Magical Odisha – An Architectural and Cultural Odyssey

Odisha located on the eastern seaboard of India has long been known for its rich culture and heritage. Celebrated as Kalinga kingdom in the historical time, Odisha was once an important maritime nation. Odisha’s Sadhavas (merchants) often would make sea voyages to carry out trade with the merchants of Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Siam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka and bring enough wealth. Through these mercantile communities, Odisha also had made profound cultural expansion in Southeast Asia, which is evident among numerous Hindu and Buddhist art of the region. A comparison of Odisha’s historic art with Southeast Asia’s Hindu and Buddhist sculptures show strong cultural ties between the two regions.


The Golden Sea beach of Puri at the time of Sunrise


Odisha’s Wall Murals at Nuapatna Village

For an appreciation of Odisha’s heritage and to narrate the stories of Odisha recently Virasat E Hind Foundation had conducted its first curated trip for four guests from the National Museum of Thailand at Bangkok. It was the brainchild of our esteemed friend Ms Anita Bose who also worked as a volunteer in the museum until recently.  Though the guests are based in Bangkok at the moment they represent diverse nationality, Beverly from the United States, Cathy from the UK, Nathalie from France and Tasnee from Thailand.

The trip was for 5 days, part of an 11 day East India Tour, which also included West Bengal, Anita’s home state, apart from Odisha. In Odisha, the trip was conducted in the golden triangle (Bhubaneswar, Puri and Konark), Buddhist excavated sites at Ratnagiri and Udayagiri, the royal heritage of Dhenkanal, Joranda, the global headquarter of Mahima Cult, Dhauli, the battle site of Kalinga, Ragurajpur, Odisha’s craft village, Nuapatna textile cluster and Dokra craft of Saptasajya. The logistic support for the trip was provided by Discovery Tours and Travel, Bhubaneswar.

The trip had been designed to showcase Odisha’s diverse heritage in a capsule, from culture to heritage, forest and mountains, art and craft and food.

Visitors arrived from Kolkata in an early morning flight and they were received with a hearty welcome.


Receiving the guests at Bhubaneswar Airport

Our first destination was Dhauli, the battle site of Kalinga. Dhauli is also where the story of Odisha begins. At the break of the dawn, the site of Dhauli is transformed into a mystical aura overlooking the Daya River, which was the stage of Kalinga battle. You become a time flyer visualizing how the site would have looked 2,300 years before at the time of the battle and Emperor Ashoka gave up his arms while surrendering to the eight noble paths of Buddhism.





At Dhauli Battle Site in the Early Morning

Our next stop was the Yogini Temple at Hirapur, one of the four open-air circular shrines dedicated to Tantric Yogini worship in the whole of India. Some of the Yoginis at Hirapur look terrific with their Tantric gesture and attire. Our guests also offered puja at the shrine and were narrated about the Tantric practice in Odisha in the historical era. The temple is dated to 9th century.

After visiting the Yogini temple, we headed for Ranch Restaurant to relish an Indian breakfast. It was also the occasion for a chit chat and to know the interest of the guests better.


The next stop was at Raghurajpur, Odisha’s craft village. Sri Gangadhar Maharana, Odisha’s finest patachitra artist had been intimated before. Our guests strolled through the open-air art corridor of Raghurajpur and interacted with several artisans and finally spent considerable time at Gangadhar Ji’s house to see his innovations for the art. We also narrated the origin and evolution of patachitra art and what makes it unique among all Odia crafts. Anita also has written a book on Patachitra and Jagannath cult. The next surprise was the Gotipua dance. The young boys had dressed up like girls and performed stunning dance sequences before us for about 30 mins. It was the highlight of the day. Our guests were simply astounded.







At Raghurajpur

We headed for Puri for the check-in at Cocopalm Resort, which is sea facing on the Beach Road.



On day 2 the early morning was spent at the golden beach of Puri experiencing various morning activities in the beach and fishermen delving into the deep sea.




At Golden Beach in Puri

After a lavish breakfast in the hotel, we headed for Konark, Odisha’s only world heritage monument and an epic in stone. Our guests were taken on a journey through its art corridors. It was magnificent glowing under the morning sun. After spending an hour we visited the recently built Konark Interpretation Centre and explored Konark’s history, legend, art, architecture and also about history and monuments associated with Sun worship of India. Watching a documentary film on Konark in a cosy theatre was an experience by itself.





At Konark

After relishing a delicious meal at the seaside Lotus Resort we returned to Puri for a brief nap. In the evening we again travelled to Konark to witness Odissi Dance at Konark Kala Mandap. Thanks to the gesture of Anita, Abhada, the mahaprasad of Lord Jagannath had been arranged in the hotel.


On Day 3 we explored the temples of Bhubaneswar in the morning. Our guests were narrated about the idea behind Hindu temples, their meaning and in particular about Kalinga temples, their architectural styles, legends, history and cultural significance. We saw Brahmeswar, Parasurameswar and Mukteswar temples.



In Bhubaneswar Temples

After visiting the temples we headed for Odisha Hotel in Lewis Road to relish a sumptuous Odia thali. It was grand with all ingredients of an Odia meal, badi chura, chenna tarkari, kakharu phula bhaja, tomato khata, patra poda machha, and rasagola. All our guests enjoyed the food very much.




After lunch, we went to visit the towering Lingaraj Temple, the highest achievement of Kalinga temples. The next surprise was a visit to the Odisha Craft Museum, one of the finest museums in the country showcasing the region’s finest art and craft heritage.  Our visitors were thrilled while taken through a journey of Odisha’s timeless craft culture.

After a coffee break in the museum, we travelled to Dhenkanal for the night stay.

Everyone was surprised when we entered through the ramp and the majestic gate of the royal palace. No one had ever thought that they would get a chance to stay in a royal palace. It turned out to be a wonderful experience for all our guests.






Next day was the longest journey to the Buddhist corridor. After breakfast, we headed for Udayagiri and then Ratnagiri, both excavated Buddhist sites having much artistic splendour of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. It was almost an emotional journey for all our guests specialising in Buddhism and its art.






At Udayagiri, Ratnagiri and Joranda

In the evening while returning back we spent an hour at Joranda’s Sunya Temple, the seat of Mahima Cult, a 19th-century religious movement which rejected the Hindu orthodox practises and emphasized on the nirakara (god without form) philosophy. Our guests got a chance to interact with resident monks who are known for their simplicity having matted hair and wearing the bark of trees.

Our last day of the trip was spent at Dhenkanal’s Dokra village and at Nuapatna textile cluster. The highlight of the day was having interaction with Sri Sarat Patra, Nuapatna’s most respectful and talented weaver. The trip ended with the shopping of stoles and saree at his shop.







At Dokra Village and Nuapatna with Sri Sarat Patra

In the words of Beverly Frankel

I want to tell you how much I appreciated your knowledge, guidance and friendship throughout our February trip in Odisha’s many architectural and cultural sites. As “Culture Vultures” from the National Museum Volunteers in Bangkok, we adored being able to experience the beautiful villages you showed us for the Patachitra paintings, Odisha dancers, batik and ikat weavers and bronze cast makers.  The religious contrast between the majestic temples of Konark and Bhubeneshwar’s Lingaraj, etc and the Aleka Mahini settlement was amazing to see the range of devotional activities.

Ashok’s conversion to Buddhism retold by murals, stone engravings, and the Buddhist sites of Udaigiri and Ratnagiri were unforgettable. Appreciated especially was our arrangement to spend the night in the old Palace in Dhenkanal.  It was magical –  dining in the garden and living in the spacial splendour of the old rooms. The seaside of Puri and life in the markets and streets of our journey were added delights.

Thank you for making it all possible and guiding us with your vast range of knowledge.


Daspalla – a Journey through Odisha’s Untamed Frontiers

Who does not like dosa, the signature south Indian breakfast! On 16th November 2014! History was made in Hyderabad with the making of world’s largest dosa measuring 54 feet 9 inches and weighing 13.69 kg at a restaurant called Daspalla.

Today Daspalla Hotels and Restaurants have created a big brand in Undivided Andhra Pradesh for their unique food innovations and hospitality, however, very little is known about the brand itself Daspalla, a tiny town in the frontiers of Odisha’s Nayagarh district surrounded by dense forest and hills of Mahanadi Division of Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary.

Nestled amidst the pristine beauty of nature, this sleepy little town has a rich legacy of past though its present maharaja, his highness Digvijay Deo Bhanja and the chairman of Daspalla Hotels Limited have settled in the port city of Vizag from the time of his late father Sri Purna Chandra Deo Bhanja’s move after his marriage to a Telugu Princes in 1949.

Silence in Kuanria Wetland

The princely state of Daspalla was founded in 1498 CE by Naran Bhanja, a younger son of Raja Narayan Bhanj Deo of Boudh during the reign of Siddya Bhanja. At that time the present Daspalla was a part of the Baudh Kingdom inhabited mainly by Kondh tribes in the inaccessible jungles of this frontier region. During the rule of Bira Bhanja, there was a rift for power between him and his younger cousin Sal Bhanja. The dissident Sal Bhanja left Baudh for Puri to meet the Gajapati King for assistance. While resting with his followers at a place called Padmatola Ghat on his way to Puri through Jagannath Sadak, the king of Nayagarh came to know about the troop and arrived here to help. Both made alliance and the King of Nayagarh declared him as the king of the area, the present Daspalla region. In no time the news of this development reached Baudh. Bira Bhanja got annoyed and declared a war against Sal Bhanja. But the troop of Bira Bhanja got defeated thanks to the alliance between Sal Bhanja and the king of Nayagarh.




River Mahanadi near Daspalla

As Sal Bhanja got yasa (fame) after defeating the king of Baudh he named his kingdom Yaspalla which later came to be known as Daspalla. It is also believed that Daspalla got its name from 10 villages that were combined to form the gadajat.

Travel Tips

Daspalla is located on the highway that connects Bhubaneswar with Bolangir via Nayagarh and Baudh. The distance between Bhubaneswar and Daspalla is 125 KM and it takes about 3 hours. Keep a day for exploration in and around Daspalla. If you wish to stay overnight either you can stay at Barmul Nature camp on Satkosia Gorge (50 km) or at Nayagarh, the district headquarters. One can also travel by train up to Nayagarh from Bhubaneswar and then take a bus or public transport. But the vehicle of your own is advisable. While at Daspalla don’t forget to relish Odisha’s signature sweet chennapoda (it was originated here).



Picture Credit – Satyabrata Dash

The earliest capital was at Badmul on the bank of Mahanadi. However, at the time of Padmanav Bhanja, the 9th king of Daspalla, the capital was shifted to the present location. A legend goes: during a hunting expedition the king was impressed with a heroic action at this place, a wild dove chasing a chhanchan (bird of prey) and decided to build his new capital here.

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After independence when Daspalla was merged with the Democratic Republic of India, the former Raja of Daspalla Sri Purna Chandra Deo Bhanja, the 18th on the line shifted to Visakhapatnam and since then the Rajabati (the palace) has become obsolete.


Picture Credit – Satyabrata Dash



Daspalla Palace

Built-in the colonial style of architecture, in the days of the British Raj, small banquettes were regularly thrown here by the royal family for the benefits of the Governors of Odisha and these banquettes used to be catered by the Grand Hotels in Kolkata.  Purna Chandra Deo Bhanja Ji had widely travelled during his young days and he was a great philanthropist having specific interest in the spread of Jagannath Cult. Of late, the abandoned palace is getting a new breath of life as it is being made a heritage hotel.

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Barbara Forest – A Blend of Nature, Indigenous Culture and Archaeology

Travelling around Daspalla is like back in time. Laidback villages, farmlands, warm-hearted people, scenic wetlands, relishing mouth-watering chennapoda, fish and prawns from Mahanadi and trekking through its enchanting hills and forests make Daspalla a perfect weekend retreat.






There are two ways to reach Daspalla from Bhubaneswar, one via Nayagarh, the shorter route, but with less interesting characters and the other via Kontilo on the bank of Mahanadi, the original abode of Lord Jagannath and then Gania, famous as the gateway to the Mahanadi Gorge Sanctuary.  We took the second route.

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Ansupa – Wetland Wonderland




At Gania, you relish the most authentic version of chennapoda and if you are on time, in the early morning hour you can experience its method of preparation. Try out the sweet at Jagannath Sweet Stall, where you get the best of the sweet anywhere in Odisha made out of freshly backed chenna, the country cheese.





From Gania take the winding highway through countless farmlands, forested mountains on both your sides. The landscape is untouched by time. On your way, you meet warm-hearted Odia souls at villages surrounding the highway.


At a distance of 7 km from Daspalla, there lies yet another hidden secret, the Kuanria Wetland, an irrigation dam project developed also to help local fishermen. Treks and resting places have been created surrounding the wetland by the forest department. A large number of migratory birds also flock to this reservoir during winters.









You can sit here in silence for hours watching fishermen in actions. Even you can buy from the fresh catch and take home or arrange a barbeque meal onsite.

Daspalla is also a culture hub of Odisha. Thanks to the patronage and initiatives taken by its erstwhile rajas, here Ramnavmi is a big draw with carnivals telling the stories of the Ramayana through street theatres, lights and actions.




Undoubtedly Daspalla is a great weekend retreat from the hustle and bustle of Bhubaneswar. Come and discover the magical charm of this frontier land wrapped in mysteries of history, culture and nature.

Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at

Sahi Jatra – Puri’s Holy Carnival

12th – 13th Centuries India! While on one end India was witnessing a renaissance through emerging traditions of classical art and culture on the other end there used to be constant threats from invading iconoclast sultans of Delhi in pursuit of their political ambitions.  We all know how Devagiri, the wealthiest capital of Yadavas became Daulatabad in Deccan and how the great Shiva Temple built by the Kakatiyas in Warangal Fort turned from its splendour into shattered ruins.

The holy city of Puri and its famed Jagannath Temple was also in the wish list for invasions. The protection of the city and the temple had become prime responsibility of Gajapati King Chodaganga Deva, who was also the builder of the present Jagannath Temple in the 12th century CE. For this, the king had established many Kotas (fortress) and Jaga Gharas (gymnasiums) to train youths as safeguarders of Puri and the Jagannath Temple. Jaga Gharas were established in 9 of its oldest sahis (neighbourhood streets) which are continued till present though through several alterations made from time to time. Most probably, Jaga is derived from the word jagarana (to keep awake).


Some of these sahis having Jaga Gharas are Bali Sahi, Dola Mandapa Sahi, Hara Chandi Sahi, Kundei Benta Sahi, Mani Karnika Sahi, Mati Mandapa Sahi, and so on. While Lord Hanuman (Mahaveer) is commonly worshipped, each Jaga Ghara also has a presiding deity of its own.

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The character of a Jaga Ghara is having a temple for its presiding deity, a gymnasium and a pond to perform various rituals. Men of all ages come here for bodybuilding, to bathe in the pond, gossip or playing a Ganjapa card game. In the temple, Lord Hanuman is worshipped along with the presiding deity of the respective Jaga Ghara.

Travel Tips

Puri is a well-known pilgrimage site for Hindus and celebrated as one of the four supreme dhams. The holy city of Lord Jagannath is well connected by rail and road and forms part of the golden triangle in Odisha for tourists world over, the other two places in the triangle are Konark and Bhubaneswar. The nearest international airport is located in Bhubaneswar, 65 km away. Puri abounds in sites for both spiritual and adventure seeking souls. Every street of Puri and its surrounding villages has something to offer whether it is food, craft, ethnic life, devotion or spirituality. Its sea beach is one of the most celebrated beaches of India on the Bay of Bengal and a drive through the Puri – Konark marine drive is one of the most memorable experiences for a traveller. 

Puri is full of hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets. While at Puri don’t forget to eat mahaprasada, the food offering to Lord Jagannath on a daily basis. 

To experience Sahi Jatra in Puri, one has to visit here during Ram Navami in the month of March/April. Check out the calendar before you plan to visit.  






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Starting from the day of Ram Navami and continued for eleven days all these Jaga Gharas and the sahis celebrate a grand carnival every night, locally known as Sahi Jatra.

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Dola Jatra – The other Rath Yatra


The Sahi Jatra of a particular Sahi starts its procession to its competitor Sahi or Badi Sahi. For example, Bali Sahi is the Badi Sahi of Hara Chandi Sahi. Suppose today the procession of Bali Sahi goes to Hara Chandi Sahi and displays their performances on the next day the procession of Hara Chandi Sahi goes to Bali Sahi for the performance. In Sahi Jatra, all the members of Jaga Gharas take part.

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Osakothi Rituals in Ganjam – An Anthropological Journey




Partly militant and partly religious, the themes of Sahi Jatra are the episodes of the Ramayana.  The non-winding procession of various mythological characters crawls through all major crossings, lanes and by-lanes of Puri’s major and oldest sahis throughout the 11 nights. The characters include Naga, Durga, Kali, Parasurama, Rama, and demons like Ravana, Navasira, Saptasira and Trisira, and various local deities.













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One of the main attractions of Sahi Jatras is the procession of Nagas and Medha dances. The performers go through rigorous training in their respective Jaga Ghahras for a couple of days before the commencement of the Jatra.




Adorned with medhas, silver jewellery and masks of respective character and accompanied by acrobats, tumblers and drummers, each participant displays his valour and strength to fullest. Among these characters, the key attraction is, however, Naga.





Naga is associated with the Nagarjuna Vesa of Lord Jagannath which is usually done in a leap year when the five days of Panchuka becomes six days during the holy Kartik month. In Nagarjuna Vesa, the lord is decorated like a warrior honouring Parasurama, the warrior incarnation of Lord Vishnu.  The Naga dance seems to have originated from this tradition. It showcases the martial or warrior dance of victory.

Usually young and energetic men are preferred for the Naga character. He wears a huge headgear profusely decorated with silver jewellery and false beard almost covering the face. Multi-coloured arrows attached in two bamboo sticks are tightly fitted to the arms. On his waist portion, several weapons like shield, dagger and knife are placed. He wears a rosary around the neck. On the back portion of the figure, a bamboo mat can be seen which is tied on his body. With the jerky movement of the shoulders, he dances in heroic steps. Sometimes he holds a gun. He moves at the front of the procession along with the drummers who provide rhythm to his movement.

People also encourage participants with clapping and cheering words. While the rehearsal is in full swing, some other community members, especially ones with artistic skills are engaged in decorating and painting fresh murals on street walls, community space and temples. Colourful and fancy street lighting is also arranged for the carnival.


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On the evening of Ram Navami, the procession of Rama and his three brothers along with their teacher Rishi Vishwamitra starts from Kalika Devi Sahi. In a decorated horse chariot the group first visit Lord Jagannath Temple for blessing and then proceed to Rajabati, the palace of Gajapati King located on the Grant Road (Bada Danda). Hundreds of people are gathered to witness and participate in the procession.



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On the 12th day, the Sahi Jatra ends with Ravana’s death. Even on that day Ravana visits Lord Jagannath Temple and offers red hibiscus flower to the Lord. Later that day after the Sandhya Dhoopa rituals, idols of Rama and Lakshman are kept on Ratnasingahsan and then carried to Jagannatha Ballav Math for Ravana Vadha Ritual.

Sahi Jatra of Puri is a unique cultural institution showcasing community participation. Apart from being fun and entertainment, it reminds us we are all equal before the Almighty and harmony should be the only motto for our living.

Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at

Lanjia Saura Hill Tribe of Odisha – A Travel Shot (Part 2)

On our day 2 at Lanjia Saura Hills

After a sumptuous breakfast at Gunupur, we headed towards Lanjia Saura hills again through the mountain zigzag road. Our destination for the morning was Rebingtal, a large village of about 500 people in 8 lineages facing the broad expanse of paddy terraces stepping downwards from the village. Rebingtal was my second visit in a span of one year. In 2018 during March I had come here to meet Laksmi Sabara, a woman Shaman. Through her, I had learned about Sauras’ dialogues with the dead, the most unique aspect of Saura belief and culture.


Only a couple of decades before the spread of modernization and the digital revolution it used to be a daily scene – living people conducting dialogues with dead, who would speak to them through the mouth of a Shaman in trance.

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Lanjia Saura Hill Tribe of Odisha – A Travel Shot (Part 1)


According to Saura belief, a person who dies becomes a Sonum. Various kinds of illness and even deaths are caused in some ways by Sonums. By attacking the living people the dead transfers some experiences to them which they themselves underwent at the time of deaths. They do this by ‘eating the soul’ of the living victim in order to absorb him/her thereby causing him/her a kind of illness or death. However, the dead do not only attack the living and harm them. They also nourish and protect them. It is the interplay of these two contradicts attitudes, respectively aggressive and nurturing which lie at the core of Sauras’ relationship with their deceased.

Travel Tips 

Puttasing, the largest Saora village is located at a distance of 25 km from the nearest town Gunupur. The entire stretch is picturesque with rolling mountains of the Eastern Ghats, verdant valleys, paddy fields, dense forest and mountain streams. These are no bus services, however public jeep services available hopping between Saora villages and Gunupur. At Puttasing is located the head office of Lanjia Saora Development Agency, which has a small guesthouse which can be booked with prior information. Otherwise Gunupur, the nearest town or Rayagada, the district headquarter, 70 km away and Paralakhemindi, 60 km away are better options. Gunupur is connected by rail and road from Bhubaneswar, while Rayagada has better rail links with most parts of India. The nearest airport is at Visakhapatnam, 215 km away.  Bhubaneswar, the other nearest airport is 333 km away. 

According to their beliefs, the Shaman, mostly a woman, in this case, Lakshmi Sabara, who communicates with the dead. Her soul leaves her body and goes to separate domestic life, with husband and children in the underworld. While she is in a dissociated state of trance, the body is available for a succession of the dead who speak one at a time through her mouth. A sequence of dialogue can last up to several hours and range from causal gossip to extremes of emotions. They also include moments of good humor amidst hullabaloo laughter.

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The Ancient Hill Tribe of Lanjia Saoras – Journey with a Shaman

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As soon as someone dies, whatever the hour of the day or night, the women of the family start preparation for the mourning. Guns are fired. An orchestra of drums and oboes is assembled to play the death beat. All the men of the lineage abandon their jobs and gather together to chop down a tree and build a pyre on the lineage’s cremation ground. Meanwhile, the Ancestor Woman strips the body of the dead, wash it in cooling turmeric powder and dress it in good, clean cloths. A man from the village’s pyre – lighter lineage lights and tends the pyre.


The following morning, the Ancestor Woman pours water on the ashes ‘to cool the soul’. Then they bury the ashes on the cremation site while the funeral shaman leads the dead person’s soul into that person’s house. There she enters a trance and his soul passes into her body and is interrogated by bystanders about the circumstances and cause of his death. After some weeks or months of the death, his/her heir carryout the main step in the funeral sequence. They sacrifice buffaloes for the deceased to eat and plough with it in the underworld. They also plant an upright memorial stone at the lineage’s stone planting site, to join the many stones stacked up there, leaning against each other, from previous funerals. During the following three years the deceased is commemorated collectively at certain seasons along with other recently dead people.



We did not get a chance to witness the death ritual but satisfied looking at the menhir cluster near Sagada Village. The site has been carefully restored by the local administration to upkeep the Saura heritage.


The religious world view of Hill Saoras is strongly reflected in their mural heritage. The icon painted in walls of the dark interiors is called Idital or Itaalan, which means writing or painting. Until recently the wall facing the door in all most all the Lanjia Saora houses used to have a sacred and ritual icon. Today, only a few have survived.




Idital is the home of the spirits and deities. The mural depicts images of ancestors and gods in different levels and according to the hierarchy of positions. The objects and images drawn in the Idital are Sonums in the form of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, trees, guns, archers, gunmen, even vehicles such as bicycles, cars, buses, and trains having the mythical and religious linkages with the tradition of Lanjia Saouras. Peacock (maaraa) is frequently seen in this ritual art. There is also a sacred pot called daanki hanging before the icon is used for keeping rice, pulses and other crops with the meaning to give food for the ancestors and gods.

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A Journey through Kondh Territory, a Tribe that Once Sacrificed Humans



The pot is called Sonumdung which means food pot of the Sonums. Many in-house rituals are performed near the icon out of which first harvesting festivals of Raganabdar (red gram) and udaanabdar (mango) are compulsory to perform near the Idital. The art is regarded as sacred in Saora religion which represents the house of deities and spirits.

Saoras are fun loving people. Drinking tadi (a local wine) in groups is part of their life. The wine drips out overnight from toddy trees into suspended pots. The sap of the alin keeps flowing by incisions made at the inflorescences of the tree. It is fermented by airborne yeasts to produce foaming toddy which is rich in vitamins and mildly alcoholic.



It is usually the evening after finishing the day’s chores, the Saura men and women get-together for the drinking party. They spend hours at leisure with friends and relatives to celebrate their evenings with tadi in hands. However it was morning hours, we were welcome to the drinking site on a hill slope surrounded by wooded forests. The drinking site was a circle of flat stones set up as seats around a hearth. The first man who arrived at the site lit the fire. In a few moments, space was filled by his companions, all in their traditional clothing. They poured their tadi into a large pot set over the fire. When the drink was at right lukewarm temperature, one of the men dipped in a gourd ladle and passed it to his neighbour on right, who drank it, refilled it and passed it on again. I also had my term.




For recreations, Lanjia Saoras are always ready. All around the year as Saoras say, work keep continue and does not leave them completely free. They are always busy with some work. But whenever they get breaks while in the fields or in the forest, they enjoy the dance and singing. When you drive through their hills in dark night hours you would be enthralled listening to their enchanting music coming from the hilltops accompanied with songs and dances. Their musical instruments include drums, gagerai, tretepe, and jambugrai. During a performance, the surrounding environment of forest and fields get enthralled and romanticized. It is the women folk who sing and dance but the music is led by men only.







But for us it was before the tadi party they performed their dance wearing their traditional costumes and attires, for women, a waistcloth with gray borders hardly touching up to their knees and blouse. A major draw of these women were their traditional pieces of jewelry, necklaces of beads, round wooden plugs pierced through their ears, spiral metal rings as ear lobes, hairpins of bell metal, brass rings around their necks and metal anklets and finger rings. The male dancers were marked with their long ended loincloths and had decorated their heads with white fowl feathers and peacock plumes. While dancing they carried swords, sticks, umbrellas and other implements and blew whistles and made peculiar sounds.








We also participated in their dance from time to time.


Our trip to Saura heartland came to an end after a traditional meal of country chicken curry, rice, and cabbage.

Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at

Kaman Pandigai

Lovely blossoming mango flowers are his lovely arrows,

                               Kinsuka is the bow and black bees its string.

                               Bright moon is his imperial canopy,

                               And the spring breeze is mighty elephant.

                               Cuckoos sing like minstrels,

                               Behold ! He has conquered the worlds.

                               May that victorious Kama shower benefaction on all

– Kalidasa in Ritusamhara

Vasant or the season spring has been the muse of many poets and is considered as the king of seasons; Rituraj. For when else is the air redolent of the fragrance of flowers, for when else is the breeze so cool, for when else does everything seem so pleasant.

Vasant in Indian epics has been depicted as one of accompanying mates of Kama Dev, the God of love who with his bow of sugarcane and string of bees aims sweet arrows of Ashoka flowers, mango flowers and blue lotus towards unsuspecting mortals inflicting them with wounds of deep passion. Therefore the onset of Vasant or spring is celebrated all across the country.

In South India and Tamil Nadu in particular, Vasant is identified with the legend of Kama Dahanam and celebrated as Kaman Pandigai (The Festival of Kama Deva). The legend has been described in various Puranas and also by Kalidas in Kumarasambhava. There are two important places that are identified with this legend. One is Manmatha Tank near Virupaksha Temple of Hampi in Karnataka and the other is Sri Veeratteswarar Temple in Korukkai city of Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu

Manmatha Tank of Virupaksha Temple in Hampi. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra

Legend of Kama Dahanam

This episode is intertwined with Girija Kalyana, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati / Girija. The story goes, after the death of Sati, Shiva decides to forsake everything and become a sanyasi. He goes to a desolate forest near a cremation ground and goes deep into meditation. The heat from his meditation is disturbing the Devas but it is a minor irritant in front of the problem named Trakasura whose death will come only at the hands of the son of Shiva. Meanwhile, Sati is reborn as Parvati, the daughter of the King of mountains, Himavan. Aware of her destiny, she begins her penance to have Shiva as her husband from a tender age.

Indra, worried of the fate of Devalok, approaches Brahma who placates him by informing him of Parvati and her penance and asks him to arrange for Parvati to wait on Shiva whilst he is meditating. Days pass but Shiva does not even notice Parvati lest falling in love with her. The impatient Indra summons Kama Dev, the Lord of love to induce lust in Shiva.

Kama though fearful of Shiva’s angst but knowing that his act will benefit the world calls on Vasant and stocks up on his flower tipped arrows and leaves to face Shiva. On reaching, Vasant turns the desolate forest into a grove with sweet smelling flowers and singing birds. Parvati watches in awe while Kama aims his arrow and shoots inducing lust but Shiva being the ultimate Yogi controls his lust that turns into rage. He opens his third eye and reduces Kama to ashes.

The place from where Kama aims his arrow is the Veeratteswarar Temple of Korukkai and here Shiva is worshipped as Kama Dahana Moorthy. It is one among the Ashta Veerattanam, eight places where Shiva is supposed to have exhibited his valour.

Kama also known as Manmatha shooting a love arrow at Shiva. This is a part of the panel depicting Girija Kalayana episode on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi. The murals are one of the finest examples of Vijayanagar paintings. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra
According to the Sthala Purana of Virupaksha Temple, this tank is exactly where Manmatha fell after being reduced to ashes. T

On seeing the image of Sati in Parvati, Shiva’s joy knows no bounds and he immediately decides to marry her. Meanwhile, Rati on being informed of her husband’s fate come running to Shiva and pleads him to restore Kama as he was only doing his duty. Shiva relents and says – Kama will be restored on the day he marries Parvati but only in spirit. He will remain ananga (without physical form) to all except Rati. Only she will be able to see him in his physical form while he will remain invisible to others. Thus, the God of love works unseen and unheard!

The underlying philosophy behind resurrecting Kama Dev in spirit form is to assert that love in its truest form goes beyond the confines of the physical self and manifests in spirit. The day Shiva burnt Manmatha was the full moon day of Phalgun, therefore the holi bonfire represents the burning of pride and desires.

Kaman Pandigai

The advent of Vasant in Tamil Nadu begins with Pongal festivities where sugarcane plays an important part symbolizing bountiful produce and also Kama deva, the God of Love. The season spans the 3 months of Thai, Maasi and Panguni of Tamil calendar which corresponds to Makara, Magh and Phalgun months of Hindu calendar. Vasanthotsava or Manmadotsava consists of celebrations on pournami of all the three months

Sri Andal, one of the Azhwar saints of Vaishnava tradition, after a month long fast to be one with her Lord Ranganatha, decides to worship Manmatha throughout the month of Thai. In the verses of Nachiyar Thiru Mozhi, she talks of how to worship the god of love so that he helps her in uniting with her Lord. She can be called Meera Bai of South!

Given below are verses with translation taken from the book ‘Nalayira Divya Prabandam’ Four Thousand Hymns of Twelve Azhwars and commentary by Dr S Jagathratchagan. English rendered from ‘The Sacred Book’ by Sri Rama Bharati. Pictures courtesy: Balaji Srinivasan

Sri Andal in one of the verses offers Manmatha, Surava Kodi (Makara Dhwaja), Thuraga (horses), chauri bearers and sugarcane bow in order to please him. The above sketch is an artists rendition of the verse. The sun above is the symbol of Mkarasankranti, first day of the month of Thai. Sketch artist: Balaji Srinivasan

The very famous Thai Pusam festival commemorating the legend of Parvathi giving ‘Vel’ (spear) to Muruga is also celebrated during the Tamil month of Thai. It is celebrated in all countries where Tamil diaspora resides in large numbers and in some countries it is a national holiday!

An artists rendition of Kama Dahanam episode. Sketch artist: Balaji Srinivasan

But the festival that generally corresponds to Holi in the Tamil Calendar is Maasi Magam. The pournami of the month of Maasi when the star of Maagam is at the highest point in the sky. On this night Kaman Koothu is performed.

Tamil Nadu has various folk theatre practices for different occasions and it is called Koothu. Kaman Koothu or Kaman Nadagam is performed to commemorate the event of Kama Dahanam and narrates his story of supreme sacrifice for the greater good of the world. It begins with the marriage of Rati and Manmatha.

A mound is created and a pole in installed which is decorated with sugarcane, leaves and flowers to symbolize Manmatha. He is invoked in an abstract form.

 A priest performs the wedding between the pictures of Rathi and Manmatha. Here children are seen playing the protaganists

After the marriage, the couple goes around the village aiming arrows at each other which are mostly made from Oleander stems (Arali Poo Chedi in Tamil). An accompanying part sings ballads that are based on a dialogue between Rati and Manmatha. One interesting thing to note here is though there are references to Kaman Koothu in Sangam era epic, Silappadikaram, the ballads sung presently are called Lavani. An influence of the rule of Marathas in Thanjavur most likely.

After many exchanges between the spouses, Manmatha aims his arrow at Shiva and the enraged God burns him. Rathi expresses her pain through laments (sung by the accompanying party) and pleads Shiva to bring back her husband or kill her too so that she can join him in death. Finally Shiva marries Parvathi and restores Kama in his spirit form.

This Koothu was performed for 3 nights in succession earlier but now it is performed on one night only.

Kaman Koothu renders poignancy to the celebrations where people see their favourite God being burnt. Knowing that he will be resurrected soon, it renders a solemn air to the  festival that is otherwise marked by much fanfare in other parts of the country. Same country, same season, same festival yet a different legend and way of celebration!

The celebrations continue with Panguni Uthiram. Panguni is the last month of Tamil year and Uthiram is the star which is at its highest point in the sky during the pournami. Panguni Uthiram is the day when Shiva got married to Parvati and Manmatha was resurrected. This day of love and romance is celebrated throughout Tamil Nadu and adjacent states with the wedding of deities.

This is followed by a float festival where Utsava Moorthis (idols used during processions) are decked up and taken to the temple tank for a joyride. These celebrations are uniform whether it is a Vaishnava temple or a Shaivite or a Muruga temple

Thus, love in its various manifestations is celebrated in the form of Kama Dev throughout the three months of spring when the land is at its fragrant and colourful best!

The cover picture is the depiction of Vasanthotsav as seen on the ceiling of Varadaraja Perumal Temple, Kanchipuram. Picture courtesy: Balaji Srinivasan

All the pictures of Kaman Koothu used in the post are from the performance staged at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The pictures have been clicked by: Sudarsanrao Bhoware


Author – Zehra Chhapiwala with inputs from Mr. Balaji Srinivasan

Zehra Chhapiwala can be contacted at and Balaji Srinivasan can be contacted at




Shigmotsav of Goa – Celebrating Life and Land

As the winter gets ready to make an exit from the land of Govapuri, when the fields are ready with the season’s harvest, the hard working peasant community gears up for the indigenous Shigmo festival. The festival that can be called as an exclusive legacy of Goa and its neighboring areas is the festival that celebrates the joy of harvest in various ways. 

Every village in Goa has its own way of celebrating the onset of spring. While in some parts of Goa, Shigmo begins on ninth day of Falgun month, in some parts it begins after the Holi or Gulalutsav. 

Some of the common customs associated with Shigmo are Maand davrap (literally means keeping/ initiating the Maand). Maand is the traditional space where the villagers gather and initiate the festival. It begins with invocation to the local deities. A group of men invoke the village deity and beating of dhol and taso, the indigenous musical instruments is initiated at the same time. The group then goes around the houses of the village as they sing and dance. This group and its processional marching dance is known as Romata Mell. Various households offer them coconuts, rice and other locally grown products. Their songs contain the social, political and satirical nuances of Goan rural life.

Shigmo Maand
Invoking the village deity at the Maand. Picture credit – Vinayak Khedekar
Maand at Barcem village of Canacona taluka. Picture credit – Soiru Velip

This ceremonial dance-cum-procession is known as Romat in the north Goa and Mell in the central Goa. Devotees dance and march with huge banners, flags, ceremonial umbrellas, festooned sticks and batons towards the temple of the presiding deity or to the house of the landlord to the reverberating beats of Dhol, Taso and Cymbals.

Below are a few glimpses of festooned sticks and batons carried during the Romata Mell and a video of the dance as seen during the Shigmo parade in Ponda


Pictures and video credit – Zehra Chhapiwala

As mentioned earlier, every village has its own custom associated with this festival. Many places have the tradition of Gade. It literally means players. There are men assigned in every household who are supposed to be Gade during Shigmo. They get into some kind of trance and go to the crematorium to bring the remnants of corpses. This is supposed to be a prayer to the Goddess of crematorium, locally called as Masundi Devata. This custom takes places during the day time in some villages like Bokadbag from Ponda taluka, while Cudnem and Sal villages from Bicholim taluka have this custom at night. The custom has its own rules which are strictly followed. Nobody is supposed to click these events, neither anyone is allowed to switch on the lights. In some places the Gade gets annoyed if anyone wears or has on his / her person leather products.

Other than this mysterious experience, Shigmo is the time to witness most of the folk dances of Goa. Goff, Morulo, Toniya Mell, Ghodemodni etc are some of the dances performed by males in various places of Goa during Shigmo. Goff is a very difficult yet a very colourful and beautiful dance form. It involves tying and untying of knots of clothes tied on wood as the dancers dance. Morulo is performed in Sarvan village of Bicholim taluka. It is a dance form that reflects the movements of peacock. Toniya Mell is similar to dandiya but is performed by only males. 

Villagers doing Toniya Mell. Picture credit – Vinayak Khedekar

A glimpse of the Ghodemodini dance as seen in Shigmo Parade in Ponda.

Video credit – Zehra Chhapiwala

Ghodemodni is performed in Bicholim and Sattari taluka. It is a warrior dance form where males dress up as war going soldiers and dance by wearing the wooden horses. The dance form is extremely vigorous and energetic in its nature.  

ghodemodni original (1)
Ghodemodini dance performers. Picture credit – Vinayak Khedekar

Females have minimum involvement in the festival. Their role is restricted to honoring and offering the gifts to the romata mells. Below is a traditional dance performed by village women as seen in the Shigmo Parade in Ponda. 

Video credit – Zehra Chhapiwala

Folk theatre is also a significant part of Shigmo celebrations in Goa. In various places, people dress up like mythical characters and join the romata mells. In some villages modern plays are also performed in recent times. Sattari taluka has a unique tradition of performing Ranmaalem during Shigmo. It is a folk theatre form which begins at night and ends with the breaking of dawn. Human curtain is a special feature of this form. The human curtain acts like chorus. The actors perform two kinds of characters called Songa and Dhonga. Songa portray the mythological characters and Dhonga reflect the characters from regular life.

Other rituals practiced in Sattari during Shigmo include Chorotsav, Mhaasti and Karvalyo. Chorotsav represents the legend of villagers who were killed while returning from cities because people thought they were thieves. The villagers believe that it was the mistake of their ancestors and thus to remember them they perform the ritual which includes burying of a few villagers in the ground after ritual worship mostly close to the temple ground. A few are buried while a few lie around acting dead. The people who play this part are carefully selected and trained prior to the ritual. Though this is not a traditional part of Shigmo, its occurrence co-inciding the Shigmo has made it an integral part of Shigmo festivities.

getting buried during Chorotsav. Picture credit – Soniya Sabnis

Ritual of Mhaasti involves worship of Mahasati. Two young boys dress up like women and portray the wives of the people who were killed mistakenly as thieves. The chorus sings the sad story of how they were killed during the Mhaasti ritual. This ritual too goes on till the dawn. At the end of the ritual, meal is served to villagers which is called as Baravya jevan, which means the food served on the twelfth day rituals of dead.

Mhasti ritual. Picture credit – author Tanvi Bambolka

Karvalyo, traditionally was celebrated to honour Sati and though the practice no more exists the ritual does. It has metamorphosed into a celebration of womanhood. It is celebrated mostly on the third or fourth day of Holi Pournima. During the 16th century, Afonso de Albuquerque Constantino de Braganza was against the evil practice of sati, even though unofficially sati continued to be prevalent in Goa.

In the villages of Sattari and Bicholim, people welcome the karvalyo by first washing their feet. The term karvalyo refers to two boys aged between 10 and 12 years, dressed in sarees and ornaments with heir heads decorated with garlands made from crossandra flowers. The two youngsters are dressed in the temple, made to sit on the shoulders of two persons and are then taken to various places as part of a procession. The procession is accompanied by a group of folk artists that continuously beat the dhol, taso and kasale and sings folksongs called sakarat’. The two karvalyo represent the Sateri and Kelbai goddesses. People believe that their visit brings good fortune.

 Thus, Shigmo consists of various rituals, customs and performances which reflect the beliefs, legends and lifestyle of agrarian communities of Goa. It is a festival of simple people believing in natural and supernatural elements. It also reflects how rural Goans revere their past and find ways of celebrating it. The fact that these rituals and customs are still practiced in today’s globalized and modernized world, show the affinity that villagers share with their traditions.

 In the main cities and town of Goa, the Shigmo parade is held in which village committees participate and showcase their regional dances. It is a showpiece event like Carnival. The urban population and tourists are often under the wrong impression that Shigmo is what is this parade with floats and various competitions. But it is only a hybridized form of the authentic festival. The actual Shigmo and various customs related to it can be witnessed only in the villages of Goa where the real Goa lives.

Author – Tanvi Kamat Bambolkar

She can be reached at

Dola Jatra – The other Rath Yatra

When world was water, you became a tireless vessel of the Vedas.

You, in Pisces form, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!


When this heavy earth you carried on your callused tortoise back, how venerable you were, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!


A blemish on the hare-marked moon, the earth became as on your tusk: you held us when a boar, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!


With nail on lotus hand you cut the bee-like Hiranyakashipu.

What a lion-man, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!


A marvellous dwarf, Keshava, you outwitted Bali: from your toenail water poured to bless the people: conqueror of the world, Hari!


Bhrigu’s lord, you made in blood of Kshatriyas the people bathe.

As evil left, the heat declined: conqueror of the world, Hari!


In Ráma’s body, you have hurled around you heads of Rávana, a blessing of the war, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!


You carried beauty as a cloud and shone as wielder of the plough that struck with fear the Yamuná: conqueror of the world, Hari!


Kind as Buddha, you refused to take the sacrificial life of animals despite our customs: conqueror of the world, Hari!


In Kalki’s body you became a sword to scourge the foreign people, comet-like in fire, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!


You, in a decay form, Keshava, are the comfort of our life. Hear the poet Jayadeva, conqueror of the world, Hari!

Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda

Sometime in mid 17th century CE, a group of natives from a small village called Harirajpur (located on the outskirts of modern Bhubaneswar) had gone to Puri to witness the annual Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath.  It was love at first sight for them. The spectacular scenes of Lord’s procession on the Grand Road of Puri (called Bada Danda in Odia) inspired them to conceptualize a similar event in their village. Upon returning to Harirajpur the village elders sat together to brainstorm which led to the birth of an idea widely celebrated as Dola Jatra, a festival that is celebrated after Holi in March every year to welcome Basanta, or the spring.


In Odisha, the temple deities are not passive and socialise just as we do. The conception of Dola Jatra revolved around this very idea of a get-together of temple deities in an open space called Melana Padia. This also allowed devotees to assemble in large numbers for darshan at one place. They need not go to the various temples located in different villages and towns.

Also, Read Here:

Sahi Jatra – Puri’s Holy Carnival

Travel Tips

Harirajpur, a major venue for Dola Jatra is located on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar near Jatni or Khorda Road Railway Station. But it is not the only place. There are other villages too nearby Harirajpur, such as Bacchara near NISER and IIT Bhubaneswar where Dola Jatra is celebrated with great pomp and festivities but the days may differ. Check with the locals before the melana starts.

While at Harirajpur also make a trip to Pipli, the main production centre of Chandua or Applique craft. In fact, the chanduas used for the vimanas come from Pipli.

Also, Read Here:

Appliqué – Celebrating Colours of Odisha

Harirajpur does not have staying options. However, one can make Bhubaneswar (20 km) as the base for exploring Harirajpur and Pipli along with other villages and the city itself which is widely celebrated as Ekamra Kshetra or the City of Temples. Bhubaneswar is well connected with rest of India by road, rail and air. The city is also a shopper’s delight and heaven for seafood and sweet rasagolla lovers. For an authentic Odia, thali try at Odisha Hotel (branches at Saheed Nagar and near Infocity) and the upmarket Kanika Restaurant of Mayfair Lagoon.

odia thali A delicious Odia Thali at Kanika Restaurant of Mayfair Lagoon  




While conceiving Dola Jatra at Harirajpur, the festival of Dola Govinda Utsava of Jagannath Temple, Puri was kept in mind. Jagannath is worshipped as Dola Govinda during Dola Purnima. Both Jagannath and Goddess Bhudevi are placed on the Dola Bedi.

Celebrated on the full day of Phalguna, the temple sevayatas and devotees apply abhira (natural dry colours) to them. Spring is welcomed through this festival and celebrated with pomp and gaiety.  It is also referred to as Bastantautsava or the spring festival.

Dola Jatra is also celebrated as a victory of good over evil through the performance of Prahlada Nataka (a form of folk theatre), especially in South Odisha.


Prahlada Nataka or the Play of Prahlada is a theatrical rendition demonstrating the faith of child prince Prahlada, who worships Vishnu despite the evil machinations of his father. The play is thought to have been adopted from a classical text popularized by Raja Ramakrishna Deva Chotarai, a feudal ruler of Ganjam in the mid 19th century. A special mask endowed with great power is worn by the actor who plays Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who ultimately destroys the wicked king.





Celebration of Prahlada Nataka in Odisha

Prahlada Nataka is on the verge of disappearing like many other folk art forms of the country. Most of the performers have shifted to other occupations with changing time. However, even of what is left, there is an inclusion of many modern elements, such as electronic lights and digital sound. Traditionally, the troops would perform on a bleacher-like platform perched in an open field or in a temple compound. The performance included dialogues and songs accompanied by the music of mridangam, drums, harmonium, wind instruments (mukta veena), cymbals and conch shells. In the climax, the actor playing the character of Prahlada becomes possessed. He must be forcibly restrained by attendants from inflicting harm on the person of the actor playing the king. Symbolically, when the king is played by Vishnu, the order is restored in the universe.

Before the congregation, the temple deities are taken around to houses in the village, where uncooked bhoga (food offerings) is offered to them. The idols are carried on decorated palanquins, called vimana and the procession is accompanied by singers and musicians, called ghantuas in Odia. The daily round of procession continues for four days and is known as chacheery.











On the fifth day, the idols from village temples of a locality or cluster assemble at melana padia. The entire atmosphere is reverberating with devotional music performed by ghantuas, bhajans, and ghoda nacha (dummy horse dance). In ghoda nacha, a dummy horse made from wood, beautifully painted and surrounded by colourful cloths is used as a prop. People from nearby villages gather in large numbers to play abhira with their gods. There is a strong belief that the natural colours used in abhira have medicinal properties that heal skin diseases.






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Preparation in Melana Padia


Paschimasambhu Somnath Temple at Harirajpur is not an architectural wonder, but its religious significance cannot be under estimated. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and while talking to its trustee and head priest Shri Lakshmidhara Mahapatra, I discovered that the idea behind Dola Jatra is not just confined to the celebration of the swing of Radha Krishna but it has something to do with the syncretic cult of Hari-Hara or Vishnu and Shiva which has been the dominating aspect of Odia religious life for last 1000 years.

Mural in Temple
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Paschima Sambhu Temple
The Temple Pond
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A Shrine in Harirajpur Melana Padia
Cleaning of Deities
Cleaning of Deities
Melana Padia
Melana Padia
Melana Padia
Ghoda Nacha
Ghoda Nacha
Gods are Taken to the Vimana
Gods are Taken to the Vimana
Gods are Taken into the Vimana


Paschima Sambhu Temple Complex – Tulsi Vrindavati








On the day of the Melana, I was in the temple to witness and document the entire process – from the preparation of Vimana and cleaning of idols till the gods being taken to Melana Padia in the wee hours. Here is the film that shows the sequence.

Theyyam – God’s Own Dance

2 am is not exactly a time when people are expected to stay awake let alone dance or perform a divine ritual. But then Theyyam is unlike any dance or worship ritual ever experienced. It is the dance of the Gods themselves when they come calling on the people.

A disambiguation of the Sanskrit word Daivam meaning God, Theyyam is a form of ritual dance of North Kerala also known as the Malabar and its surrounding areas. The exact origin of Theyyam is not known but is said to be roughly two millennia old. The ancient Tamil Sangam literature (BC 500- CE 500) has mention of Theyyam performances. It is considered to have been evolved from the way people expressed their emotions towards mother goddesses, village deities, forest spirits and forces of nature.

design on a theyyam shrine
Details of a shrine where Theyyam is performed

The seats of deities and bhutas (spirits) are known as sanas or sthanas with similar architectural appearance. Such shrines of smaller deities are known as Mundya.  Theyyam is also performed in the sacred groves where tribals worship reptiles (Nagaraja and Nagakanya), wild animals such as tigers, agricultural fertility Gods, Tiger Gods (Pulidhaivangal), various trees such as frangipani, tamarind, jackfruit which are earmarked as the dwelling places of various spirits. These places later came to be known as ‘Kavu’s- which are preserved till date with a variety of flora and fauna thriving with a number of small shrines in the centre. It can also be performed in other places like ‘Tharavadu’ (Ancestral homes), mandapam (open empty thatched shed), Kannirashi of the houses, ilam (homes of Namboothiri Brahmins), pathi, kottam, mannam, madam, palliyara, kotta, mana etc. Sometimes, Theyyam is even performed in agricultural fields, beneath trees and in even temporary thatched cottages known as ‘Arai’. However, in most of these shrines, there is no daily worship performed as such no idol is present inside, instead sword, spears, crown or ceremonial wooden stools are kept as symbols of the deity.

A kaavu or a sacred grove with a shrine

Here I am at the Mathikkavu Bhagwati Temple in Kuyyali village near Thalassery in Kannur district to watch the Puthiya Bhagavati Theyyam. The excitement was soon to turn into a least expected scare!

Feeling lucky that I saw the theyyakaran right from when his face was being painted. After a while, four torches made of dried coconut husk were tied on his waist in front. Then Vattamudi (the round headgear) was placed on his head which already had smaller torches tied on it. Ninappasha (a red coloured gum) was smeared on his entire torso and puffed rice was stuck all over it.

All the ingredients used in Theyyam face painting are completely natural – Manayola (Arsenic bisulphate) and turmeric for yellow colour, Chaayilyam (Mercury sulphate) and Kumkum i.e. vermilion for red/ saffron  colour, Arimaavu (rice paste) for white color, Neelam for Blue colour, Neelam mixed with Manayola to obtain Green colour and Kohl for black colour. These colours are then mixed with either water or suspended in oil and applied on the performer’s face with the sharpened mid rib of a coconut leaf that acts like a brush.

There are two ways in which this face painting is done – one is brushing the paint on the face known as Manayola Ootti ezuthu (used in Theyyams of shorter duration) and second is filling facial pores known as Manayola narukki ezuthu (for Theyyam performances that last from three to six hours). Not just different designs, there are different names for each of the face painting patterns as well. Though not all Theyyams use facial paintings, some Theyyams alternatively use bronze masks or masks prepared by painting on sheaths of Areca nut trees (part of the tree where the leaves come out of the stem) or even wooden planks. While Gulikan and Pottan Daivam Theyyams use these masks invariably, it’s not uncommon for Theyyams such as, Vishnumoorthi, Karinchaamundi etc to use such masks instead of face painting. Body painting is not just limited to the face but is also done on the exposed parts of the torso of Theyyakarans

puliyoorkali mookhadarshanam
Mukhadarshanam – After the make up when the performer has the first glimpse of self as a God
Adornment of a theyyakaran performing Kannangattu Bhagavathi Theyyam

After an hour, the performance begins with lighting all the torches. As the pace quickens, the music of the drums and hand held cymbals build up a deafening frenzy. It is overwhelming and scary to see someone dance with his entire body surrounded by fire torches just inches away from the body with the flames doing a different dance fanned by the wind. A chicken is sacrificed to quench the thirst of the Goddess. The theyyakaran keeps circumambulating the symbolic homa placed in the middle with the headless chicken hanging out from her mouth. This sight can send a shiver down any spine!


putiya bhagavathi chicken in mouth
The bone chilling scene of dancing with a sacrifice in the mouth, a chicken in this case


Story goes that Lord Shiva was affected by small pox when he embraced his daughter Cheerumba (the Goddess of fatal diseases). Fearing that the other Gods shouldn’t catch the infection, Shiva sent her away to earth. To cure Shiva of his smallpox, priests conducted a homa (sacred ritual fire) from which Puthiya Bhagavathi was born. On embracing her, Shiva’s small pox got cured instantly. Meanwhile, the outcast Cheerumba infected people with small pox. Seeing this, Lord Shiva asks Bhagawathi along with her six brothers to go and cure people. However, all of her brothers are killed by an evil demon Karthaveeryasuram. Enraged, Puthiya Bhagavathi kills the demon, burns him to ashes and smears it on her forehead. In her anger she kills whoever comes in her way.

Puthiya bhagavathi giving blessings
People getting blessed after the performance

This performance lasts for about 40 minutes after which the gathered devotees line up with hope of getting their wishes fulfilled and take blessings from Puthiya Bhagavathi. After the performance, a theyyakaran again becomes just another person in the milling crowd. But his job is far from easy.

A theyyakaran aka Kolakkaran follows strict rules in his lifestyle to purify his body and soul to be able to become the ‘vehicle’ of the Gods. Few months before the performances, Theyyakarans lead a secluded life akin to that of a yogi. On the Theyyam day and for days before, he takes simple vegetarian meals to keep his body steady for performing the sacred dances. Mostly, the theyyakarans keep away from any sexual activities during these days. Some may even have to master the martial art form of Kalaripayattu especially if they are to play hero-deities like Kathivanur Veeran and Poomaruthan whose theyyam include fight sequences with weapons such as swords, spears or sticks.

Puliyoor Kali Theyyam

Some theyyam performances can even last upto 24 hours during which the performer is not able to take food or water, putting a strain on his body. He works continuously day and night for weeks leading to a lot of physical stress. No wonder, Hypertension is a common ailment among Theyyam performers.

Despite the obvious stress and strain it is still an honour to perform Theyyam for one is becoming a vehicle for the God himself. It is also a reserved right of certain communities as only those who were once considered lower castes could perform Theyyam. One dancer can represent more than one deity but the rights of the same are strictly regulated and divided between caste and communities. Even within a particular caste, certain families have special rights over some theyyams. Hence, not every performer can perform any Theyyam even if he belongs to a particular caste that performs that Theyyam. These rights pass from mother’s family to her son, and after getting married, he also acquires the rights to perform Theyyams belonging to his wife’s family.

Kerala earlier was divided into 12 provinces known as Swaroopams for governance such as Venaad, Oodanaad, Thekumkur, Erambu, Kolathunad etc. Out of these, Theyyam was performed in Kolathunad region of Kerala which constitutes of entire modern day Kannur and Kasaragod districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad District, Vatakara and Koyilandy taluks of Kozhikode district along with parts of South Canara and Coorg regions of Karnataka where Theyyam is known as Bhuta Kola. These Swaroopams were further sub divided into Upa-Swaroopams for Theyyam performances. The rulers of these city states carefully divided the rights to perform theyyam as per the geography and certain socio- political characteristics. Accordingly, only the Dalit castes of Vannaan, Malayan, Paanar, Velan, Maavilan, Koppaalar, Kalanadi and Pulaya communities hold the right to perform Theyyams.

Although only certain communities perform everyone in the village becomes a part of the Theyyam in one way or the other. The timber work required to prepare artifacts is done by carpenter community, the weapons are made by blacksmith community, Nairs- the warrior caste assumes the position of trustees while Brahmins play the role of brahmakalashattam i.e. head priest in Kaliyattams (annual Theyyam performances).

In the days of yore when caste system was entrenched deep in the mindsets of people, theyyam was a redemptive experience for the lower castes. For a few hours all the higher caste people would prostrate before them and touch their feet seeking blessings.

Even when Arabs arrived in Kerala in 7th century it became a custom among the Hindus of Malabar to celebrate the Mappila heroes through the rituals of Theyyam so as to provide salvation to troubled souls in case of unnatural deaths and any injustice done to them while they were alive. Mappila Theyyams, since many centuries have become a symbol of the inclusivity and interfaith acceptance in Malabar. It is interesting to note that, although the performers in this Theyyam are Hindus, often they visit a mosque before the performance and namaz is done in the temple premises where the performance takes place.

From folklore to puranic stories to integrating stories from another faith, Theyyam has come a long way adapting to the changing values of the society but retaining its rustic appeal and magnetic charm. Even a lifetime is not enough to experience Theyyam in its entirety as it has 400 to 450 varieties and some of them are performed only once in 6 years but it is still a once in a lifetime experience that will both scare you and delight you at the same time.

You can watch clippings of a few varieties of Theyyam in the video given below:

Coming out of the temple complex surrounded by shallow pools amidst the striking scenery of Malabar hinterland, I wondered why this colourful pageantry remains shrouded in mystery despite it being one of the oldest folk rituals still around. The answer lies in the religious fervor of the land. A land where Theyyam is not a dance. A land where they believe the Gods themselves descend to dance and bless the people and no one wants to commercialise their God. At least no one in Malabar does.

The Theyyam Road –

When: Theyyams are performed from the Malayalam month of Thulam (corresponding to the months of October-November) till the month of Edavam (corresponding to May-June). As the dates for Theyyam performances are fixed as per the position of zodiac, it is difficult to ascertain exact dates in western calender, as the dates change ever year. Best season to visit Kannur is however the months of December and January as it gets unbearably hot from end of Feb till May, and watching Theyyams in open grounds in scorching Sun would be a difficult task!

Where: Although, Theyyam takes place throughout Malabar, it is convenient to make Kannur or Kasaragod as your base cities as they are the most convenient places to travel around. The best guides for the daily performances are the colourful Theyyam posters put up throughout Kannur and Kasargod towns. All you need is to be able to read Malayalam or a friend who can translate it for you! But if none of this works for you the head straight to Shri Muthappan temple in Parisinnikadavu in Kannur where Muthappan theyyam takes place every morning at 6 am without fail. This is the only theyyam that is perfomed all year round and even outside Kerala at times.

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

He can be reached at



Chhau: A Folk Performance of Eastern India

Indian theatrical tradition goes back to antiquity and is deeply rooted within local culture and consciousness. Therefore, it has its own uniqueness and structure that is truly eastern in its orientation.  The theatrical traditions of India are divided into  Loka dharmi (the popular), the folk, which includes Nautanki of Punjab and Swang of Himachal Pradesh and the Natyadharmi (the traditional), the classical, based on ancient texts on drama, like the Bharatanatyam. Several characteristics delineate the classical and the folk.  The classical performances of India are based on a set of codified laws, such as those of the Natyashastra, but at the same time are “open” to interpretation.  The Natyashastra (800 A.D.) is an ancient Indian treatise on drama, written in Sanskrit that is the foundation for not just the classical dances but also most of the theatrical dance forms prevalent in the country such as Kuttiyatam of Kerala, Ankiya Nat, Ramlila and Raslila of Uttar Pradesh and Terukootu, of Tamil Nadu and Chhau of Eastern India.

Chhau is a fine example of a semi-classical form, since it keeps the basic elements of acting styles, costumes, instructions for directors, stage craft and design and plot structure as based on the Natyasastra, and yet it does not follow the same “strictness” and “purity” of the classical form.  Chhau involves basic martial art techniques and is performed traditionally by males belonging to the three contiguous States of Jharkhand (Seraikela), Odisha (Mayurbhanj/Baripada) and West Bengal (Purulia).  While these three forms have the same basic stances, modes of expression and expressive symbols, there are some differences between the three forms.  Chhau of Seraikella utilizes graceful masks of soft tonal qualities lending the dance form a “feminine” quality.  At the same time, since these masks make facial gestures impossible, it therefore involves elaborate footwork.  The Mayurbanj Chhau (cover picture) on the other hand, does not use masks at all and lays more emphasis on facial expressions.  The Chhau dance at Purulia does not have many female characters, since its themes are from episodes of the epics of Mahabharata that do not have such characters. Women as performers have not yet been introduced to Chhau at Purulia, while Chhau at Seraikela and Mayurbhanj have an array of female characters and women as participants.


Seraikela Chhau



Purulia Chhau



Mayurbhanj Chhau.  Picture courtesy : Dancer Ms. Carolina Prada


The reason why Chhau is predominantly male can be attributed to its history. Gajapati rulers of Kalinga desa (present day Odisha), on their mission of expansion annexed parts of many present day states such as Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Their territory extended from Ganga to Kaveri and they were able to do this with the help of infantry troops called Paikas. The word Paika is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Padatika’ meaning infantry. These valiant Paikas were not on the regular payroll of the militia but farmers who became soldiers part-time. These groups rendered their services in return for huge land grants. In order to stay fit and battle ready, these farmers would gather every evening at the local paika akhadas to exercise and practice. This gave rise to a martial form called Parikhanda Khela, practiced with swords and shields, which later metamorphosised with time into the magnificent dance form Chhau.


The warriors of the royal princely houses of Singhbhum and Manbhum dynasties (eighteenth century to early twentieth century) employed the techniques of the martial arts or Parikhanda khela, and used them to dramatize narratives.  These dramatized narratives became the genesis for Chhau and since this form involved these martial art techniques, it was taken to be a masculine form.  The word Chhau has its origins in Chauni (military camp) and Chhaya (Shadow or mask). The colloquial meaning of the word Chhau is dexterity, skill and technique.

The royal princes of the Manbhum and the Singhbhum dynasties remained the major patrons of this form before Independence.  They were not only instrumental in keeping the tradition alive by funding the form, but also by participanting as performers.  They often supported this art by giving generous donations and encouraged competitions among the individual performers or troupes.  The kings of the Singhbhum region (Baripada) organized the performers into two main competitive groups, the Dakshin Sahi, southern part and the Uttar Sahi, the northern part named after the regions of the town of Baripada and yearly competitions was held between them.

The dramatic form of Chhau parallels Kathakali, another all male martial art dance drama of Kerala.  Since the techniques that are involved are based on martial art techniques, men have traditionally performed both these forms.  These forms are semi classical and do not have any set codification. Chhau has elaborate masks but Kathakali has elaborate face make up that resemble masks.



The basic steps of Chhau involve imitation of nature: the walk of a cow, stalking of a crane, fish jumping out of water, household duties performed by females like mixing of cow dung, grinding of spices, fetching water from the pond etc.  These movements, the Uflis (the basic stances), and the Chauk (elaborate footwork) are synchronized to form the pieces or the Topkas.  The basic plots of the dramatic form are taken from Hindu mythology, religion and history for example Chandrabhaga (depicting love of the moon), Ratri (a love story between the moon and night) and Meghdoot (based on a popular Sanskrit play written by the playwright Kalidasa).



Most popular theaters, like Ramlila and Raslila of rural north India have deep ritualistic and mythological foundations that are performed during major festivals.  Like other religions these nativity plays depict the birth of gods and dramatize stories about them.  Chhau is also associated with a major ritual festival of Eastern India, the Chaitra Parva (spring festival), held in the month of Chaitra or April. It does not have a religious base but uses themes from mythology and is performed in the evenings to entertain the people of the regions of Sareikela, Mayurbanj and Purulia.  The parva has rituals that honor the Hindu god Shiva, the lord of destruction.  The festival is held over thirteen days involving the Chhau performances in the evenings of the days of the rituals, barring some specific days and thirteen men of some specific communities or the Bhaktas, the devotees, perform these rituals.     Many austere practices, ceremonies and ritual sacrifices mark the Chaitra Parva.  However, the performances of Chhau are not a part of the ritual and are performed in the evenings for the entertainment of the local people.

Some folk theatre forms of India like the Lavani and the Tamasha of Maharashtra are meant purely for the entertainment of people.  These use sex and strong sexual innuendos as a theme that makes it immensely popular.  Since, these performances are held in the night and employ the use of secular songs and dances, the women performers are not given high social value and esteem, and many women are discouraged to participate as performers.  Many of the performers also come from traditional low classes.  Traditionally, Chhau also had placed restrictions on women as performers. The origins of Chhau can best describe the lack of any female participants in the early years and their denial as performers.



To be continued….

The cover picture is courtesy Ms. Carolina Prada

Most of the other pictures used in the post are from the presentation on Chhau Masks and Footwork of Seraikela Chhau by National Folk Support Centre and can be accessed at the website

Author – Gouri Nilkantan

She can be reached at