The history of Orissa, on India’s eastern coast, reads like that of the subcontinent’s in miniature, seeming always to come into focus during its great convulsions.
One of those convulsions saw the state’s Buddhist order finally overturned in favour of a resurgent Hinduism. From Orissa this medieval flowering began its eastward spread, fertilising the cultures of places as far away as Bali.
Though all of India’s rich history is there in Orissa, seeded into the buildings and culture – from Ashokan edicts and Buddhist monasteries to Jain caves, Islamic tombs and colonial offices – it is this medieval period, from the 8th to the 13th century, that is the most complete. It is possible to see, in a relatively small area, a 500-year slice of undisturbed Hindu architecture, from its beginnings, when it is still touched with Buddhist iconography, to the excesses of the Black Pagoda temple at Konark.
Begin at Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa. The eighth-century Parsurameswar Temple rises from the walls of its sanctum into one of the first of those curvilinear towers, as if made from slim sepals of carved stone, which later dominate temple architecture. At its summit is a startling feature of the Orissan style: the amalka. This is a notched capping stone, modelled on the round fullness of the Indian gooseberry, and it has the strange effect of settling the building, as if sealing its claim on the ground.
On the walls of the Parsurameswar is a theme that runs through Orissan architecture: a lion, representing Hinduism, dominates the crouching Buddhist elephant. This temple embodies that cusp of history when the Buddhist star dims in India and the resurgent Hindu one shines brighter. In the half-closed eyes and rounded cheeks of the faces, the figures’ postures and the style of the jagmohan – the long rectangular entrance chamber with its sloping roof – it is possible to see the last vestiges of Buddhist India.
A few metres down the road is perhaps the most exquisite example of the Hindu flowering that followed. The Mukteswar is a miracle of proportion made of reddish-brown stone, giving in its colour and readiness to submit to the sculptor’s hand the illusion of wood. The Mukteswar, with its carved amalka and square antechamber with pyramidal roof, became the model for the medieval Orissan temple. Exclusive to this temple is an archway, or toran, of a ripe fatness and curve, draped with beautiful dancing girls, or apsaras, that is more erotic than any sculpture you will see in Orissa.
In medieval times, Orissa shared a profound cultural relationship with south-east Asia, especially Indonesia. For those who have been to Bali, there will be immediate recognition, from the closeness in style of their guardian lions to the ikat textiles of the Balinese sarong. Every year on the full moon of the Hindu month of Kartik, Orissa’s Bali Yatra festival honours this now extinguished link.
The people float small boats of cork, coloured paper and bark in rivers and ponds, with the idea of symbolically sending them to Bali.
Don’t miss the ninth-century Chausath Yogini temple on the way to Konark. Set deep within Orissa’s poetic countryside, this circular stone temple is dedicated to the female energies of the Hindu pantheon, which, depicted in black chlorite, form a girdle around you. It is one of only a few places where you are likely to see a Ganesh with breasts.
In this countryside of ripened paddy, green pools of water and coconut trees, the Orissan sleep feels deepest. I am reminded of a line from Six Acres and a Third, by the 19th-century author Fakir Mohan Senapati: “People say that happy days gallop like horses, and bad days walk like elephants. Whatever you might say, Time knows how to do its job...”
Aatish Taseer is the author of ‘Stranger to History’ (Canongate). His novel ‘The Temple-goers’ (Viking) is published on March 4