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Orissa

Population:   32 million
Languages:  Oriya
Capitol:          Bhubaneshwar

OrissaOne of the most remarkable religious buildings in the world is found in this state.  Konarak, near Puri, was unearthed a century ago, revealing its truly impressive design in the form of a magnificent chariot of the sun god Surya.  Seven galloping horses, representing the seven days of the week, (only one is still intact) 'pull' the temple, which consists of a raised platform and twenty four elaborately carved wheels, which signify the twelve months.  Erotic sculptures rivaling Khajuraho encrust the temple, which is carved from khondalite sandstone.

In Puri itself is the Jagannath temple, which draws millions of pilgrims every year for the spectacular Rath Yatra, the three day festival in July/August when three enormous decorated chariots (housing the deity Jagannath, his sister Subhadra and brother Balabhadra) are dragged through the streets by thousands of devotees.  (The English word, "juggernaut" is derived from the British mispronunciation of this god's name.)

The capitol city, Bhubaneshwar, has a history that stretches back two thousand years.  Between the 7th and the 12th centuries the area experienced its architectural heyday - approximately seven thousand temples were built during this period, though when the Muslims were finally able to gain control of the area in the late 1400s they destroyed most of these.

Orissa's temples, recognized as a very distinctive style of architecture, are concentrated primarily in the coastal plains area.  This low-lying region is made up mostly of the fertile alluvial deltas of the Mahanandi and Brahmani Rivers which cross the state and empty into the Bay of Bengal.  It is this area which was devastated by the severe cyclone that hit the coast in the summer of l999.

Away from the coastal area of the state rise the heavily forested Eastern Ghat mountains.  These are home to many of the state's Adivasis, or tribals, the descendants of the original, pre-Aryan groups who occupied this region.  Adivasis, together constituting 25 percent of Orissa's population, still remain to a large extent linguistically and culturally distinct from the general population.

In the far northeast the forested Simlipad National Park provides a protected environment for elephants, leopards, tigers and many other species.  An area of beach north of Bhubaneshwar has been set aside as the Bhita Kanika Sanctuary, allowing several hundred thousand Olive Ridley sea turtles to come up onto the sand every February/March from their transoceanic journey and lay their eggs undisturbed.

In recent years large numbers of dead turtles were washing up on Orissa's beaches, the victims of commercial fishing.  That, combined with diminishing arrivals of nesting turtles, created a great concern for the future of the species.  However, recent reports suggest that efforts at conservation have been successful.  The March, 2000 egg-laying season brought 700,000 turtles to the area to lay their eggs, twice as many as the year before.

History

In the pre-Ashokan period the Kalinga dynasty derived its power from control over the land and sea trade routes that ran through and past what is now the state of Orissa.  As legend has it, when the Mauryan emperor Ashoka overthrew this dynasty in the 3rd century BC the brutality with which he did so was so horrifying to him that it precipitated his conversion to Buddhism.  His rock pillars on which are inscribed the peaceful, progressive Buddhist principles which he thereafter embraced can still be found in the area.

In the next hundred years the Chedi dynasty, who were Jains, rose and fell, and subsequently both Jainism and Buddhism declined and were gradually replaced by Brahminism.

Between the 7th and the 12th centuries, under the leadership of a series of wealthy Hindu dynasties, the region experienced a period of growth and prosperity unrivaled by any other period.  Magnificent temples of exquisite design were constructed in large numbers - there are indications that there were seven thousand built in Bhubaneshwar alone.  It was towards the end of this period, under the dominion of the Vishnu-worshipping Eastern Gangas, and funded by wealth generated through extensive trade with other parts of Asia, that the temples at Konarak were built.

Spared the ravages of Muslim invasion for longer than many areas, finally in the 1400s the Afghans of Bengal invaded the region.  By the end of the 1500s and after subsequent Moghul attacks, much destruction had been wrought on the fine architectural legacy of Orissa.

In the mid-1700s the Marathas defeated the Moghuls and less than 50 years later the British had taken over.  They continued to control and administer the area till Independence.

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