Paralakhemundi – From Royal Grandeur to Splendours of Folk Art

Maharaja Krushnachandra Gajapati, the erstwhile ruler of Paralakhemundi State near Andhra – Odisha border was among of the greatest luminaries of Odisha throughout her history.   A visionary and passionate soul for art and heritage, Maharaja Krushnachandra Gajapati was one of the first Odias to initiate the movement for separate statehood for the Odia speaking people. The seeds for such a noble initiative were germinated in the Gajapati Palace of Paralakhemundi. Today, the palace though degraded with the ravage of time still stands as an architectural splendour of the colonial past.



When we talk about palaces, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu amuse our mind. However, Odisha was no less splendid when compared to its counterparts. Lack of information and not given due importance, Odisha’s palace heritage is hardly divulged.

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The Gajapati Palace in Paralakhemundi is one such architectural wonder, however, sadly its story has not gone beyond its precincts. Designed by British architect Robert Fellows Chisholm, the palace and the fort are influenced by Indo-Sarcanic style combined with Byzantine and European architectural features. A three-storied structure, the palace includes an underground floor connecting it with the main palace of the Maharaja.

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The palace was built in the early part of the 19th century and can be compared with the best of the royal palaces built across India in the colonial setting. Its patron was Maharaja Jagannath Gajapati Narayan Dev III. An amount of 24 lakh and 20 thousand had been spent for its construction. Granite pillars, Burma teak beams, Belgian stained glass windows, artistic grills are the key attractions in the palace.

Travel Tips

Paralakhemundi is located on Odisha – Andhra border at a distance of 280 km from Bhubaneswar. The town is both connected by train and bus from all major cities of Odisha and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. If you are travelling from Bhubaneswar the best option is to travel by Rajyarani Express which leaves Bhubaneswar Station at 6.20 AM in the morning and arrive at 12.15 PM in Paralakhemundi.  Likewise, it leaves Paralakhemundi at 4.30 PM and arrives at Bhubaneswar by 10.30 PM. Paralakhemudi has a few budget hotels for accommodation.






The palace was built in a silver background. All the stairs are provided with long and wide verandahs or corridors. Thick walls made of well-polished red bricks with white lime mortar reveal its marvellous construction skill. At the east-facing entrance of the main gate, two sleeping lions are placed on either side over two raised platform.



Paralakhemundi was the cultural nerve centre of South Odisha. Being close to Andhra Pradesh here one notices heavy Telugu influence in language, dress-code and food habit. Plentiful festivals are celebrated in the daily life of Paralakhemundi throughout the year.

Patronized by the royal family, the Chitrakara Street in Paralakhemundi is celebrated as South Odisha’s finest folk art corridor. Experts in oil painting and woodcraft the maharana chitrakaras of Chitrakara Street make wooden idols of folk gods and goddesses apart from mainstream deities to be used in various festivals. Made in distinctive styles the woodcraft of Paralakhemundi is known for its vibrant colours and folk elements.















The most significant among the paintings are the ganjapa dasavatara sara, the Odia version of round shaped ganjifa playing cards. On the backside of the cards, one finds the depiction of 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu.




Chitrakaras also make attractive Janukhanda Parasurama Handi. According to the Purana, in Tretaya Yuga, Ramachandra and Parasurama had once met during the exile years. To test the ability of Ramachandra, Parasurama had asked him to hold and break his bow. Ramachandra could qualify easily the test which Parasurama had not expected. Ramachandra asked him to tie an illustrated pot with paintings of dasavatara in his leg and wander to beg. Parasurama had come wandering to the abode of Mahendragiri Mountain, not far from Paralakhemundi. From then on it has become a part of Paralakhemundi tradition to create such beautiful illustrated pots and sold to those desiring spiritual begging.



The hornwork of Paralakhemundi is globally known which are made chiefly out of the horns of cattle and buffalo. The art was originally well-known to the tribal communities of the region. They used to make blowing instruments from the horns. In the later part of the 19th century, this craft was given a big boost by the Gajapati kings of Paralakhemundi. They had engaged skilled maharanas of village Pitala near Aska in Ganjam District. Gradually they started making combs, elephants, horses, prawn, idols of Lord Jagannath and son on.










Paralakhemundi is truly South Odisha’s heritage capital and for me, it has got special attraction as it is my birthplace.



Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at

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

‘When the world sunk into waters, the trees and hills drowned. But on a ground and floating on the water were a brother and sister who later broke the ground. They made the new world. They planted trees and made men. In those days men lived under trees.

One year there was a great mango crop and when the fruit ripened, a Saora gathered some of it and took it to Kittung Mahaprabhu. He ate the fruit and was pleased. He said: ‘You Saoras will never make a living on ordinary fields. I will clear the hill for you’. He then gave the Saora, seeds of five of the mangos and said: ‘Put four of these seeds in four quarters of the world and the one remaining on the top of them’. The Saora planted the seeds and white ants gathered and built nests which grew into great mountains.

First there were four mountains – Thumpa, Tangliya, Bodang, Kintalia. The Saoras began to cultivate on the hillsides. Gradually other mountains came into being.’

Tribal Myths of Orissa – Verrier Elwin

My mother comes from a small village called Budura near Kashinagar on the banks of Vamsadhara River. In every summer and Dussehra vacations, we would spend a couple of weeks there, playing hide-and-seek with other village kids, plucking mangoes from orchards, early morning and late evening bathing in the river, riding in bullock carts and many more. A life that is hard to imagine for urban kids of this generation.

To the north of Budura were majestic mountains of the Eastern Ghats, inaccessible at that time for people living in plains. Scores of thoughts kept cropping in my inquisitive mind, such as who lived there? How was their life? What did they eat? etc. etc. I would listen to my mother and grandmother talk about the people – they are Lanjia Saoras, the original worshippers of Lord Jagannath. They are primitive and speak in their own Mundari language which is difficult for us to understand. Once a week they descend to the plains to barter their forest produce for other household needs. They believe in the spirit world.

Travel Tips 

Puttasing, the largest Saora village and the native of Lakshmi Sabara 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.  




The fascinating tales of the Saoras left a lasting impression on my young mind and instilled in me a deep urge to explore their lives.

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

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

Decades later, I got exposed to their fascinating murals called Saura Paintings, first through Internet and then in tribal fairs in Bhubaneswar. My curiosity was piqued and I wanted to understand the meaning and context of the wall art. In my mind, I was drawing a comparison with Warli murals that I had witnessed on the West Coast of North Maharashtra and South Gujarat.








The Saoras are considered amongst the oldest tribes in India. They have features resembling the Pre-Dravidian tribes and largely inhabit the hilly tracts of Eastern Ghats in Rayagada and Gajapati districts of Southern Odisha.

Like most of the forest tribes in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Lanjia Soaras have a close affinity with nature. They worship nature’s bounty in all forms. Their daily life revolves around household chores, livelihood and various forms of entertainment including dance and music. Their huts, organically built with bamboo and mud on a raised platform, are rectangular in shape with a small main door. The roof is proportionally low. There is a high frontal veranda which is reached by a flight of steps. Overall, the plan resembles the landscape, high hills with sloping steppes.









Saoras indulged in slash and burn cultivation or shifting agriculture on hill slopes and hunting and fishing. However, with the spread of Christianity and education, hunting is now almost abandoned.

Their daily life and Shamanic rituals are depicted in their paintings. Each of their themes has a story pertaining to events, such as harvest, child birth, evoking ancestral spirits, marriage, death, etc. On all important occasions a painting called Ekon or Edital is worshipped. The Ekon is made on the walls in a particularly dark corner inside the house.


Traditionally, it is the Kudan or Kudan Boi, the Shamanic priest who is qualified to draw the Ekon. They have the expertise to explain their meaning to the village folks and the Ekon is thus looked upon as a valuable feature of vocal tradition through which the Saoras connect to their deities.



Most of the time, the mural is a square or a rectangle. In some cases, the mural is divided into two, four, six or eight rows cut by horizontal or vertical sections depending upon the requirement of figures and the design by the artists as directed by the spirit in their dreams. Figures are mostly drawn in white against the terracotta background. The colour is mostly prepared from rice flour and the pigments are mixed with water and glue made from tamarind seeds is used as the binding agent.



There are countless deities in the Saora world, both benevolent and malevolent. They are worshipped with fear and anxiety and offered sacrifices to ensure safety and well being of the people. Sonnum or Sunomam is the general name to the Saora deities. Their gods and spirits make constant demand on the living. Those who die in the house appear in dreams and demand certain offerings. Sometime devil spirits enter cattle sheds and make cows and oxen ill in order to make their displeasure known. If their demands are not met they can cause harm. Malevolent spirits are therefore more cared for when compared to benevolent ones.




Armed with this knowledge, I set off for Saora Hills to climb the mountains that fascinated me as a child and to satisfy the questions that had plagued me ever since.

I was expecting Saora villages and people of the kind that I had seen in pictures and tribal fairs. However, in sharp contrast to my expectation they appeared too modern, thanks to the missionary activities that has wiped away thousands of years of indigenous culture with a grand stroke. There are churches in every nook and corner. You also see Hindu temples being constructed to compete with the missionaries. It was difficult to decide whether I was happy or sad or both.







All the traditional homes of Saoras are replaced with concrete houses. There are good metalled roads through the high mountains to almost all Saora villages that were hitherto inaccessible. Saora youth are seen sauntering in branded jeans and tees. There are English medium schools for the Saora children.

After a 30 min drive through the ghats, I reached Pudasinghi, the largest and most centrally located Lanjia Saora village in the mountains.

Here I met Lakshmi Sabara, a woman in her late fifties and a Kudan Boi, one among the very few Lanjia Saora shamans. Her house is a concrete structure, but in one corner of a wall you see an Ekon divided into 8 rows. Beside her present house is a small hut on whose wall you see yet another Ekon that was painted by her son Rabinatha Sabara.





In this film, Lakshmi explains the meaning and context of this particular Ekon.

Even though there are hospitals and facilities of modern treatment, there are people who still believe in traditional healing and visit a shaman. Belief in spirit world is still a common practice among the Saoras and Lakshmi regularly heals patients from the tribe.

In this film, Lakshmi is seen practicing Nangte, the Saora way of identifying the spirit that causes illness in a patient. She is communicating with the spirit through hymns and asking for the root cause of the disease. On the basis of the answer she receives from the malevolent spirit, she instructs the patient to do the needful, mostly an animal sacrifice.

I was running short on time and could not go to other Saora villages to meet the surviving shamans and see their murals. This visit though has given me some idea on both sides of the story of the Saoras, is just the beginning of my journey into Odisha’s tribal world to gain an insight into the problems plaguing the rich adivasi heritage. It was sad to see the cultural legacy of the tribal communities fall prey to the 21st century version of development that is defined by mean market forces, religious one upmanship and myopic government policies.

Finally, in the words of Lakshmi Sabara:

She says, that she can speak with nature and hear voices from under the earth. The wind blows in her ears and the trees whisper to her. The dead sing through her mouth and cries of infants are clear to her. For her we are the birds’ eggs, flowers, butterflies, rabbits, cows, sheep and the elephants. We are the leaves of the trees and the drop of the water. We are air and we are the flame of the stars. We are the gazelle and the doe. We rise from the waves of sunlight. We are the colour of the soil and the springs of Salaf tree.


Now this dialogue is over. She feels like a stranger and says,”I am not part of this world”. She sets herself apart from new change.

The change that says: ‘We don’t need to worship nature’.


Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted 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