the more primary task of subduing the forces of nature to the control of man. To them the world stands indebted for not a single discovery which augments the comforts or mitigates the calamities of life. Even in literature – the peculiar glory of the Indian race – they have won no conspicuous triumph. They have written no famous epic; they have struck out no separate school of philosophy; they have elaborated no new system of law. Yet, if I have in any degree done justice to my materials, these pages can well dispense with the plots and scenic effect of history. Nature, long grown cold and inert in Europe, here toils as wildly as primeval labor, as if the work of creation still lay before her…. Within the single province of Orissa, she has brought together, as in a great museum, specimens of all her handicrafts, from the half-formed amphibious region around the river-mouths, to the chaos of primitive rock which walls out the seaboard from the inner table-land.”
Rajendra Lal Mitra was the first Indian who wrote about the place, and he writes, “…Bhuvanesvara in the present day is a small, insignificant, uninviting place with no wealth, no commerce, and no manufactory, peopled by hungry priests, and desolate in every respect. It is nevertheless, a most interesting field for the antiquarian, abounding as it does in architectural remains of the highest value, and connected as it is with historical associations of rare importance.”
Though the region was not famous or industrial during the eighteenth century CE however it soon became very famous for its antiquities and archaeological remains. Fergusson20 writes, “In Orissa, on the contrary, the style is perfectly pure, being unmixed with any other, and thus forms one of the most compact and homogeneous architecture groups in India, and as such of more than usual interest, and it is consequently in this province that the style can be studied to the greatest advantage.”
Stirling mentions that natives told him that there were originally more than 7,000 places of worship dedicated to Shiva, containing no less than a crore of lingas. Though we cannot confirm if there were ever 7,000 temples adorning this great city, however Bhubaneswar can be safely termed as the “City of Temples”. At present, the city of Bhubaneswar has more than 500 hundred temples, about 50 among those have considerable antiquity. With the heritage belonging to different religions and sects, i.e. Buddhist, Jainism and Hindu, all found confined to the environs of Bhubaneswar, it is the true contender for the greatest heritage city of India.
1 Stirling, Andrew (1825). An Account, geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack published in Asiatic Researches vol. XV. p 166
2 Lal, Kanwar (1970). Temples and Sculptures of Bhubaneswar. Arts & Letters. Delhi. p 1
3 Sastri, S M (1924). Cunningham in his Ancient Geography of India. Cuckerverty, Chatterjee & Co. Kolkata. p 592
4 Sastri, S M (1924). Cunningham in his Ancient Geography of India. Cuckerverty, Chatterjee & Co. Kolkata. P 590
5 Rackham, A (1942). Pliny – Natural History in ten volumes. Harvard University Press. pp 391-395
6 Sastri, S M (1924). Cunningham in his Ancient Geography of India. Cuckerverty, Chatterjee & Co. Kolkata. p 586
7 Mitra, Rajendra Lal (1880). The Antiquities of Orissa vol. II. Indian Studies. Calcutta. p 4
8 Stirling, Andrew (1825). An Account, geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack published in Asiatic Researches vol. XV. p 254
9 Stirling, Andrew (1825). An Account, geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack published in Asiatic Researches vol. XV. p 306
10 Panigrahi, K C (1961). Archaeological Remains in Bhubaneswar. Kitab Mahal. Cuttack. p 179
11 Panigrahi, K C (1961). Archaeological Remains in Bhubaneswar. Kitab Mahal. Cuttack. p 179
12 Epigraphia Indica vol. XVIII. p 285
13 Behera, K S (2008). The Lingaraja Temple of Bhubaneswar. Aryan Books International. New Delhi. ISBN 9788173053405. p 3
14 Mitra, Rajendra Lal (1880). The Antiquities of Orissa vol. I. Indian Studies. Calcutta. p XX
15 Mitra, Rajendra Lal (1880). The Antiquities of Orissa vol. I. Indian Studies. Calcutta. p XIX
16 Mitra, Rajendra Lal (1880). The Antiquities of Orissa vol. II. Indian Studies. Calcutta. p 111
17 Mitra, Rajendra Lal (1880). The Antiquities of Orissa vol. II. Indian Studies. Calcutta. p 110
18 Rajaguru, S N (). Inscriptions of Orissa, vol. III, part 1. p 67
19 Behera, K S (2008). The Lingaraja Temple of Bhubaneswar. Aryan Books International. New Delhi. ISBN 9788173053405. p 5
21 Hunter, W W (1872). Orissa in two vols. Smith, Elder & Co. London. p 3
22 Fergusson, J (1876). History of Indian and Eastern Architecture. John Murray. London. Book VI, p 92