Posts filed under ‘Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat’
State and culture in Kosala during medieval period: a study of oral narratives on Patnagarh and Marjarakesari in Narasinghanath
Narasinghanath has constantly drawn the attention and consideration of scholars belonging to diverse disciplines such as sociology, history, archaeology, art, and culture since a very long time. The ground is that, it continues to offer novel information partly because various pieces of facts exposed in this field compel us to rethink and reorganise and partly because the ever-growing intricacy in the political landscape of West Odisha which encourages additional examination to reconfigure certain images and symbols for the purpose of socio-historical reconstruction and rebuilding of this place. The present paper is an endeavour to understand and appreciate the mode and reasons of assimilation of a local deity called Narasinghanath (Little Tradition) in the religious cult Hindu society and culture (Great Tradition) in the modern West Odisha i.e. erstwhile Chauhan Rajya (state or kingdom).
In the present context, we have relied largely on the material and substance from the oral tradition accessible in the local areas, which sustains this process of assimilation. Generally, historians have shown slight regard for the oral tradition and in some places only; they treat the claims of the oral evidence rather cavalierly. Nevertheless, it is recommended here that oral narratives like myth and legend are manufactured and attached to the Narasinghanath tirtha (pilgrimage) to establish and to validate the faith of the numerically dominant aborigines with the Hindu epic tradition and thereby the larger Hindu religious tradition (Great Tradition). Accordingly, aesthetic consideration plays relatively an insignificant role in the present study.
The area of our study is Narasinghanath tirtha. The shrine of Narasinghanath is bounded by rich jungles and is situated about 32 kms south-west of Padampur town. It is quaintly situated at the foot of a hill of similar name Narasinghnath, which is an essential part of the Gandhagiri or Gandhamardan hill range. This hill range rises from 2000 to 3000 feet in height and reaches its highest point 3234 feet in the peak of Narasinghanath hill. This tirtha is in the former Borasambar1 zamindari under the previous Patna rajya i.e. Patnagarh. Afterward, it became a part of erstwhile Sambalpur rajya.
One branch of the Gandhamardan hill range runs along the southern frontier of the ex-Borasambar zamindari and separates Bargarh district from the district of Bolangir. Narasinghnath temple is positioned on the northern side of the Gandhamardan hill range inside Bargarh district. On its southern slope almost at the foot of the hill is Harisankar / Hari-Sankar, another place of pilgrimage. A difficult path links Harisankar and Narasinghnath across thickly forested mountainous tract. Perennial brooks ooze out on both sides of this hill range. From the northern crest of this range springs a famous stream called Papa-Harni Nala, sequentially called Kapil–Dhar, Bhim–Dhar, and Chal–Dhar and descends to the foot of the hill where Narasinghanath pitha is situated. On the southern slope, a similar stream named Papa–Nasini (the destroyer of sin) issues from the crest from the range and descends to the foot of the hill where Hari-Sankar Pitha is located. Another range branches off to the west of Narasinghnath running first north-south and then north-east near Jagdalpur in the state of Chhattisgarh where it is broken by the river Ang / Ong. Another range runs eastward to Tal and then to the northeast forming the boundary between the Bargarh district of Odisha and the Raipur district of Chhattisgarh2. In view of this, it may be understood that Borasambar zamindari was advantageously situated from political, military otherwise security point of view.
It would not be out of context to point out here that Gandhagiri is very popular in the history, mythology, culture and various Puranas of Hindu Great Tradition. The Gandhamardan of the Ramayana may as well be identified with this range of hills3. The tradition ascribes the construction of Narasinghnath temple on Gandhagiri to Vaijala Dev-I (1410-1430 AD). An inscription of 1413 AD found in this temple attests it. Vaijala Dev-I is the fourth Chauhan ruler of Patnagarh and is supposed to be the builder of Narasinghnath temple whereas his queen Durlabha Devi is said to have built the Hari-Sankar temple. The former is dedicated to Lord Visnu (Hari) while the latter is dedicated to Lord Siva (Hara). Nevertheless, according to the oral narrative prevalent in the local area, Raja Ramai Dev (1360-1385 AD), the founder of the Chauhan dynasty / kingdom in Patnagarh is said to have built these temples.
The oral narrative regarding construction of the Narasinghanath temple is as follows. The worship of Marjara-kesari by the common people at Narasinghanath is said to have been initiated by a tribal couple. According to the oral narrative, a tribal woman named Yamuna and her husband used to go to the jungle to collect fruits, leaves, firewood etc. for their living. One fine morning, while digging a place in search of Kanda (roots), Yamuna and her husband observed blood spurted out from that place. An unexpected fear gripped on them. They stood there frightened and shaking. For a moment, they were speechless due to fear. When they overcame fear, they realized that there might be some supernatural power in that place. Subsequently, they narrated their experiences before Raja Ramai Dev. Consequently, the icon of Marjara-kesari was discovered from that location and a temple was built for his worship. A wound mark found on the head of the image is supposed to have been caused by digging4.
Our subsequent analysis, however, unfolds the reality that the Narasinghanath site is an ancient one. The survival of Gandhagiri as a religious site dates back at least to the early Christian era. We have numerous evidences to establish that Buddhism was widespread in West Odisha from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD. Nagarjuna, the great expounder of the Madhyamika Philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism flourished some time during the period in Daksina Kosala, which was then under the Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni. It is known from the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims Hieun Tsang and Itsing that king Satakarni (106-130 AD) built a magnificent Vihara for his philosopher friend Nagarjuna at Po lo mo lo ki li (Parimalagiri) which has been identified with modern Gandhagiri5. It means that Gautamiputra Satakarni is said to have patronized Nagarjuna and constructed a brilliant vihara for him on the Parimalagiri.
In this context, mention may be made of some Buddhist relics discovered in Ganiapali. Remarkably, Ganiapali is situated near the convergence of the Ang and the Magar rivers near Melchhamunda Police Station under Padampur Sub- Division in the district of Bargarh. Most likely, the Ang valley is exceptionally archaeologically rich and Ganiapali occupies a significant place. There appears to be ruins of an ancient Stupa in Ganiapali, which is identified with ancient Muchalinda, a centre of Buddhist learning6. Two Buddha’s images have been discovered in Ganiapali. The local people worship one such image with the hooded serpent as a deity7.
From the Buddhist text Vinayapitaka, it is recognized that the serpent king Muchalinda protected the idol of Lord Buddha by raising its hood over his head forming an umbrella during the second week following his enlightenment while the idol was troubled by rain and storm. Such an image of Lord Buddha seated on the coils of the serpent king Muchalinda, which shaped a hooded canopy over the head of Lord Buddha, has been discovered in Ganiapali. The local people worship this image as Naga-Muni (the serpent sage).
The above-mentioned Muchalinda image of Ganiapali was located for the first time by the celebrated art historian Charles Fabri in 1961 during his exploration. Fabri has correctly remarked that Muchalinda Buddha images are very rarely found in India. He has dated this image to the 5th to 6th century AD. The name of the village Melchhamunda might have been a local twist of Muchalinda8. When precisely this place was abandoned is difficult to substantiate due to paucity of facts. However, systematic exploration and excavation in this area will positively throw new light on the history and culture of this area.
On a stone-slab is carved a Yoni–Patta having an eight-angled design and a pair of footprints. It is found close to the Pancha-Pandava-Ghat in Narasinghanath. It is said that such footprints are found to be carved on stone slabs at Ghudar and Ranipur-Jharial in the district of Bolangir and at Samalesvari temple and nearby Rampad in Sambalpur9. It is widely believed that worship of footprints of Siddhacharyas was very familiar to the Tantrik School10. The footprint emblem noticed in the site of Ranipur-Jharial may corroborate this. It is believed to be the reminiscent of early Buddhist worship of anoconic diction11. So, in the present state of our knowledge and information, this much can be remarked here that the Narasinghanath area bears the testimony of Buddhist site of pilgrimage, worship and learning with international reputation in between second and eighth century AD. In view of this, it may be suggested that in ancient and medieval period, religion and learning were very intimately intermingled and each tirtha or holy place was also a centre of learning and culture12.
From the accounts of the eminent art historian Donaldson13, it is known that the temple site of Narasinghanath is an ancient one and the survival of four pillars within the Jagamohana suggests that there was in the beginning a pillared mandapa erected here. Stylistically, these four existing pillars appear to date from the ninth century and are probably the earliest extant examples in Odisha of this transplanted style. This original structure has undergone many changes, however, with two ornate doorframes being added in the eleventh century14.
Panda15 has studied the sculptures and identified with the Panduvamsi raja Harshagupta and his Rani Vasata Devi on one of the previously mentioned four pillars. The sculpture depicts the picture of Rani Vasata Devi attending to her husband Raja Harshagupta in his deathbed in deep mourning. Conspicuously, Rani Vasata Devi is also believed to have built the original Narasinghanath temple for Lord Visnu. This attests the fact that the site of Narasinghanath bears the testimony of a place of Hindu worship and pilgrimage since at least the eighth century AD.
In this context, mention may be made of one five feet high four-headed standing figure of Narasingha in Samabhanga posture found in a small temple of the Narasinghanath temple complex. Very unusually, the Sthanaka Yoga Narasingha image standing in Samabhanga posture is seen wearing shoes up to knee-level or high boot of the Iranian type, as seen in the legs of the Surya image of Konark, assigned to the thirteenth century AD16.
It might be possible that the temple site of Narasinghanath was in the beginning a Buddhist one and the temple built over it by Rani Vasata Devi in eighth or ninth century AD was in a decaying state. This was repaired and renovated in eleventh century AD and was consequently repaired or renovated again by the first Chauhan Raja Ramai Dev in fourteenth century AD. In the same way, it was in complete ruins in the fifteenth century and the fourth Chauhan Raja Vaijala Dev-I built a new temple on this site for the present Lord Narasingha Visnu.
Senapati and Sahu17 writes that possibly from the time of Raja Vaijala Dev-I and his Rani Durlabha Devi, the peaks containing the temples of Narasingha and Hari-Hara were correspondingly recognized as Narasinghanath and Harisankar. In view of this, Gandhagiri may be believed to be a foremost religious centre of Buddhism with international status between the second and eighth century AD. For that reason, probably it was assimilated into Hindu fold i.e. Hinduism first through the stream of tantrik Saivism and finally through the stream of Vaisnavism which will be dealt subsequently in our analysis18.
It may be understood that Gandhagiri has been the seat of Buddhist activities since the early part of the Christian era and Buddhism continues to become the dominant form of religion in this region at least till the eighth century AD. There was an ancient Vihara and it had the international reputation of being a Buddhist Pitha. Significantly, when Buddhism as a religious-cultural force began to decline in many parts of India, Gandhagiri still played a significant role and contributed to this faith in its new form i.e. tantrik Buddhism. In all probability, Narasinghanath Pitha was once upon a time popularly known as the land of tantrik Buddhism. Similarly, Lord Marjarakesari enshrined in the Narasinghanath temple may be identified with a Buddhist tantrik deity who may have been worshipped by the aborigines since very early times19. In other words, Buddhism had stronghold over this area and its people.
Buddhism had to experience a great set-back owing to the rise of Saivism and Vaisnavism in this region. It was possible but not probable earlier than ninth century. It seems probable that Vaisnavism has misplaced its identity and tried to compromise with Saivism during the reign of Somavamsis. Post-eighth century probably gave a Saivite twist to the tantrik Buddhism in Narasinghanath site. The increasing popularity of Saivism after ninth century is apparent from the occurrence of Saiva images and Hari-Hara Pangat in the Narasinghanath pitha. Most likely, during this period tantrik Buddhism assimilated with Saivism. Nevertheless, it is not possible to pronounce precisely when the Buddhist ideology or faith has come to an end allowing Saivism a space to prosper and dominate in Narasinghanath pitha. However, Saivism left its imprints on this site, which is also substantiated by the rock-cut sculptures found in Narasinghanath.
In the Pancha-Pandava-Ghat, there are rock-cut sculptures among which a big rock-cut profiled figure of standing bull Nandi is hewn with one bell hanging from its neck and Lord Siva sitting on its back. A male is positioned nearby with both his hands folded in obeisance. This rock-cut sculpture can be dated back to the 12th-13th century AD.20. In other words, this rock-cut sculpture represents the popularization of Saivism in this Pitha or site during this period. Under the patronage of Somavamsi rulers, Saiva ascetics might have influenced the common people a lot that facilitated in the spread and popularization of Saivism in the Gandhagiri area. The following oral narrative connected with this pitha attests this reality. There is a pool called Haran-Papa in the bed of stream close to the Narasinghanath temple. The natural springs, which come down the Narasinghanath hills, create a pool of water at the foot of the hill close to Narasinghanath temple. The pool is called Haran-papa, the water of which is competent to wash away all sins.
As per the existing narrative, Lord Siva after killing the Go-Daitya (cow demon) could not liberate himself from his sin anywhere in the world. Lord Brahma informed Lord Siva about the manifestation of Ganga Devi in the shape of a stream in Gandhagiri and recommended him to take a holy dip in its water. Consequently, Lord Siva arrived here and took a dip in the holy water. Amazingly, Lord Siva got himself released of the stigma at this Tirtha21. Particularly, matching story is found related with the river Baitarani in other parts of Odisha. All the same, this narrative intends to communicate some information about specific event; provided that it can be correctly dated and appropriately interpreted as potential source of certain kinds of historical information. But dating and interpretation present a lot of difficulties. Nevertheless, the above narrative does suggest us to consider that Saivism was once popular and enjoyed predominance in this place.
There is an oral narrative concerning the formation of Chauhan Rajya in Patnagarh in the medieval period. By the time the Sultan of Delhi conquered Rajputana, a Rani of one of the Rajput houses fled away to save her honour and dignity after her husband was assassinated in the battle. This Rani is recognized as Ashavati and her husband is identified as Hammir Dev who lived near Mainpur in north India and was killed by the Sultan of Delhi. Subsequently, Asavati reached Borasambar, a small Binjhal Rajya. Borasambar was numerically dominated by the aborigines like the Binjhals and was a seat of tribal power. The Binjhal tribal chief of Borasambar took pity on the mother and gave her shelter, where she gave birth to a son named Ramai Dev who afterward became the originator of Chauhan dynasty in Patna.
Reportedly, Binjhals are Dravidian in origin. They worship swords, spears and arrows. They worship mother-Goddess specifically Lakheswari (the Goddess of Archery) and Dangar–Devta (the mountain deity). Possibly, the Binjhals are a hunting and martial tribe. They particularly worship Narasingha and Bindhyabasini who is their principal deity. They do not employ Brahmins in any ritual observance. They have their Binjhal priests for this purpose. Moreover, Bairagis or Vaisnavas are taken as Mantra-Guru. Almost every Binjhal takes Karna–Mantra that is, Mantras whispered in the ear (Karna). It may be understood that Binjhals seek to assert their interest and identities against Brahmins or power and authority of the Brahmins in the Hindu society. This reminds us one of the protests of Buddhism in opposition to caste prejudices or Brahminism. In addition, they worship deities of the Hindu pantheon along with their own deities, which may be accredited to the process of Hinduisation or Sanskritisation taken place afterward22.
According to the oral narrative, once upon a time Patna was a dependency of Borasambar. There was no chief and the council of eight Malliks (Asta-Malliks) ruled over Patna. It was a reign full of mishap and disturbances. What’s more, it was a seat of tantricism and cruelest form of blood sacrifice i.e. human sacrifice was prevalent before its reigning goddess Patanesvari. Everyday a man was sacrificed to the deity. But it was practically difficult on the part of the Asta- Malliks to arrange a man daily for the deity. Consequently, a well thought out practice was made with the hidden intent of human sacrifice at the religious Pitha of Patanesvari.
As per the practice, these eight Malliks were electing a chief each day from the common mass and taking him to the temple of Patanesvari so that he could seek her blessings before ascending the throne. In fact, they had clear objective of letting the man to be the sacrificial article of the deity. They asked the so called newly elected or selected leader to pay obeisance to the deity. No sooner had he prostrated himself then he was beheaded by these Malliks and sacrificed before the deity. After that, the Asta-malliks pretended that the deity considered him unfit to sit on the throne and for that reason devoured him. As a result of this practice, day by day a man was elected chief and was subsequently sacrificed pitilessly.
This narrative intends to transmit certain historical information in a distorted and hazy form that Patna (Patnagarh) was a seat of Tantricism where human sacrifice was once established. In this context, it may be said that there is satisfactory sign to demonstrate and consider that Patna was a seat of tantricism that led to the institution of a tantrik pitha (site) at Patna. It may be noted here that still a few years ago Patna was widely known as Kuanri–Patna or Kaunri– Patna which means the seat of maidens who lived in this township for some period of time and accomplished esoteric rites.
Most probably, these tantrik maidens were non-Brahmins by caste or they were popularly acknowledged by their assumed non-Brahmin names like Gangi Gauduni, Sua-Teluni, Jnanadei-Maluni, Nitei-Dhobani, Luhukuti-Luhurani, Sukuti-Chamaruni and Patrapindhi-Saharuni. This suggests us to believe that they were very much admired and worshipped mostly amongst the non-Brahmin and tribal sections of the West Odishan society. They used to solve various problems of the common people related to health, family and the like by their esoteric practices. Thus, they served the society at the grass root level. There are popular tales and traditions in west Odisha depicting the occult practices and tantrik activities of these seven maidens, at times branded as Sat-Bahen (seven sisters). They appear to be the supporters and followers of Lakshminkara who has propounded the Sahajayana Buddhism in West Odisha in the ninth century AD 23.
Apparently, Vaijala Dev-II (1520-1540 AD) of Chauhan dynasty was also a worshipper of Hari-Hara and his Guru was well versed in Logic and Tantra. As late as the sixteenth century, Patna Rajya was known as Kaunri-Patna after the name of the headquarters town of that name as known from the Nirguna Mahatmya of the poet Chaitanya Das24. The oral narrative further reveals that there was a Brahmin in Patna. On one occasion, on his visit to Borasambar he learnt that the Binjhal chief of Borasambar had given shelter to a Chauhan princess and her son. On his request, the Borasambar chief allowed him to take the mother Asavati and her son Ramai Dev to Patnagarh and to keep in his house. After sometime, the Brahmin was elected by the Asta-Malliks to be the chief of Patna. Being afraid of the inevitable consequence of death he sent Ramai Dev to represent him for this purpose.
When the Asta-Malliks asked Ramai Dev to prostrate himself before the deity, he asked them to demonstrate how to do it. When the Asta-Malliks were prostrating themselves, Ramai Dev killed all of them with the sword kept besides the deity and came out of the temple alone and alive. As it became clear from this that the deity approved Ramai Dev, the people hailed him, as their ruler and thus, he became the first Chauhan Raja of Patna. The Binjhal chief of Borasambar, the overlord of Patna endorsed his claim to the principality, came to Patna and put the ticca of a Raja on his forehead. Thus, in Patna / Patnagarh, the Binjhals occupied a honoured and privileged position or status in the sense that it was the custom until very recently for the Binjhal chief and each of his descendants to exercise the same right, also placing a Pagri or Pat of silk on the head of the Raja of Patnagarh at the time of accession25.
Deo26 strongly claims that there is no historical support for Chauhan immigration to Kosala region i.e. modern West Odisha. It is possible that one of the local tribal chiefs emerged powerful enough to assert his independence and seeking the Brahmin’s help and advice, claimed Chauhan rank and status. It may be understood in this specific circumstance that why the Binjhals have such an exaggerated sense of their weight and importance in relation to the Patna Rajya. The way in which Ramai Dev has asserted his position and influence within the power structure suggests us to consider that Binjhals have extended all support to Ramai Dev. In other words, the termination of rule of Asta-Malliks was accompanied by the Binjhals who have played significant role in the emergence and expansion of the Chauhan Rajya in Patnagarh. This is why they have enjoyed much reputation and standing.
The most salient point about the contributions made by various groups is that tribal people or aboriginal groups have been a key factor in the development and progress of societies, in breaking up ethnic boundaries and other cultural limits and identities towards the emergence of Patna state or nation as we understand it today. Ramai Dev eventually succeeded in capturing power from Asta-Malliks and became the exclusive ruler of Patna. In this heroic myth, Ramai Dev and a Brahmin script the extinction of system of Asta-Malliks. This reflects the familiar competition and jealousy among Asta-Malliks who represents various interest groups about their status and position within the then existing political structure.
In this context, Deo27 writes that there was a type of oligarchy or Government by a group of eight powerful persons recognized as Asta-Malliks, and one of these eight chiefs emerged as the Garhpati of Patnagarh. Ramai Dev distorted the egalitarian system of rule (Asta–Sodara rule) and acknowledged the other seven as Garhpatis or Malliks of diverse areas, who enjoyed superior status in their respective areas. It is understood from the narrative that Ramai Dev was himself endowed with some extra-ordinary qualities and commensurate good will. But he could hardly have destroyed the Asta-Malliks or the system of oligarchy in Patnagarh without the support and guidance of the Brahmin, which marks the commencement of a process of Hinduisation or Brahminisation or Aryanisation. Thus, their union brings the heroic destiny of Ramai Dev to a fitting close to sanskritisation and also formation of a new hierarchical political structure.
Deo28 has rightly mentioned that in these circumstances, it is not difficult to believe in the emergence of a Brahmin-Kshatriya ruling coalition in Patnagarh. In order to sustain a separate and independent Chauhan kingdom, most probably, the Chauhan rulers had to depend upon the Bhogas and Bhagas. They had to persuade the local tribal people to become settled agriculturists so that production would increase; because tribal economy based on hunting and shifting cultivation cannot sustain a Rajya as analysed in a different place by Deo29. In order to legitimize their rank and status as Rajas and to their share of the produce i.e. Bhaga, the Chauhan rulers granted lands to Brahmins and temples which contributed to changing the agrarian situation, configuration of hierarchical social order and Brahminisation or Sanskritisation or Hinduisation of society in this area. In course of development, the successive Chauhan rulers of Patnagarh extended their influence over the neighboring territories including Sambalpur and the adjoining States.
In this context, it would not be out of place to mention here that the aboriginal inhabitants of the Gandhagiri area of Borasambar give special regards to Narasinghanath tirtha. For instance, if the dead body is burnt by the Binjhals, then the ashes and bones are by and large taken to Panch-Pandava-Ghat in the stream near the Narsinghnath temple, where they immersed the ashes. It is believed that the deceased would attain heaven in doing so30. In addition, many other people of the neighbouring areas also immerse the ashes of their forefathers in this pool called Harana–papa with the same belief31.
As discussed previously, the-then existing religious site at Narsinghnath received royal patronage by the first Chauhan ruler Ramai Dev of Patnagarh some time in the fourteenth century. It was perhaps in a decaying condition when the fourth Chauhan Raja Vaijala Dev, son of Vatsaraja Dev came into power. He extended the state patronage and rebuilt or renovated this religious shrine, which was then emerging as a Vaisnava pitha. He granted revenue of the village Luhasingha or present Loisinga for worship of the Lord Narasingha and maintenance of this temple32.
Vaijala Dev was succeeded by Bhojaraja Dev (1430-1455 AD) who is said to have built a fort on the Gandhamardan hills near Narsinghnath temple. This fortification was recognized after him as Bhojagarh. Bhupal Dev (1480-1500AD) of this dynasty is identified to have improved the construction of Bhojagarh close to which he established a township and encouraged people to inhabit there by providing lands free of rent33.
It is understood from Deo’s34 examination that in the new hierarchical political structure at some stage in the Chauhan rule, the tribal chief of Borasambar was recognised as a zamindar under the Patna Raja. Borasambar zamindar enjoyed greater status in his area. This recognition resulted in a hierarchical arrangement. The tribal chief was permitted to run his Borasambar zamindari and was most probably required to pay a periodical tribute, Bheti and also to assist the Patna Raja or overlord in an emergency. He used to keep the income from a part of a territory for his own maintenance. Likewise, there were several villages within the zamindari and most of the village headmen were most likely tribals. Village headman was also recognized as hereditary chief of the village called Gahatia or Gaotia or Gantia or Gartia. The village headman was also required to supply military aid during an emergency to Borasambar zamindar / zamidar as well as Patna Raja. For that, the Gaotia enjoyed the land attached to his village or a cluster of villages under his jurisdiction or authority. The revenue from this provided for his maintenance and that of his soldiers.
In the process of formation of a larger Hindu kingdom and society, the autochthonous groups and their religious pitha like Narasinghanath (Little Tradition) were wrapped up in the wider Hindu society and culture (Great Tradition). In other words, these autochthonous groups and their cultural tradition (Little Tradition) played significant role in the process of state formation in the regional level i.e. in the erstwhile Patnagarh or Patna Rajya during the medieval period. In turn, these little religious traditions have received royal aid and patronage for its popularity, prosperity and growth.
The Papa-Harni-Nala is a tributary of the river Ang. Its water accumulates at five different places into five pools known as kund. These Kunds popularly recognized as Sita–kund, Pancha–Pandava–kund and Gan–kund in the bed of the Papa-Harni-Nala are considered efficacious in washing away sins. In fact, Papa- Harni-Nala is formed by the natural springs at Narasinghanath. The water-falls are popularly identified as Kapil–dhar, Bhim–dhar, Gada–dhar, Gupta–dhar and Chal–dhar, which are regarded as very sacred and sacrosanct.
The Kapil–dhar, Bhim–dhar and Gada–dhar put up with the sacred recollection of Kapila Rishi and Bhima, the second Pandava respectively. There is an oral narrative that while wandering in the jungles during their banabasa (exile) Pandava brothers with wife Draupadi had arrived at Gandhagiri. They built a hut and lived there. On one occasion, Bhima wanted to have his bath. But for a pleasant bath the available water was insufficient. Consequently, he struck his Gada (club) on the mountain Gandhagiri and out of the blue another Ganga emerged. Goddess Ganga Devi named these two falls as Bhim–dhar and Gada–dhar after Bhima.
Narasinghanath is also fabled and well-known for different valiant and supernatural deeds of Bhim such as killing a demon, falling in love with local girls, constructing a stone house called Bhim-Madua, playing with Bati (stone balls). A cave in this mountain is popularly branded as Panchu-Pandav-Khol wherein Nakula, the fourth Pandava carved the figures of five brothers on the wall with his kunta (weapon). A mango tree called Sati–Amba is supposed to bear mangoes all through the year. It is coupled with a beautiful fable that the five Pandava brothers including Draupadi disclosed their undisclosed reality and the ripen mangoes sprouted up through which they all appeased a guest sent by Duryodhana to destroy the virtue of Yudhisthira.
Gandhagiri is also fabled to be the place where Ramachandra, Laksmana and Sita in Tretaya Yuga had spent some time during their banabasa. Sita-kunda of this religious site is fabled to be the spot where Sita took her bath and washed her soiled clothes. Ramachandra blamed her because she polluted the stream. Further, a narrative runs that the mountain Gandhagiri was a part of or adjacent to mountain Vindhyanchala. Hanumana carried Gandhagiri to Lanka in order to save the life of Laksmana and while returning he left the mountain here. There is no denying the fact that the Gandhagiri is a treasure of medicinal plants and the State Government has established an Ayurvedic college and research centre in this place.
All the same, the oral narratives discussed above are the restricted or localized versions of the Hindu religious scriptures like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana connected with this sacred centre Narasinghanath. Moreover, as discussed somewhere else, many people of neighbouring areas of Odisha and Chhattisgarh immerse the ashes of their fore-fathers in this tirtha believing that they would attain heaven thereby. This equates the Narasinghanath tirtha with the Triveni at Prayag (Allahabad) and Biraja pitha at Jajpur in Odisha. This indicates the extent of reverence shown to this tirtha, which occupies a pivotal position in the religious life of the common people of this area or sacred zone. The pilgrims who use to visit this tirtha take holy bath in this water. In other words, religious beliefs of Hindu Great Tradition have been localized here.
The above discussion informs that the Narasinghanath tirtha has shown lenience to foremost religious faiths specifically Buddhism, Tantrism, Saivism and Vaisnavism. Though the tirtha is famous as Narasinghanath, the principal image in the garbhagriha of the temple is called Marjarakesari who is assumed to be a form of Lord Visnu with the head of a cat and body of a lion. It would not be out of place to mention here that Nrusingha / Narasingha (Nara+Singha) is one of the avataras (incarnations) of Lord Visnu, which is extensively narrated in various Hindu Puranas. If we delve for information into the Nrusimha Mahatmya, we locate that the source of Marjarakesari as an avatara of Lord Visnu has been set forth only in the Nrusimha Mahatmya, an Odia creation of Chauhan reign. Most probably, by this time Vaisnavism became the leading form of religion in this site and Buddhism and Saivism receded to the background.
According to the oral narrative, once a certain Rishi was performing Tapasya (religious austerity or penance) on the bank of the river Godavari in the Ramayana or Tretaya-Yuga. He had a beautiful daughter named Malati. During this period, Ravana was the king of Lanka. Once, Malati happened to be out when Ravana came to visit that place and saw her. He was smitten with the charm of Malati and could not resist his sexual urge. He ravished her and she became unconscious. Thereafter, Ravana threw her into the river Godavari. She was in danger of losing her life. But, the river Godavari protected her as if a mother naturally feels protective towards her child and brought her back safely to the bank. When Malati regained her consciousness, she was astonished to find herself in an unknown place. She did not find her father and started weeping helplessly. At that time, Musika (mouse), the Vahana (vehicle) of Lord Ganapati heard the moans of wounded Malati. He came up to her and asked what she was moaning about. Malati narrated her misfortune. Musika consoled her with the thought that it might have been worse. He promised to help her also. So, face of Malati radiated with joy and hope. She was now at the mercy of Musiaka. But the irony of her fate or circumstance was that Malati was deceived into believing that Musika would help her. Finally, Musika also enjoyed her. Thus, from Ravana and Musika was born of her a male child called Musika-datta.
When the child grew up, he became a danger to his own mother and ate up his mother mercilessly. Then, he performed Tapasya rigorously and pleased Lord Siva. The deity conferred on him Bara (boon) that he would have cause for fear from none but Narasingha of the Satya-Yuga. This narrative informs us the presence of Saivism in this site. In other words, this indicates that the prevailing society believed in or required the synthesis between Saivism and Vaisnavism in this area. However, Musika-datta became most powerful and a source of trouble and discontentment to the deities of Swarga (heaven). The helpless deities surrendered to Ramachandra and threw themselves on his mercy. Assuming the form of Lord Narasingha, Ramachandra came to destroy Musika–datta who fled in fear of his life. Narasingha also followed him. Musika-datta arrived at Gandhagiri in fear and trembling. He approached the Gandhagiri to give him shelter. When the refuge was granted, Musika-datta assumed the form of Musika (mouse) and entered the mountain Gandhagiri. So, Lord Narasingha also assumed the form of a Marjara (cat) and pursued him. But Gandhagiri and other deities interceded and requested Lord Visnu to establish himself there in that feline form i.e. Marjara-Kesari so that he could devour Musika-datta when he came out. This narrative also informs us the presence of Ganapati cult in this site. Ganapati-Ghat and rock-cut sculpture available in Narsinghnath site proves this fact.
A significant feature of this tirtha is Hari-Hara-pangat, which undoubtedly confirms that Vaisnavism and Saivism headed towards a synthesis in this site. In reality, however, it was a synthesis between Buddhism, Vaisnavism (Hari) and Saivism (Hara) in the Narasingha pitha. Both the subaltern as well as high caste people sit on the floor together and eat anna prasad cooked in the house of this popular deity. Hari-Hara-pangat stands for the casteless, classless and secular aspect of this tirtha. People never dare to abstain from Hari-Hara-pangat or Hari-Hara-bhoga on caste point of view. They acknowledge prasad without hesitation. In other words, while taking or sharing of cooked food among various castes and communities is stringently forbidden under traditional Hindu caste system, eating of bhoga at Hari-Hara-pangat is not at all forbidden.
The eradication of caste rules in regard to the Hari-Hara-bhoga reminds us one of the important protests of Buddhism against caste prejudices. Also, the typical catlike form of the deity with the head of a cat and body of a lion is a terrific idol, which recommends some influence of or connection with tantra. It is a fact that this place was some time a seat of tantrik Buddhism. Scholars strongly advocate that the Gandhagiri or Gandhamardana hill has to be explored for ancient Buddhist relics. This has led the world by founding Vajrayana Buddhism in the eighth century AD. In view of the above, absence of caste restriction in Hari-Hara-pangat and the typical feline form of Marjara-Kesari may be attributed to the Buddhist tantrik tradition, which a long ago flourished here.
Moreover, this also equates with the Mahaprasad Sevana at Ananda Bazar of the Lord Jagannath Temple, Puri, which for some scholars represents the coalition of Brahmin and Buddhist doctrines. It is believed that originally the image of Lord Jagannath was the image of Lord Buddha containing his relics and Buddhist mode of worship are traced in the rituals of Lord Jagannath36. It may be understood here that Narasinghanath Pitha powerfully emerged as a Vaisnava Pitha during Chauhan rule. Vaisnavism triumphed over Buddhism as well as Saivism in this Pitha and Buddhism absolutely missed its identity. As it has been said earlier, from about fourteenth century Borasambar area came under the Chauhan reign of Patnagarh. The finish of the Buddhist and Saiva faiths in Narsinghnath site may tentatively be traced to this period.
It may be suggested to consider that the aboriginal people who were the original worshippers of this deity earlier richly inhabited this region. The catlike form of deity was a non-Hindu deity, which does not match with any of the form of Devi or Devata icon of the Hindu iconography. Further, the image does not resemble any other deity found in Odisha. The antiquity of Marjara-Kesari cannot be pushed back to the Vedic period. During the Vedic period, the four Vedas do not refer to the worship of Marjara-Kesari. What’s more, Marjara-Kesari does not find a place in the congregation of Vedic deities.
Most probably, Marjara-Kesari was initiated into the Brahminical pantheon in Narasinghanath Tirtha at a later period during the Chauhan rule. The non-Hindu image of Marjara-Kesari is probably a Buddhist one, worshipped in the beginning by the ancient tribal people of this area. The original name of this deity was obscured by the process of the sanskritization and the Sanskritik name of Marjara-Kesari conferred on him. This name was befitting to the image of the deity with the head of a cat and body of a lion. It was easier to recognize Marjara-Kesari with the Hindu deity Nara-Singha with the head of a lion and body of a male human being. This was established by manufacturing a narrative of Malati and Musika-datta involving Musika, the vehicle of Lord Ganesa and Ramachandra. Subsequently, this story was accepted far and wide by both the Hindus and non-Hindus of this area. In addition, the myth helped to incorporate the deity as a form of incarnation of Lord Visnu into the Hindu fold.
In all probability, this process of Sanskritisation or Hinduisation of the aboriginal deity took place in the medieval period during the State formation in Patnagarh. It was essentially required to integrate the indigenous communities into one fold under the umbrella of Hinduism in the process of the building of a unified Patna Rajya. So, Marjara-Kesari was accepted and exalted as Lord Visnu in order to appease the local subjects so that the ruling class could consolidate their power over the natives and exercise their authority over this area.
In this context, it would not be out of context to mention here that the Binjhals are a primitive race, which appears to have been among the earliest inhabitants of this area. The entire area was a part of the Borasambar zamindari belonging to the Binjhal family. As discussed elsewhere, they were a hunting and martial tribe. But they were converted into settled agriculturists during the Chauhan reigns. Even today, majority of them are cultivators and rests are farm servants or field labourers. Those who are settled in the plains have taken to improved methods of rice cultivation37. From the military point of view i.e. security of the State, the Binjhals / Bhinjawal zamindar of Borasambar held an important position. His lands were situated alone on the north side of the Gandhagiri, which form part of the northern frontier of Patna, and accordingly he could hold the approaches through these hills to Patna for or against any hostile force38.
The Binjhal39 zamindar of Borasambar enjoyed the most privileged position like right of affixing the Ticca to the Rajas of Patnagarh on their accession. Conspicuously, the more advanced Binjhals boast of an alliance with Rajputs and call themselves Barihas, which is a title originally borne by small hill chiefs. But the common Binjhals do not claim such Rajput / Kshatriya status and descent. Nonetheless, it may be noted here that the management of the Narasinghanath temple has been directly or indirectly controlled by the Padampur / Borasambar zamindar family since very early times.
1 According to the oral narrative, formerly Borasambar consisted of eight villages, which went by the name of Atgaon (Ath+Gaon), which literary means eight villages. One of the zamindar of Atgaon having saved the life of a Sambar deer by killing a Bora or boar constrictor which had attacked it, the name of the zamindari was changed to Borasambar, vide N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), Bolangir District Gazetteer, Orissa Government Press, Cuttack, 1968.
2 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.) (1968), op.cit. p.5,483-84; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), Sambalpur District Gazetteer, Orissa Government Press, Cuttack, 1971, p.9.
3 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.) (1968), op.cit. p.5; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.) (1971), op.cit., p.9.
4 According to an analogous oral narrative regarding construction of the Hari-Sankar temple, it is said that on one occasion an old man belonging to Kandha tribe, while digging out kanda (roots) in that spot, came across a stone and spring oozing out underneath the stone. That night he saw in dream Lord Siva’s presence at the place where he found the stone. The Kandha narrated his experience before Raja Ramai Dev, the then ruler of Patnagarh, who himself had a similar dream. Thereafter, a temple was built there to enshrine Lord Siva, vide N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.) (1968), op.cit. pp. 50, 484.
5 N. K. Sahu, Buddhism in Orissa, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, 1958, pp.100 101; N. Senapati and D. C. Kuanr (eds.), (1980), Kalahandi District Gazetteer, Orissa Government Press, Cuttack, p.43; N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (1968), op.cit, p. 5.
6 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds), (1971), op.cit. pp. 49, 531).
7 ibid. p. 524.
8 Charles Louis Fabri, History of the Art of Orissa, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1974, pp.31-36; S. S. Panda, “Nagas on the Sculptural Decorations of Early West Orissa Temples”, The Orissa Historical Research Journal, Vol.XLVII, No.1, 2004, pp.27.
9 C. Pasayat, “State Formation and Cultural Assimilation in Medieval Orissa: The Case of a Tribal Deity in Sambalpur”, Utkal Historical Research Journal, Vol. XX, 2007(a), p.72.
10 S. S. Panda, “Early Chauhan Temples of Sambalpur Town”, Orissa Review, April 1996, p.37; S. S. Panda, “Narsinghnath Temple of Bargarh District”, Orissa Review, August 2003, p. 62.
11 C. B. Patel, “Monumental Efflorescence of Ranipur-Jharial”, Orissa Review, August 2004, p.42.
12 C. Pasayat, History of Tribal Society and Culture, Zenith Books International, Delhi, 2007(b), p.48.
13 T. E. Donaldson, The Hindu Temple Art of Orissa, Volume I, The Netherlands: E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1985, p. 200-201.
14 C. Pasayat, Oral Tradition, Society and History, Mohit Publications, New Delhi, 2008, p. 14.
15 S. S. Panda, op.cit. p.61-72.
16 S. S. Panda, “The Story of Religion as Told by West Orissan Temples and Epigraphy” in M. Pati (ed.), West Orissa: A Study in Ethos, Sambalpur University, Sambalpur, 1992, p.210; S. S. Panda (2004), op.cit. p.46-47.
17 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (1968), op.cit. p.50.
18 Perhaps, large-scale mining operation by BALCO during the second half of the twentieth century has resulted in destruction of the pristine ancient culture and heritage of this place.
19 C. Pasayat, op. cit., 2007(b), p. 50.
20 S. S. Panda, op.cit. p. 81.
21 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op.cit. p. 14.
22 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op.cit. p.103; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op.cit p.121; N. Senapati and D. C. Kuanr (eds.), op.cit. p.93-94.
23 C. Pasayat, op. cit., 2008 p.18; C. Pasayat, op. cit. 2007(b), p. 53-54.
24 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op.cit. pp.50-51, 489; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op. cit. pp. 49, 531; Panda, 1992).
25 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op. cit. pp. 516-517.
26 F. Deo, “Chauhan Myth and Royal Legitimization in Kosala (Daksina)”, Sambalpur Lok Mahotsav Souvenir, District Council of Culture, Sambalpur, 2003, p. 97.
27 ibid, p.97.
28 ibid, p.97.
29 ibid. p.96.
30 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op.cit. p.122-123.
31 ibid. p.14.
32 ibid pp.534-535.
33 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op. cit. p.51.
34 F. Deo, op. cit.
35 Yogadas, Nrusimha Charita (Edited by N. Pruseth), Dora Art Press, Padampur.
36 L. S. S. O’Malley, Puri: A Gazetteer, Bengal Secretariat Press, 1908, p.90.
37 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op. cit., p.103.
38 It would appear that during the first inroads of the Marathas, the zamindar of Borasambar was successful in guarding these approaches. For this service, Borasambar zamindar was granted an extension of property on the Patna side vide N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op.cit., p. 67.
39 Likewise, the prominence accorded another aboriginal community called the Kandha in the consolidation and expansion of Kalahandi Rajya through military conquest. As per the tradition prevalent in Kalahandi Raj-family, the Kandhas had assured protection and help to Ramachandra Dev, seventh ruler (1173-1201 AD) in his State affairs. A Kandha called Pat-Majhi crowned Ramachandra Dev as Raja of Kalahandi at Jugsaipatna. This custom is still in vogue since then and all Kalahandi Rajas are crowned at Jugsaipatna by the Pat-Majhi vide N. Senapati and D. C. Kuanr (eds.) op. cit., p. 53.
Chitrasen Pasayat, Ph.D. (JNU).
Saiva cult is a primordial cult and it has pervaded all over India. Archaeological and historical remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization attest the fact that Saivism is a pre-Aryan conception. The availability of a large number of ancient relics i.e. stone pieces resembling phallus had led the indologists as well as historians to trust that Pasupati (Siva) was worshipped in the Linga (phallic) shape by the non-Aryans of Indus Valley Civilization. This practice of Siva worship seems to have spread to different parts of India from 3000 B.C. Sambalpur is not an exception to it. The history of Saivism can be traced back to the first century A.D. Siva worship in the form of Bhairava worship was prevalent in the Upper Mahanadi valley of Orissa at least from the first century A.D., even though some other scholars are of the opinion that the Bhairava cult became admired from the eighth century A.D. onwards1. All the same, people of Sambalpur area adore Siva both in iconic and aniconic forms. The phallic worship is the most accepted and symbolical compromise of the worship of Siva in his iconic and aniconic forms.
The Somavamsis, who began their rule in modern Binka-Subarnapur area in the eighth century A.D., were great patrons of this stream of Hinduism. Subsequently, the Chauhan Rajas who reigned Sambalpur area from about 14th century A.D. to middle of the 20th century A.D. had also extended royal patronage to Saivism. They built Siva temples in different parts of Sambalpur Rajya and made extensive village and land grants for regular and elaborate performance of Seva-Puja which is highly structured in these religious shrines.
In the erstwhile Sambalpur Rajya one discovers a large number of Siva temples constructed under the royal patronage during the Chauhan reigns. The most legendary among them are those of the Asta-Sambhus, literary meaning of which is eight Sambhus or Sivas. They are, namely Bimaleswara at Huma, Kedarnatha at Ambabhona, Biswanath at Deogaon, Balunkeswara at Gaisama, Maneswara at Maneswar, Swapneswara at Sorna, Bisweswara at Soranda and Nilakantheswara at Niljee.
Lord Bimaleswara at Huma is understood as the Adya-Sambhu, i.e. the earliest among the Asta-Sambhus who appears to have been much admired during the reigns of Chauhan Rajas in Sambalpur. This Saiva pitha has constantly drawn the attention of visitors and scholars of diverse discipline since a very long time. The reason is that, it has provided new facts which compel to rethink for socio-historical reconstruction and re-building of this place. In the present study, our emphasis is on the oral tradition accessible in the local area.
The area of our study is Bimaleswara tirtha. This Saiva Pitha is located on the left bank of the river Mahanadi 14 miles (24 kms.) down stream and south of Sambalpur. Lord Bimaleswara is worshipped in the Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of the temple. Bhairabi Devi is adored to his left and Lord Bhairo to his right. As per the oral tradition prevalent in the village Huma and its surrounding area, the Ganga Emperor Anangabhimadeva-III (1211-1239 A.D.) had constructed this temple. In the 16th century AD Balaram Dev, the first Chauhan ruler of Huma desa / Sambalpur, presumably found this pitha in a dilapidated condition. He not only conserved this monument but also gave land-grants for regular seva-puja in the temple. It is also assumed that, the temple was rebuilt or renovated by Maharaja Baliar Singh (1660-1690 A.D.), the fifth Chauhan Raja of Sambalpur Rajya. The rest of the temples of Asta-Sambhus were built during the rule of Raja Ajit Singh (1766-1788 A.D.) of Sambalpur2. All these disclose the truth that, the Chauhan Rajas of Sambalpur Rajya were great champions of Saivism.
It is in fact, amusing and wonderful to see the Bimaleswara temple in leaning shape. One and all look at the temple in silent surprise. As walking on the moon is one of the wonders of our time, leaning temple at Huma is one of the wonders of medieval period. It reminds us the famous leaning tower of Pisa. The temple is positioned on the rocky cradle just on the bank of the river Mahanadi. The basis of leaning cannot be assumed to be the technical flaws at the time of construction. It is also not easily acceptable that weak foundation might have caused leaning attitude of the temple.
In fact, construction of temple is quite favourite of Chauhan Rajas as well-known to us from innumerable temples built during their reigns. They had already established themselves as good builders. Again, the temple is not an enormous structure. There might have been interior displacement of the rocky bed on which it stands, either due to flood current in the river Mahanadi or earthquake, thus affecting the straight posture of the original temple. In other words, the plinth of the temple has been deviated slightly from its original arrangement and as a result, the body of the temple has become tilted or at an angle. Nevertheless, people visiting this temple stare at this phenomenon in bewilderment. Be that as it may, there is no denying the fact that this has fascinated the attention of historians, sculptures and other researchers.
Nonetheless, there is enough shelter among these rocks to harbour a variety of fish locally identified as Kudo fish. That is why, the river Ghat is known as Machhindra Ghat. Some rituals in connection with the reverence of Lord Bimaleswara are performed in this river Ghat. Twenty-two steps leading to this Ghat take you back to Baisi Pabachha i.e. twenty-two steps of Shri Jagannath Temple at Puri. The water of Machhindra Ghat is considered to be sacred. Devotees take their bath here prior to offering Puja to the divinity.
Now and then, people present food to Kudo fishes. It is mesmerizing to see these fishes accepting food from human beings with no fear. This reminds us the Maneswara Saiva Pitha where tortoises in the adjoining pool also acknowledge food from human beings without fear. Entertainingly, the Kudo fishes respond to the call of the priests and approach to the ladder of the bathing Ghat to be fed by the pilgrims. No one is permitted to catch them3. Neighboring inhabitants regard them as godly creatures and Matchha Avatara (incarnation) of Lord Visnu at Huma and Katchhapa Avatara at Maneswara.
It is understood that, there is a secret path from the seat of Lord Bimaleswara to the river Mahanadi and the Kudo fishes take refuge at the feet of the deity throughout the rainy season. Similarly, it is also supposed that there is a secret path from the seat of Lord Maneswara to the adjacent pond. A number of myths are associated with Kudo fishes. As per the oral tradition, on one occasion a woman did not pay any heed to the local people and caught a Kudo fish and decided to slash it into pieces. While attempting to cut the fish with her Pankhi (locally made knife) she was instantly altered into a stone. The stone representation of the woman was found on the riverbed for several years. Afterward, it has been swept away by the floodwater.
According to the oral tradition, the temple was inclined from the very beginning of its construction for the reason that Lord Bimaleswara himself desired such a temple. In order to fulfill his wish, Maharaja Baliar Singh built a leaning temple for the god. In course of time, the shape of the temple and associated fable itself popularized this Pitha far and wide. For some, from the very beginning of the construction of the temple, the temple architect might have consciously made the temple inclined towards the river keeping in mind that the centre of gravity of the body would remain outside the temple so that strong floodwater cannot destabilize the temple. Be that as it may, such an abnormal and unusual feature of the temple was not easily acceptable to the ordinary natives for which there was a need of a myth to rationalize its leaning position that Lord Bimaleswara desired to have such a temple for himself.
On the one hand, the myth has glorified Lord Bimaleswara and on the other hand the myth has helped in the popularization of this Pitha. It may be mentioned here that apart from the main temple, there are two small temples of Lord Siva and one Vaisnava Temple constructed latter on inside the temple complex. High boundary walls enclose the temple complex. The temples are made up of siuly cut stones. In Jagamohana burnt bricks are found as well. These miniatures are also said to have been in leaning position. But these are so small in size that they cannot lean unless they are treated to do so. In all probability, in conformity with the existing tradition and design of the main temple these small temples are also built accordingly. These temples cannot situate so, had there been any displacement of foundation area or technical defects.
As pointed out earlier, sculptures, quite pet of the Chauhan rulers are not found in dominating in Bimaleswara temple like that of the Narasinghanath mainly in Vimana portion. Even though, it is presumed that there was no sculpture of significance excepting the Parsva Devatas, it is quite possible that some sculptures are hidden under the thick plaster. Of course, sculptural consideration is of less significance here than the technique of construction which deserves special consideration and attention. In all likelihood, the architects avoided any type of sculptural representations on the body of the temple in order to keep it light so that the centre of gravity was free from heavy pressure.
Though we are not in possession of any documentary support to explain the plan of the Bimaleswara temple as a leaning temple, no clarification or findings properly convinces us to acknowledge the theory that the present shape of the temple is the effect of some natural happenings or calamities. In view of this, the Bimaleswara temple unquestionably bears testimony to the advanced technical know-how of the Chauhan builders of Sambalpur area.
The village Chaunrpur, on the right bank of the river Mahanadi is held to be the seat of Raja Balaram Dev, prior to his approaching to Sambalpur. According to the local tradition, a cowherd boy residing in a nearby village of Chaunrpur initiated worshipping Lord Bimaleswara. He used to take the cows to the interior jungles on the riverbank. To his utter surprise, once he found that a black cow was remaining missing for a particular time on every day. Subsequently, he started watching the movement of the cow. It was a rainy day and the river was enraged. To his amusement, he saw the cow crossing the high current of the river Mahanadi. One fine morning, the cowherd boy followed the cow and swam across the river and came to the left bank of the river Mahanadi. He observed the cow going up to a stone and spraying her milk over it. The cowherd boy realized that there was a greater or superior power, which directed the behavior of the black cow. Thence, he observed devotion, submission and reverence to the supernatural power residing in that rock. Subsequently, people residing nearby came to know about this fact and visited the site. Seeing the location, they at once assumed it to be a Saiva Pitha and since then started worshipping it. It would not be out of context to mention here that the above-mentioned religious myth is connected with a large number of religious Pithas all over the state in Orissa, which consist of not only Saiva Pithas, but Vaisnava Pithas as well4.
Formation of a separate Chauhan kingdom by Balaram Dev in the 16th century AD was the result of the partition of ruling family of Patnagarh. There are three narratives on this subject. First, when Narasingha Dev was the ruler of Patnagarh Ratanpur was a hostile power. So, Narasingha Dev placed the Sambalpur tract under the charge of his younger brother Balaram Dev to check the aggression of Haihaya power of Ratanpur. Subsequently, Balaram Dev formed a separate kingdom and established himself at Sambalpur. Secondly, it is said that, one rainy night when the queen of Narasingha Dev was in the throes of child birth, Balaram Dev swam across a hill-stream named Mayabati, which was flowing between Patnagarh and the village Barapada and brought the nurse from that village to attend the queen. Narasingha Dev was pleased to award the Sambalpur tract to Balaram Dev for his courageous and faithful service.
As per the third narrative, there arose a quarrel between the two brothers on the issue of ‘bhai-bhaga’. The dispute was amicably settled after the intervention of their mother. Tradition goes that, the queen mother took her both sons to the bed of the river Surangi and asked the elder and the younger to sit on her right and left laps respectively. Then she told them that, the river Surangi should be taken as her own body (Ang). The elder brother should enjoy the territory to the right of the river and the younger one to the left of it. Both the brothers acknowledged the decision of their mother. From that time onwards, the river was called Ang and was regarded as the natural frontier between Patna and Sambalpur territories.
We may relate these three oral narratives and try to present a comprehensive picture. Probably, Balaram Dev came to Sambalpur tract to check the aggression of Ratanpur. He established himself initially at Bargarh on the bank of the river Jira and built his fort there. There from, he is said to have shifted his capital to Chaunrpur, on the right bank of the river Mahanadi. Finally, he shifted his capital to Sambalpur on the left bank of the river Mahanadi. These three places are on the bank of the rivers. Bargarh, situated on the Jira delta is a fertile plain. In order to broaden his power base and increase his economic strength, Balaram Dev controlled this fertile region. Similarly, Chaunrpur and Sambalpur, situated on the upper Mahanadi delta is a fertile plain. Balaram Dev controlled this fertile region as well. Thus, he consolidated Chauhan power in this tract and built a separate kingdom namely Huma-desa and subsequently Sambalpur. Subsequently, however, there might have been a fight between the two brothers on the boundary issue of their territories which was resolved peacefully by their mother.
When Balaram Dev shifted to Chaunrpur from Bargarh then heard the miraculous incident of the deity at Huma narrated above and visited this Pitha. Realizing the religious sanctity and popularity of this Pitha he allocated revenues of some villages namely Huma, Bulpunga, Dhatukpali, Gangadharpali and Mahle for the maintenance, regular worship and religious ceremonies of Lord Bimaleswara. O’Malley, in his Sambalpur Gazetteer, has written that, “The temple has an endowment consisting of Huma and 6 other villages, which have been exempted from assessment so long as the temple stands and the religious ceremonies are maintained. The grant is an old one, being said to date back to the time of Balaram Deva, first Raja of Sambalpur”5. In other words, State funding of Seva-Puja has been introduced since then. Most probably, when Raja Balaram Dev carved out a new Rajya out of the province of his elder brother he named it Huma Desa. Thereafter, as the erudite historian Dr. N. K. Sahu has described, the period of establishment of the Sambalpur Rajya was about the year 1570 A.D.6
The village Huma and its Saiva Pitha may be supposed to be much older than the time of Raja Balaram Dev whose Rajya was once identified as Huma Desa. The following analysis unearths the reality that the continuation of this Pitha can at least be dated back to the eleventh century A.D. Panda7 recognizes some significant points that the gateway/doorjamb to the Garbhagriha of this temple is of late Somavamsi period and it is comparable to that of the Jagamohana of the Narsinghnath temple of Gandhagiri near Paikmal of Bargarh district. Another significant stone panel fitted to the wall of the Jagamohana on the proper right of the doorjamb is a broken one, depicting three Grahas of the Nava-Grahas panel which can also be dated to the late Somavamsi period and in all probability was fitted above the doorjamb of the Garbhagriha in its original state. In view of that, the doorjamb as well as the broken Nava-Grahas panel can be iconographically dated to the eleventh century A.D.
According to the oral tradition prevalent in the village Huma and its surrounding area, as stated earlier, the Ganga Emperor Anangabhimadeva-III (1211-1239 A.D.) has constructed this temple. Hence, it can be said with precision that Huma bears the testimony of a significant place of pilgrimage and a glorious place of Siva worship since at least the eleventh century A.D., if these historical relics are reckoned to be the earliest of all antiquities existing at Huma. It is not out of place to mention that, Dakshina Kosala with its capital at Suvarnapur or Yajatinagar was the seat of power of the later Somavamsi for sometime. Sonepur stone inscription of Bhanudeva dated 1268 AD attests this fact. Both the epigraphic evidence as well as tradition combine to prove that, Sonepur was occupied by the Gangas during the reign of Anangabhimadeva-III.
In the 15th and 16th century A.D., after the disintegration of the Ganga Empire of Orissa, a strong pull towards political fragmentation and decentralization of power took place. It happened partly due to the partition of ruling families and partly due to land grants of villages by the ruler to indigenous tribal chiefs who ended up as independent potentates in the frontier zone of uncertain control like Daksina Kosala (roughly west Orissa). The indigenous tribal chiefs and chiefs of obscure origins took advantage of weak central authority, assumed power and formed several Rajyas8.
In all probability, Huma as well as its adjoining area was a thick forested area and inhabited by aboriginal people when Raja Balaram Dev first arrived here. He was a reputed warrior. Owing to military necessity, his elder brother, Raja Narasingha Dev, the tenth Chauhan Raja of Patna Rajya entrusted the administration of this tribal dominated, hilly and forested part to him. Balaram Dev first established himself at Bargarh on the bank of the river Jira as mentioned earlier. Then, he shifted his capital to Chaurpur on the right bank of the river Mahanadi and named it Huma desa. There from, he sifted his capital to the left bank of the river Mahanadi and formed the present Sambalpur. As discussed earlier, Bargarh-Sambalpur-Sonepur area, situated on the upper Mahanadi delta was a fertile plain with a high yield of per unit of land. Balaram Dev successfully consolidated the Chauhan rule in this part of their Rajya and carved out a new Rajya out of the territory of his elder brother and named it Huma Desa. This period, thus, marked the culmination of the process of state formation in this area under the Chauhans. Thus, Chauhan power was mainly responsible for unifying different areas of West Orissa under one rule.
In this process of consolidation of power, there is no denying that, Balaram Dev was basically liable for amalgamating Bargarh-Sambalpur-Sonepur regions under his rule and carved out a new kingdom. The topographical condition was helpful for agriculture. He made the plain area suitable for settled cultivation. During this period, presumably, local communities and people were mobilized for plough cultivation. Even brahmanas could not confine their activities to their traditional duties and followed the profession of plough cultivation. ‘Halua’ brahmana, for instance, is a category of agricultural brahmanas of Sambalpur area. The word ‘halua’ is derived from ‘hala’ meaning ‘plough’. The aboriginal base of plough cultivation and the transformation of tribal chiefs into big landlords/gauntias/Zamindars/kshatriyas in Sambalpur area paved the path of assimilation. With the assimilation of the local and tribal people as peasants there was a great deal of agricultural expansion and surplus mobilization in this area. This constituted the material base for the rise of Balaram Dev. In this context, one cannot ignore the change in the material base and its corresponding reflection on society and polity. During this period, there was a striking change in power equation in West Orissa. Sambalpur became most powerful of the garhjat cluster. From that time onwards, the importance of Patnagarh declined and the significance of Sambalpur increased.
In order to sustain his separate and independent Rajya, most probably Raja Balaram Dev had to depend upon the Bhogas and Bhagas. As mentioned above, he had to persuade the local tribal people to become settled agriculturists so that production would increase. Perhaps, the socio-economic life of the people was very simple. They were reliant on subsistence economy which was primarily based on hunting, food gathering and shifting cultivation. This type of survival economy almost certainly could not create adequate surplus and could not sustain an emerging Rajya as analyzed elsewhere9. To legitimize his status as Raja and to his share of the produce (Bhaga), Raja Balaram Dev granted lands to Brahmins and temples which contributed to the changing agrarian situation, formation of a hierarchical social order and Brahminisation / Hinduisation of the society. In this process, we may assume that, tribal people were assimilated as peasants. The process of tribal integration appears to have been gradual through acculturation. In the economic sphere, thus, this period may be characterized as peasant cultivation. As a result of this, there was agricultural expansion, which constituted the material base for the rise of the Chauhan kingdom in this part of West Orissa.
It may be suggested here that Huma Pitha already existed when Raja Balaram Dev arrived here. Possibly, the temple was in a dilapidated condition. Raja Balaram Dev extended royal patronage and rebuilt or renovated the temple. Subsequently, Maharaja Baliar Singh, the fifth Raja of Sambalpur Rajya had also most probably rebuilt or renovated it during his time. Be that as it may, there is no denying the fact that, Raja Balaram Dev adopted this Pitha and extended royal patronage.
As it has been discussed earlier, Balaram Dev first established himself at Bargarh on the bank of the river Jira. But a pertinent question arises here, why Chaurpur or Huma or Sambalpur was the better choice of Balaram Dev for his new capital. There are four probable reasons for this. Broadly speaking, the topographical condition of West Orissa was not helpful for settled agriculture. Chaurpur, Huma and Sambalpur were positioned strategically in a jungle area during those days on the bank of the river Mahanadi. Huma is in between Sambalpur and Sonepur. Admittedly, the Sambalpur-Sonepur area, situated on the upper Mahanadi delta is a fertile plain. The historical Huma desa was situated in this delta area of the Mahanadi flowing into the Bay of Bengal. It was not surprising that, this area had the benefit of an active delta growth with a high yield of per unit of land. It was also not unexpected that, the Chauhan power while trying to broaden its power base, had attempted to control this fertile region just like it had done earlier in Bargarh. Most probably, they had made the plain area suitable for agriculture for agrarian expansion as well as surplus mobilization. It is not unanticipated that, these areas have been conducive for high yield. One cannot ignore the fact that, the chief areas of cultivation lay along the banks of the river Mahanadi. The cultivated plains of this area yielded numerous varieties of paddy, some of which were the finest in the country.
Secondly, a large tract of this area was abounded with forests. This might have facilitated a continuous supply of fuel, fodder and timber and vast pastoral ground. This also suggests that, efforts were being made to bring forests area under plough cultivation resulting in an increase of crop growing area. Perhaps, the Chauhans brought a large tract of land under cultivation. Despite the fact that we do not come across any major irrigation projects during this period, yet prevalent terms like kata, bandh, chuan, etc., give us an impression that some kind of artificial irrigation was prevalent during Chauhan rule. It may be noted that, kata, bandh, chuan etc., are small reservoirs of water formed either by natural process or created by human agency.
Third one is the Mahanadi. In olden days, river was used as the main trade route. It was the convenient way of transportation of goods by boats. It did not astonish that, the river Mahanadi was the main out-let for the trade and produce of this area. The produce was carried in boats from Sambalpur to Binka (Binitapur), Subarnapur, and Boudh and even to Cuttack. Commodities were also brought back through this river route. Boats could also ascend the Mahanadi as far as Arang in the Raipur district of Chhattisgarh. Conspicuously, boat transport was carried on as far as Subarnapur and Boudh in the flood season till very recently. As regards water communication O’Malley in his Sambalpur Gazetteer published in 1909 writes as follows, “In flood time boats take 5 days to reach Cuttack from Sambalpur, while the journey to Sonpur lasts one day and to Binka 6 hours. At other times the length of the journey depends on how often they are stranded on the sand or between rocks-a frequent occurrence soon after the rains, owing to the low depth of water in the river and the numerous rocks cropping up its bed. The duration of the return journey is much longer. In July and November it takes laden boats 25 days and 21 days respectively to reach Sambalpur from Cuttack, 6 and 5 days from Sonpur and 5 and 4 days respectively from Binka”10.
Fourthly, Sambalpur had the tradition of producing diamonds extracted from the sands of the river Mahanadi at Hirakud. Etymologically, the name Hirakud is a combination of Hira and Kud. The word Hira means diamond and the word Kud means island. Consequently, the literary meaning of Hirakud (Hira+Kud) is ‘Diamond Island’. As regards Hirakud O’Malley in his Sambalpur Gazetteer published in 1909 (page 203-04) writes as follows, “The name means the diamond island, diamond mining being formerly carried on by a class of people called Jhoras, for whose maintenance, it is said, the revenue of about 30 villages on either bank of the river Mahanadi was assigned by the former Rajas of Sambalpur. These people worked during the cold and hot weather, when the water was low. The work was done in the bed of the river in either branch, and some large and valuable diamonds are known to have been found in the right branch.” Hirakud to Subarnapur-Boudh was that component of the river Mahanadi where the diamonds and gold were procurable down the river Mahanadi to as far as Subarnapur11. Even these days, valuable stones are reportedly recovered from the riverbed of the Mahanadi.
It may be noted that, benefits of the first three points were available in case of Bargarh also. But, relatively speaking, Chaunrpur/Sambalpur was far better location being on the Mahanadi than Bargarh on the Jira. Fourth point was an added advantage for Balaram Dev. Perhaps, he wanted to control the mineral business under his direct supervision. This business was so important during the Chauhan rule that, the revenue of 30 villages on either bank of the river Mahanadi was assigned by the Chauhan rulers of Sambalpur for maintenance of Jhoras who were traditionally employed for this purpose.
In view of the above analysis it may be suggested that, Huma region was quite important from commercial, political and social points of view besides its religious significance. Raja Balram Dev was not indifferent to the reality that there were antagonism between people of different races, religions and communities. He was well aware of the problem of communalism that would weaken the State formation, cause disharmony in social life and divert the attention of people from formation of a separate Rajya in this area, which was his preferred goal. Therefore, he had made attempts to integrate the indigenous communities into one fold under the umbrella of the Hinduism. As expected, in the process of the building of a unified and separate Rajya, indigenous communities with their religious traditions were also successfully absorbed in the mainstream of the Hindu Great Tradition through its branches like Saivism, Saktism and Vaisnavism and various Hindu epics and Puranas.
In this context, it may be mentioned here that temple is an important agent or instrument of Hinduisation12. The newly founded ruling house at Chaunrpur in connivance with the brahmanas wanted to bridge the gulf between the elite and the folk. Of course, the process of integration appeared to have been gradual through acculturation was perhaps a planned device imposed from above. Construction of a Siva temple led to the upward mobility of the local priests of this shrine, who were non-Brahmins. The royal patronage drew the attention of the people in large number from far and wide. It led to the regular flow of devotees, both tribal and non-tribal people to this Pitha. The coming of non-tribal devotees might have led to social interaction between the caste-Hindus and the local tribal people.
With the assimilation of tribal societies into a state society there was a marked change in their stratification system. In the place of an egalitarian tribal social structure there arose a hierarchical social system. Gonds, for instance, are divided into two main groups, ‘Raj’ Gonds who form the aristocracy and ‘Dhur’ or dust Gonds who are the common people. The Raj Gonds may be considered to be the descendants of Gond landed proprietors, who have been formed into a separate group and admitted to Hinduism with the status of a cultivating caste. Notably, brahmanas take water from them and many Raj Gonds wear the sacred thread like the brahmanas13. Second example is Binjhal tribe. “The more advanced Binjhals boast of an alliance with Rajputs and call themselves Barhias, a title originally borne by small hill chiefs, but the common Binjhals do not claim such Rajput descent”14. However, they do not employ brahmanas as their priests15. thus, we cannot ignore the change in material base and its corresponding reflection on society and polity.
The fame and popularity of the deity enshrined in Huma temple had come to be known as Lord Bimaleswara. By the time of renovation of this temple in 1670 by Maharaja Baliar Singh, this was very popular as Huma-Kshetra not only due to its religious importance but also owing to its socio-economic and political contributions. Businessmen as far as from Kantilo, Bolangir, Barpali, Bargarh, Subarnapur and Maniabandha were attending the fairs and festivals at this Pitha to sale their goods16.
State sponsorship or royal patronage by Balaram Dev to this religious Pitha was a firm and uncompromising measure to appease and pacify the natives and to legitimize his authority over them, which also facilitated the process of Hinduisation to build up a larger Hindu / Chauhan Rajya in this area. Understandably, Balaram Dev was successful in bringing people closer to this temple and by means of this temple he was able to consolidate his authority and influence over the forest region of Huma. In a similar fashion, he adopted Samalei Devi and constructed a temple at Sambalpur and extended royal patronage17. The successors of Raja Balaram Dev had also methodically followed this principle and patronized the Saiva Pithas in different parts of former Sambalpur Rajya. The most famous among them were those of Asta-Sambhus as mentioned earlier.
Thus, the Chauhan Rajas consolidated their power and position and established a superior Chauhan Rajya in Sambalpur. It is imperative to note down that, the religious importance of Huma-Kshetra is equated with other Kshetras of Orissa namely, Sri-Kshetra (Shri Jagannath Temple) at Puri, Arka-Kshetra (Sun Temple) at Konark. It may be recommended that the rationale behind such royal patronages is to give a boost to the local cults and at the same time to capitalize on the religious sentiments of the local people to such an extent / degree that it can be used as a means for political ends. In any case, the rise of Huma-Kshetra in Sambalpur, particularly during the 16th century has to be accredited to the patronage of the Chauhan Rajas, which has helped in consolidation of the Chauhan rule and State formation in Sambalpur area and also facilitated the process of Hinduisation in this region.
1. S. S. Panda, “Bhairava Worship in Upper Mahanadi Valley”, Orissa Review, January, 2004, p.39; C. Pasayat, “Oral Tradition of Huma and Legitimisation of Chauhan Rule”, The Orissa Historical Research Journal, Vol. XLVII, No. 2, 2004, pp. 90-96; idem., “Myth and Religious Cult of Orissa: A Study of Bimaleswara of Huma”, The Orissa Historical Research Journal, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, 2, 3 & 4, 2008, pp. 186-192.
2. N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (Eds.), Sambalpur District Gazetteer, Cuttack: Gazetteers Unit, Government Press, 1971, p. 51, 526; C. Pasayat, “The Leaning Temple of Huma in Sambalpur District in Orissa”, Orissa Review, November, 1990, pp.20-23; S. S. Panda, “Early Chauhan Temples of Sambalpur Town”, Orissa Review, April, 1996, pp.34-35.
3. N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op. cit., 1971, p. 11; C. Pasayat, op. cit., 1990, p. 20-23.
4. C. Pasayat Glimpses of Tribal and Folkculture, New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2003, pp. 16-18.
5. O’Malley, L. S. S., Sambalpur Gazetteer, New Delhi: Logos Press, 1909 (reprint 2007), p. 204; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op. cit., 1971, p. 526.
6. S. S. Panda, op. cit., 1996, p. 35.
7. ibid., pp. 34-35.
8. F. Deo, “Chauhan Myth and Royal Legitimisation in Kosala (Daksina)”, Souvenir, Sambalpur Lok Mahotsav, Sambalpur, 2003, pp.96; C. Pasayat, “The State and Culture in Early Medieval Western Orissa: A Study of Myths and Fables on Patnagarh and Marjarakesari in Narasinghanath”, Utkal Historical Research Journal, Vol. XXII, 2009, pp. 135-152.
9. ibid., 96.
10. O’Malley, op.cit., 1909, p.162; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti, op. cit., 1971, p. 86.
11. O’Malley, op.cit., 1909, pp. 1, 9-12, 20, 203-04; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti, op.cit., 1971, pp. 273-74.
12. A. Eschmann, “Hinduisation of Tribal Deities in Orissa: The Sakta and Saiva Typology” in A. Eschmann, H. Kulke and G. C. Tripathy (eds.), The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa, New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1978, pp.78-98.
13. N. Senapati and B. Mahanti, op. cit., 1971, p. 117.
14. ibid., p. 118.
15. ibid., p. 121.
16. ibid., p. 526.
17. C. Pasayat, op. cit., 2003, p. 67-84.
Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat
152, Vijay Vihar, Nuagaon Road, PO: Sishupalgarh, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, 751002.
Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat
Sambalpur, above and beyond the seat of Buddhism and Hinduism, is also abode of other religions and communities such as Muslims, Christians and numerous indigenous tribal communities. With this multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual composition, Sambalpur has always preferred the path of social accommodation and social integration. In Sambalpur, as a consequence, people of diverse religious faiths have inhabited collectively in harmony. It may correctly be identified as the most pluralistic society. The present essay is an effort to appreciate how the autochthonous groups and their religious traditions (Little Tradition) have been effectively wrapped up in the regional Hindu society and culture (Great Tradition). Moreover, this paper is an attempt to understand how afterward these traditions have played most noteworthy role in the process of state formation in the regional level i.e. in the erstwhile Sambalpur Rajya or kingdom during medieval period. In Sambalpur, as discussed elsewhere, the ruling class was always aware of the fact that communalism would weaken the state and would cause disharmony in social life and would divert the attention of the people from formation of a separate Sambalpur Rajya. So, attempts were made to integrate the indigenous communities into one fold under the broad umbrella of Hinduism. What’s more, their deities were acknowledged, exalted and glorified to the Hindu status by the ruling class of Sambalpur in order to appease the local subjects so that the ruling class could consolidate their power over the natives and exercise their suzerainty over this area. Understandably, in this process of building unified Sambalpur Rajya indigenous communities with their religious traditions were successfully absorbed in the mainstream of the Hindu Great Tradition through its branches like Saivism, Vaisnavism and Saktism. The area of our study i.e. Sambalpur is the headquarters town of modern Sambalpur district. It is situated on the left bank of the river Mahanadi.
From the earliest time, Sambalpur has been celebrated as the land of Tantrik Buddhism. It is an ancient town and it has the global reputation of being a Tantra Pitha. When Buddhism as a religious-cultural power began to decline in several parts of India, Sambalpur shouldered the vital responsibility of the continuation of this faith in its new form i.e. Tantrik Buddhism. In this context, it may be mentioned that the existence of Sambalpur may be dated back at least to the early Christian era. The Greek Geographer Ptolemy (middle of the second century A.D.) in his book the Geographike refers to a town named Sambalaka located on the bank of the river Manada. Ancient Sambalaka and Manada are identified with modern Sambalpur and the river Mahanadi respectively (O’Malley, 1909:20). The suffix Pur has been later supplemented by sanskritising the original name Sambala when this region has come under the Chauhan rule (Senapati and Mahanti, 1971:2-3). Likewise, the Samalei Pitha may be supposed to be much older and the aborigines may have worshiped the deity since time immemorial. Sambalpur is intimately linked with the spread of Tantrik Buddhism both in India as well as overseas. It is recognized to be the land where the Sambara Tantra was advocated by a famous Siddha called Pitopada who is as well regarded to have conquered the Siddhi of invisibility at Sambala (Senapati and Mahanti, 1971:446). Sometimes, in the eighth century A.D., Indrabhuti was the king of Sambalaka / Sambalpur and was believed to have patronized Tantrik Buddhism. He was the author of the manuscript the Jnanasiddhi. His sister Laksmikara / Laksminkara is also reported to be Tantrik Buddhist perfectionist. She is celebrated as one of the 84 Siddha–Gurus in Tantrik Buddhism and as the propounder of a religious faith called Sahaja-yana, consequently, building a grand name and reputation for herself. It implies that by the time of medieval period, the land of Sambala / Sambalaka / Sambalpur was one of the key seats of Tantrik Buddhism.
There is no denying the fact that the Vajra-yana of Indrabhuti and Sahaja-yana of Laksminkara flourished and prospered in Sambalpur region in the eighth century A.D. At that time, Sambalpur might have developed a very high standard of Tantrik culture. Most probably, Samalei Pitha was an essential part of that great cultural tradition. In the Garbha-griha (inner sanctum) of this temple, “the image of Samlai is a large block of stone in the middle of which is a projection with a narrow groove regarded as the mouth. On both sides of this are depressions covered with beaten gold leaf to represent the eyes” (O’Malley, 1909:218).The fierce and typical shapeless rock made to appear like the face of Samalei Devi (goddess) with two gold leaves in the forms of eyes and in the middle a projection resembling the mouth of a cow recommends some influence of Tantra. In this context, mention may be made of Panda (1996:37) who has recognized some noteworthy points that in front of the Garbha-griha of Samalei Gudi (temple), there is a pillared hall wherein a pair of human foot prints with two eight-petalled lotus-rosette motifs on both sides is engraved on a stone panel. This pair of footprints is worshipped as Sitala-mata. Such footprints are found to be imprinted on stone slabs at Ghudar and Ranipur-Jharial in the district of Bolangir and Narsinghnath in the district of Bargarh. Panda (1985:106) viewed that admiration of footprints of Siddhacharyas was very widespread and common to the Tantrik School. His view may be corroborated by the opinion of Patel (2004:42) on footprint emblem discerned in the site of Ranipur-Jharial. Patel accepts as true that it is reminiscent of early Buddhist worship of anoconic diction. In this respect, availability of footprints in crude form at Rampad on the riverbed near Sambalesvari temple carries significance to a great extent. For that reason, Samalei Pitha had Buddhist connection. In other words, Sambalpur had made Tantrik Buddhism a potent spiritual power and effective cultural force in the Indian sub-continent. In view of this, Sambalpur might be recognized as one of the important urban centers with intercontinental reputation in between the second and eighth century A.D. it seems that, Tantrik Buddhism continued to triumph in Sambalpur till about 13th century A.D. long after Buddhism had vanished from many parts of India.
Reportedly, Laksminkara had married Sevole, the son of the king Jalendra of Lanka / Lankapuri. But, Laksminkara preferred the career of a Tantrik Buddhist perfectionist and practiced Tantra Sadhana in Lankapuri which was regarded as Mahayogapitha or a great centre of Tantrik Buddhist Yoga. Continuous meditation and Tantra Sadhana for seven years in the cemetery of Lankapuri Mahayogapitha made her properly enlightened and she distinguished herself among the people of India and abroad as Bhagavati Laksminkara or Goddess Laksminkara because of her Uttama Siddhi or excellent attainment. Lanka or Lankapuri is identified with modern Sonepur or Subarnapur (Mishra, 2003:87-88). Lankesvari, therefore, may be recognized as Laksminkara as the former nomenclature appears to be a corruption of the latter. A legend also ascribes Goddess Samalei to Lankesvari. Furthermore, Chaurasi Samalei are important deities of the Keutas, the fishermen caste of Bolangir (Senapati and Sahu, 1968:107). This notion of Chaurasi (84) Samalei prevalent among the Keutas (fishermen) of west Odisha very probably refers to 84 Siddha-Gurus in Tantrik Buddhism. In view of this, Goddess Laksminkara may reasonably be identified with Laksminkara i.e. Samalei or Samalesvari who has been worshipped by the local people in Sambalpur. Raja Ramai Dev founded the kingdom of Patna in the fourteenth century. Within a very short span of his military career, Raja Ramai Dev became the chief of the cluster of eighteen Garhs (forts). Patna was an important State in west Odisha under the Chauhans since fourteenth century. By the sixteenth century, almost the whole of west Odisha came under the political sway of the Chauhan Rajas of Patna who occupied as many as eighteen Garhs (Athara-Garh) under them. The twelfth king Raja Narasingha Dev handed over to his younger brother Balaram Dev the territory lying north of the river Ang / Ong (O’Malley, 1909:21; Senapati and Sahu, 1968:3). It is said that one rainy night when the Rani of Narasingha Dev was in the throes of childbirth, Balaram Dev swam across a hill-stream named Mayabati, which was flowing in between the capital town of Patnagarh and the village Barapada, and brought the nurse from that village to attend the Rani. It was reward for this courageous and faithful service that Raja Narasingha Dev gave the northeastern part of his dominion to Balaram Dev. Later on, there arose a quarrel between the two brothers concerning the extent of their respective territories. However, it was cordially settled by the intervention of the Queen mother. Tradition goes that the Queen mother took her both sons to the bed of the river Surangi and asked the elder and the younger to sit on her right and left laps respectively. After that she told them that the river Surangi should be taken as her own body (Ang). The elder brother should enjoy the territory to the right of the river and the younger one to the left of it. Both the brothers acknowledged the decision of their mother and from that time onwards the river was called Ang and was regarded as the natural frontier between Patna and Sambalpur territories.
It appears that Raja Narasingha Dev placed the Sambalpur region under the charge of his younger brother Balaram Dev to check the aggression of Haihaya power of Ratanpur (Senapati and Sahu, 1968:52-53). In other words, Balaram Dev was given the Sambalpur tract where he, later on, assumed the power and founded the state of Sambalpur, which became most powerful of the Garhjat cluster and from that time onwards, the importance of Patna declined (Senapati and Sahu, 1968:3). Accordingly, Balaram Dev became the first Chauhan Raja of Sambalpur Rajya about the middle of the 16th century A.D. “The town is named after its tutelary goddess Samlai, who was installed here when it was founded; and local tradition asserts that this name is derived from the fact that a cotton tree (simul) grew at the place where her image was set up” (O’Malley, 1909:1). Thus, as per the prevailing tradition, Balaram Dev discovered the image of Samalei beneath a Semel (silk cotton) tree. The botanical name of this tree is Bomax malabaricum. Because of phonetic resemblance between Semel and Samalei some scholars give credence to this tale that the deity worshipped under a Semel tree has come to be recognized as Samalei. Oral tradition relates that Raja Balaram Dev was given a grant of this area by his elder brother Raja Narasingha Dev of Patnagarh. Balaram Dev “first established himself at a place in the Bargarh tahsil which he called Nuagarh, i.e., the new fort. Next, as his power grew, he made a new capital at a larger place called Baragarh, or the big fort, the modern Bargarh” (O’Malley, 1909:21). Thus, he established himself first at Bargarh on the bank of the river Jira. Bargarh is on the National Highway No.6 and is about 50 kms. to the west of Sambalpur. The original name of this place was Baghar-Kota as identified from an inscription of the 11th century A.D. It was called Bargarh probably from the time of Raja Balaram Dev who made it for some time his headquarters and constructed a big (Bar / Bad) fort (Garh) for its protection. Later on, Raja Narayan Singh, the last Chauhan Raja granted this place in Maufi (free hold) to two Brahmin brothers Krusna Das and Narayan Das, sons of Baluki Das who was killed in action by the Gond rebels led by Bandya Ray and Mahapatra Ray. The grant is known as the Sri-kata / Sir-Kata grant (Senapati and Mahanti, 1971:510). Etymologically, the word Sri-Kata or Sir-Kata is a combination of Sir and Kata. The word Sir means head and Kata means cutting. In other words, the award is meant for sacrifice of life.
However, Raja Balaram Dev is believed to have shifted his capital from Bargarh to Chaunrpur, “a village lying opposite to Sambalpur on the southern bank of the river Mahanadi” (O’Malley, 1909:21). In all probability, during this phase when Raja Balaram Dev carved out a new Rajya out of the territory of his elder brother he named it Huma Desa. Thereafter, the time of foundation of Sambalpur Rajya was about the year 1570 A.D. (Panda, 1996:35).
As per the legend, the village Chaunrpur is supposed to be the seat of Raja Balaram Dev previous to his coming to Sambalpur. One day while hunting, Raja Balaram Dev crossed the river Mahanadi. When he arrived at the left bank an attractive hare appeared before him. Raja Balaram Dev set his hounds at the innocent creature. But the outcome was contrary to his expectation. After some time, Raja Balaram Dev discovered his hounds repulsed by the hare. He had not anticipated such a scene. Struck by the most timid of animals, he thought that there might be some supernatural power in the land. That night Goddess Samalei appeared in his dream and said, “Why do you appear so sad? Don’t think that there appears to have been a mistake. I am Lankesvari here. Worship me. Your expectations and hopes will be fulfilled.” Next day, Raja Balaram Dev discovered the deity in the form of a stone. Afterward, he decided to build his Gad or Garh nearby. Having built a Gad he installed in it the deity Samalei. The place where her image was set up was a Kud (island) on which stood a Semel tree and hence was called Semel-Kud while the deity was named Samalei. Similar narratives are recorded by O’Malley (1909:217) and Senapati and Mahanti (1971:2-3) in their Sambalpur Gazetteer.
Afterward, Samalei has been sanskritised to Samalesvari. Etymologically, the name Samalesvari is a combination of Samala and Isvari. The word Samala refers to Sambala or Sambalpur. Accordingly, Samalesvari means Isvari of Sambala in the reigns of Chauhans. In other words, Sambalpur is acknowledged as the land of Samalei and she is the reigning deity of Sambalpur “A similar legend is still current regarding the foundation of Kharagpur, the city of the hare, in the Monghyr district” (O’Malley, 1909:21; Senapati and Mahanti, 1971:2-3). Be that as it may, identical stories prevail about origins of other places of Odisha like Cuttack, Talcher and Baripada. Matching story is also associated with detection of deities like Banibakreswari of Kuapada village under Delanga block in Puri district and Barala Devi of Balasakumpa village in Phulbani district. This is why, it is hard to estimate the accurate time and locate the exact place of the origin of this myth (Pasayat, 2003:10-12). Nevertheless, this story attests the fact that the aboriginal religious shrine like Samalei has received royal patronage. Raja Balaram Dev enshrined Samalei Devi inside his Gad. During his reign, Seva-Puja (Puja services) was provided from the royal treasury. In other words, State funding of Seva-Puja has been introduced since then. Subsequently, the present temple was built during 1657-95 A.D. in the reign of Raja Chhatra Sai (Senapati and Mahanti, 1971:548). In view of this, it may be suggested here that Samalei Pitha already existed when Raja Balaram Dev arrived here. Perhaps, the temple was in a dilapidated condition. So, Raja Balaram Dev extended royal patronage and rebuilt the temple. Afterward, Raja Chhatra Sai had also most probably rebuilt or renovated the temple.
There is no denying the fact that Raja Balaram Dev adopted this Sakti-Pitha and extended royal patronage. But, the most significant development in the period of Raja Chhatra Sai (1657-95) was endowment of forty villages for the regular worship of Samalei Devi. Names of some villages have been collected from the natives. These are Jayaghanta, Kalamati, Ambasada Katapali, Nunia Jampali, Karpula Senapali, Chaunrpur etc. In other words, Raja Chhatra Sai made a permanent arrangement for the maintenance of the Samalei Gudi. It means that recognized steps have been taken by the Chauhan rulers for the state-funding of the Seva-Puja in Samalei Gudi and she has been elevated to the status of Rastra-Devi and called Sambalesvari i.e. Isvari or presiding deity of Sambala or Sambalpur. However, the landed property assigned for the performance of the daily and special Puja of Samalei Devi have been converted into personal property by the priests. This had been possible, most probably, during the British rule, either by hiding or destroying the copper plate grants. Any how, the priests are now managing the Seva-Puja of Samalei Gudi. Allegedly, the temple has no landed property at present (Senapati and Mahanti, 1971:548).
It may be understood with exactitude that in the 15th and 16th century A.D., after collapse of the Ganga empire of Odisha, a strong pull towards political fragmentation as well as decentralization of power took place to a certain extent due to the partition of ruling chiefs who ended up as independent potentates. In the frontier zone of uncertain control like Daksina Kosala (roughly modern west Odisha) the indigenous tribal chiefs and chiefs of obscure origins took advantage of weak central authority; they assumed power and formed several small Rajyas (Deo, 2003:96). Formation of a separate Bargarh and subsequently Huma Desa and finally Sambalpur Rajya by Raja Balaram Dev in the 16th century A.D. was the product of the partition of the ruling family of Patnagarh. In all probability, this was a forested area and inhabited by aboriginal people when Raja Balaram Dev first arrived here. He was a reputed warrior. Owing to military necessity, the administration of this tribal dominated, hilly and forested part was entrusted to him by his elder brother Raja Narasingha Dev, the-then Chauhan Raja of Patnagarh. Raja Balaram Dev was successful to consolidate and strengthen the Chauhan rule in this part of the Rajya and he carved out a new Rajya out of the country of his elder brother. Subsequently, he and his successors extended and strengthened Chauhan rule in Sambalpur Rajya. In order to sustain a separate and independent Sambalpur Rajya, most probably, Raja Balaram Dev and his successors had to depend upon the Bhagas (share) and Bhogas. They had to influence the local tribal people to become settled agriculturists, so that production would augment because tribal economy based on hunting and shifting cultivation cannot maintain a Rajya as analysed somewhere else by Deo (2003:96). To legitimize their status as Rajas and to their share (Bhaga) of the produce, the Chauhan rulers granted lands to Brahmins and temples, which contributed to altering the agrarian situation, formation of hierarchical social order and also encouraged Brahminisation or Hinduisation of society in this area. In view of this, it may be recommended that Samalei Pitha previously existed when Raja Balaram Dev arrived here. Perhaps, this religious Pitha was in a decaying state. He extended state patronage and rebuilt or renovated this Pitha. Later on, Raja Chhatra Sai was also, most probably, instrumental in rebuilding or renovating it. As a result, the temple of Samalei or Sambalesvari became an important apparatus of Hinduisation in Sambalpur.
“There is a tradition that the country was invaded by the Muhammadan general Kalapahar…The story is that when Kalapahar invaded Odisha (A. D. 1568), the priests of Puri fled with the images of Jagannath and buried it on the Mahanadi to the south of Sambalpur. Kalapahar followed them to Sambalpur with his army, but could not force an entrance into the fort. While encamped outside it, his force was destroyed by the goddesses Samlai and Patneswari; for the former assumed the form of a milkmaid and sold curds and milk to his soldiers, while the latter appeared as a malini or gardener and sold them fruit. Milk, curds and fruit spread desolation in the army, for cholera broke out; and Samlai put Kalapahar to flight, capturing among other things his drum, the sound of which had the reputation of making the limbs of the Hindu gods and goddesses off their images. The drum, ghanta or big bell, and ghulghula or small bell taken by Samlai are still to be seen in her temple; while the tombs of Muhammadans who accompanied Kalapahar are pointed out at Sankerbandh, where his army encamped” (O’Malley, 1909:22).
It is believed that the priests buried the images on the Mahanadi in Soneur or Subarnapur, which is situated to the south of Sambalpur. It is said that the incident took place when Chhatra Sai was the ruler of Sambalpur. But it is also said that it took place during the reign of Balabhadra Dev. When the soldiers of Kalapahada drank the milk and curd, which spread desolation among them, at this hour, Raja Balabhadra Dev of Sambalpur drove back Kalapahada effectively. Accordingly, Samalei Devi satisfied Kalapahada’s thirst for quest to destroy the image of Lord Jagannath. It would not be out of place to mention that matching stories prevail in other shrines of Odisha namely Chalhakhai Devi at Kulada in Ganjam district, Dahikhai-Chamundai Devi at Rambha in Ganjam district. This tale is also associated with Danteswari Devi at Bastar in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh (Pasayat, 2003:20). It may be suggested that the foundation of this narrative is a feat of imagination. This is why, it is complicated to identify the place wherefrom and classify the time when this tale has initially been conceived and later adopted in other religious shrines. Nonetheless, we cannot disregard the information that this tale has singled out the supernatural power and deeds of Samalei Devi. It has established socio-cultural affiliation between the aborigines and the caste Hindus. By assimilating such stories into Samalei cult, the aboriginal people identify themselves as part of the larger Hindu religious culture, thus, contributing to Hindu cultural unity at a larger level which had facilitated at the time of state formation in Sambalpur.
Samalei at Sambalpur is a shapeless rock made to appear like a face. It may be believed to be a big piece of head-like stone structure. According to the oral tradition, Daksa arranged a Yajna. He invited all the deities and relatives to be present at the function. But he did not call his own daughter Sati and son-in-law Lord Siva, for the reason that Sati married Lord Siva against the desire and wish of Daksa. When Sati came to know about it, tears rolled down her face. When she settled down she got down at her father’s residence to attend the ritual ceremony without invitation. Unfortunately, Sati was received with dihonour and disgrace. She protested and accused her father for his neglect and disregard shown to her husband. Daksa broke into anger and cursed Lord Siva as a beggar, ashman, Yogi, king of goblins and so on. Sati could not put up with such abuse and insult; she jumped into the Yajna-Kunda. Consequently, Lord Siva became furious and started his Tandava bearing the corpse of Sati on his back. It was terrible and the destruction of the entire universe was imminent. So, Lord Visnu came out to protect the mankind. He instructed his Sudarsana Chakra to slash the dead body of Sati into pieces. When Lord Siva became conscious, Lord Visnu consoled him and the anger of Lord Siva cooled. Thereafter, Lord Siva retired alone to his abode Kailas. The corpse of Sati hewn into a number of pieces and wherever a fragment touched the earth, a Sakti-Pitha i.e. shrine of mother goddess sprang up. It is understood to be the head of Sati, which is enshrined and worshipped in the Samalei Gudi of Sambalpur.
Though mythological origin of the Sakti-Pitha at Sambalpur is connected with the most famous Daksa-Yajna story, originally it is not reported or recorded in any of the epic tradition of the Hindu religion. There is no denying the fact that the image of Samalei Devi is a large block of stone. There is also a projection with a narrow groove in the middle of the stone image of the deity. This projection is supposed to be the mouth of the deity. On both sides of projection are depressions covered with beaten gold leaves, which symbolize the eyes of the deity. Moreover, the image of Samalei Devi does not bear a resemblance to any other Sakti goddess found in Odisha. There is a Parsva-Devata of Samalei identified as Pitabali who is understood to be the deity of tribal people namely Kandhas (Senapati and Mahanti, 1971:547). The above account of Samalei Devi recommends us to accept as true that she is a non-Brahmin deity, formerly worshipped by the aborigines of Sambalpur. Addition of Daksa-Yajna narrative is very likely a later improvement to add to Samalei some supplementary doses of Sanskritik fundamentals. This may be recommended to be an excellent illustration of localization or parochialisation of renowned Daksa-Yajna account to validate the faith of the aborigines with the Hindu epic tradition (Great Tradition) of India. By identifying Sambalpur with the manifestation of Sakti as Sambalesvari and her mythical and miraculous actions, the local people identify and classify themselves as component of the larger Hindu culture (Great Tradition), thus, contributing to cultural unity and consolidation of Chauhan rule in Sambalpur.
There is one more story, which indicates the dietary pattern of Samalei Devi. On one occasion, the priest was offering prayers to the goddess. His small daughter was standing by his side. The priest had fruits and flowers on a plate. All of a sudden, the priest discovered that the deity had disappeared. Looking up, he found the deity devouring his girl child. He was dumb-founded. Thereafter, the priest threw the plate right away at the face of the deity. As a result, the face of the deity turned to back side. So, the deity is thought to be facing away from the main entrance and that is why there is no face on the front side. Interestingly, this tale with little variation is found in the following religious shrines namely Kanaka-Durga at Piteipur village in Jagatsinghpur district, Janlei Devi at Hinjilikatu in Ganjam district and Kumari Devi at Bonai in Sundargarh district. In addition, the narrative is associated with Chandrahasini Devi at Chandrapur in Bilaspur district of the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh (Pasayat, 2003:19). However, the meaning of this tale is more important for our study. This story is meant not only to frighten children away but also suggests the practice of severe form of blood sacrifice and influence of Tantra on this Pitha. As per the oral tradition, once upon a time human beings were sacrificed before Samalei Devi. It is said that once a Siddha Brahmin arrived at Sambalpur. Priests of Samalei Devi caught him for sacrifice before the deity. The Brahmin told the priests to leave him alone and no one else before the deity inside the Garbhagriha so that Samalei Devi could munch him if she required. Accordingly, the Brahmin was not beheaded and rather left alone and alive in the Garbhagriha and the doors were closed. The episode went contrary to the interest of the priests. Next morning, the Brahmin came out from the Garbhagriha alive and unhurt. The account spread quickly throughout the Rajya that the Brahmin had contended and pleased Samalei Devi and the deity had blessed him. Maharaja Baliar Singh heard this incredible and miraculous incident; he gave order to bring to an end the practice of human sacrifice before Samalei Devi. Since then, buffaloes were sacrificed before the deity. Now a days, Buka (he-goat) and cock are familiar sacrificial objects in Durga Puja, Chaitra Purnima and other occasions in this Sakti-Pitha. This may be understood to be the process of legitimization of Brahmin priests in the non-Brahminik Samalei Gudi and minimization of severe practice of blood sacrifice in this Pitha.
According to the tradition, Samalei was worshipped in the beginning by the natives belonging to Sahara and Jhara communities living on the bank of the river Mahanadi. The chief occupation of these people was to collect diamonds and gold from the riverbed of Mahanadi. On one occasion, they found a big piece of stone under the deep water. They brought it out with the hope to extract diamonds and other valuable stones from it; they positioned it under a Semel tree on the bank of the river. Later on, they realized it as a deity in the shape of a stone. Thence, they started worshipping her (Dash, 1962:227). Although, Raja Balaram Dev adopted the local deity, he did not reject and exclude the traditional servitors of the deity from the temple cult, which was emerging as a testimony to Sanskritisation or Hinduisation of Samalei Devi. He appointed the Saharas, the traditional worshippers of the deity as the priests and Jharas as the servants and holders of canopy of Samalei Devi (Sae Deo, 1985:7-8). Saharas are generally considered to be untouchables in the social hierarchy of this culture area. In villages, the Jhankar worships Samalei as village deity. Though the Jhankars do not belong to any specific caste or community they are, in fact, non-Brahmin priests who also worship other village deities namely Mauli, Budhi–Ma and Gram-Pati. Previously, Jhankars were granted rent-free lands for their service in the villages. All these combinedly point out that Samalei has the personality of a non-Brahmin deity. Most probably, the rulers intended no harm to the sentiments and feelings of the aborigines. In view of this, it may be suggested that Saktism has taken all care to adopt and approve the features of the aboriginal or local religious cult i.e. Samalei. In other words, numerous local indigenous communities with Samalei tradition of erstwhile Sambalpur Rajya have been deeply attracted towards and absorbed in the mainstream of the Indian cultural tradition through Saktism i.e. Great Tradition. Saktism coupled with Saivism has formed the centre of the integration of Indian civilization and has a great influence on the regional religious culture of Sambalpur i.e. Little Tradition.
A very important characteristic of the development of religious system in Sambalpur region during the medieval period is the introduction of Tantrik elements in worship. As it has been discussed earlier, historical and archaeological remains attest the fact that Sambalpur region has been a stronghold of Saivism and Saktism united with Tantrism. Furthermore, severe practice of blood sacrifice at this Pitha, absence of caste distinction, employment or engagement of tribal or non-Brahmin priests, installation of the guardian deity (Samalei) in the Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), belief in the replica or proxy divinity (Chalanti Pratima) of the main deity, annual or periodical journey (Yatra) of the Chalanti Pratima, spirit possession or descending of Samalei Devi through human beings etc. suggest some connections with the Tantra. As it is discussed elsewhere, Sambalpur as well as Samalei Pitha has been identified with an important seat of Tantrism where a very high standard of Tantrik culture had developed during the Buddhist and pre-Chauhan period. But, thereafter, particularly during the Chauhan period the unique blend of Saktism, Saivism, Tantrism and Sanskritik or Brahminical culture rose to a new height in Sambalpur region. Most probably, the Chauhan Rajas have brought their own faith with them. But they have not enjoined on common people of this area to believe and follow their faith and worship their deity rather they have reckoned their own faith with that of the locality. It was not what they practiced and worshipped but what they felt under what they believed that was important. The Chauhan Rajas have taken all care to retain the primitive character of this Pitha like aniconical image of the deity, non-Brahmin priests of the deity, blood sacrifice and the like. By constructing or renovating the temple, they have introduced elaborate rituals in a orderly manner. By giving rent-free land grants to the temple they have ensured regular and expected Seva-Puja for the deity. They have also manufactured myths wherever required to classify the deity as a Hindu goddess. In all probability, they have cautiously followed this principle under political expediency with a view to pleasing the local subjects.
In this context, mention may be made of Asapuri Devi who is the tutelary goddess of the Chauhan Rajas all over the country. Raja Ramai Dev, the first Chauhan Raja of Patna Rajya identified her as Patanesvari in Patna or Patana-gad meaning Isvari of Patana. Since then Patanesvari has been the tutelary goddess of the Chauhan Rajas of the Patana-gad or Patana house. In the same way, Raja Balaram Dev established Sambalpur Rajya. He also extolled the local deity Samalei as Sambalesvari meaning Isvari of Sambala or Sambalpur and the Raja accepted her with his own tutelary goddess. This way, the Hindu scholars and priests hinduised the local name of the deity i.e. from Samalei to Sambalesvari. According to this name, she is the deity of all who dwell in Sambalpur. In other words, the deity represents a larger society wherein people of various ethnic background stay together. Thus, the deity has become the source and symbol of unity and integrity mainly between the aboriginal people and caste-Hindus in Sambalpur. It may be understood that the Chauhan Rajas have made it their principle to esteem and extol the deities of the aborigines or natives wherever they have established their kingdoms and expanded their territory. Samalei, the deity of the autochthonous people has been hijacked by the ruling classes and used as tool to exercise their authority and control over the latter. Not only Samalei of Sambalpur but also Asta-Sambhus in different parts of erstwhile Sambalpur Rajya namely Bimaleswara at Huma, Kedarnath at Ambabhona, Biswanath at Deogaon, Balunkeswara at Gaisama, Maneswara at Maneswar, Swapneswara at Sorna, Bisweswara at Soranda and Nilakantheswara at Niljee have been adopted and given royal patronage in the reigns of Chauhan Rajas. Temples have been constructed and elaborate rituals have been introduced in these temples. Rent-free lands and villages have been granted and regular Seva-Puja of these deities has been ensured. This fundamental principle has made them admired and popular among the local inhabitants and also helped them to expand, consolidate and strengthen the Chauhan rule in Sambalpur region.
It may be noted here that Patanesvari temples are found only at few places like Patnagarh, Bolangir and Sambalpur whereas the number of Samalei Gudi or Samalesvari temples in Sambalpur is quite large. Besides the Samalei Gudi to be found in Sambalpur, Barpali and Subarnapur, the deity occupies a pivotal position in the religious life of the common people through out the length and breadth of the land of Samalei i.e. Sambalpur. She is being commonly worshipped under a tree in the form of a stone in the vicinity of almost each and every village of erstwhile Sambalpur Rajya. This indicates the extent of reverence shown to Samalei in every part of Sambalpur region. In villages, Samalei is worshipped by the Jhankars who enjoy rent-free lands for their Seva-Puja as mentioned earlier. Moreover, many indigenous, aboriginal, native, local, folk or tribal communities with their religious traditions (Little Tradition) of Sambalpur region have been successfully absorbed in the mainstream of the Hindu Great Tradition through Saivism, Saktism and Vaisnavism and helped in the process of state formation during medieval period in erstwhile Sambalpur Rajya. Bose (1941:188) has correctly pointed out, “Hinduism has grown by the incorporation of many tribal cults, until it has become a kind of federation of religious beliefs and practices…which goes by the name of Hinduism”. In sum, it may be concluded that as most of the rulers originated from one of the local groups it was easy for them to raise their deity to be the state deity or Rastra-Devata. In this process, it has helped them to legitimize and consolidate their political power over this area. Deities have become the linkage between the ruler and the ruled. The patronage of local deities and their elevation have helped the ruler to spread the narrative that the local deity has been pleased with the new ruler or the deity has blessed the ruler or the ruler has pleased the deity. They have successfully used the emotional attachment and religious sentiments of the local communities to the deity. This has helped the ruler to mobilize support of the local people and to legitimize their position and status in this area. This pattern has emerged partly because the rulers have needed the support of the local communities for their numerical strength and partly because of the fear of the deity whose wrath might result from absence of worship. The incorporation of local communities into the wider social order and their indoctrination proceeded in multifaceted manner through ceremonial and enactment of hierarchical relations. So, multiple simultaneous processes of Hinduisation, Tribalisation and localization / parochialisation are found linking between the Hindu Great Tradition and the local Little Tradition of Sambalpur. These processes of diffusion, acculturation and assimilation were never one-way flow from Hindu Great Tradition to local Little Tradition alone. In Sambalpur area, simultaneous process of acculturation and de-culturation has been observed down the ages. It has proceeded through complex processes of interaction, which are confirmed by myths, legends and historical evidence.
Bose, N.K. (1941),“The Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption”, Science and Culture,pp.199-194.
Dash, S.P. (1962), Sambalpur Itihas (Odia), Sambalpur: Viswabharati Press.
Deo, F. (2003), “Chauhan Myth and Royal Legitimization in Kosala (Daksina)”, Sambalpur Lok Mahotsav Souvenir – 2003, pp.96-101.
Eschmann, A. (1986), “Hinduisation of Tribal Deities in Orissa: The Sakta and Saiva Typology” in A.Eschmann, H.Kulke and G.C.Tripathy (eds.), The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa, New Delhi: Manohar Publications.
Mishra, R. (2003), “Scientific Theories in the Creativities of the Samvalaka – Princess Laksminkara” Sambalpur Lok Mahotsav Souvenir – 2003, pp.87-90.
O’Malley, L. S. S. (1909), Sambalpur Gazetteer, New Delhi: Logos Press (reprinted 2007).
Panda, L.K. (1985), Saivism in Orissa, Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.
Panda, S.S. (1996), “Early Chauhan Temples of Sambalpur Town”, Orissa Review, April, pp.34-38.
Panda, S.S. (2003), “Narsinghnath Temple of Bargarh District”, Orissa Review, August, pp.61-72.
Pasayat, C. (1998), Tribe, Caste and Folkculture, Jaipur: Rawat Publications.
Pasayat, C. (2003), Glimpses of Tribal and Folk Culture, New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Pasayat, C. (2007), Adivasi Moukhika Sahitya Parampara (in Odia), Kolkata: Sahitya Akademi.
Pasayat, C. (2007), Tribal Non-tribal Divide: Myth and Reality, Bhubaneswar.
Pasayat, C. (2007), History of Tribal Society and Culture, New Delhi: Zenith Books International
Patel, C. B. (2004), “Manuscript Efflorescence of Rampur Jharial”, Orissa Review, August, pp.41-44.
Sae Deo, L.R. (1985), “Samalesvari Mandira Pratisthara Kimbadanti O Samkshipta Itihas” (Odia), Basanta Milana Smaranika, Hirakhanda, Sambalpur, pp.7-8.
Senapati, N. & B. Mahanti (eds.), (1971), Sambalpur District Gazetteer, Cuttack: Orissa Government Press.
Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat resides at 152, Vijay Vihar, Nuagaon Road, PO: Sishupalgarh, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, 751002
Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat
Nuakhai (Nua+khai) denotes eating of nua. The literary meaning of nua is new. In this perspective, it is related to the new fruit of the season. Also, it stands for the first crop of the year. It is a ritual in nearly all the tribal societies found in eastern and middle India, where first fruit or crop of the season is at first presented to their deities. It has a most important weight on the life and culture of the tribal people in general. It is not a showy festivity. It is a festival of food worship. As a result, they celebrate Dhan-nua in Bhudo, Am-nua, Mahul-nua, Char-nua, Kendu-nua, and Kusum-nua in Phagun, Bean-nua, Gondli-nua, Ankakora-nua / Lau-nua in Pond / Margasira, Kandul-nua in Pousa / Magh, Simba-nua, Pani Kakharu-nua, Kakharu-nua in Pousa, Maka-nua, Kumuda-nua after Asadha and the like.1
For that reason, Nuakhai is a philosophy of tribal life. In other words, Nuakhai is not simply a term but a philosophy of life. Tribal people celebrate Nuakhai whenever a new fruit, whether mango, kandul, jahni etc. comes to their society. The main objective of this festival is to get social sanction to a new crop, and to invoke the deities to bless the land with abundant crops. But, a pertinent question arises here why paddy in Nuakhai in West Odisha? In this paper, we will try to examine the following three points. First, Nuakhai has played a significant role during the state formation in West Odisha. Secondly, Nuakhai has been the source of integration and unity between the tribal and non-tribal people in West Odisha. Thirdly, Nuakhai has justified and helped in perpetuation of the three pillars of traditional Indian society namely Joint Family, Caste System and Jajmani System in the self-sufficient village community.
Although, the foundation of this festival has got buried in darkness, oral tradition dates it back to the time of the first Chauhan Raja Ramai Dev of Patnagarh in West Odisha. During his efforts to build an independent rajya, Raja Ramai Dev and his successors recognized the importance of settled agriculture for the reason that, greater part of West Odisha was preponderance with jungle and the majority of the then West Odishan people were aborigines. Their socio-economic life was very simple. They were reliant on subsistence economy which was primarily based on hunting, food gathering and shifting cultivation. This type of survival economy almost certainly could not create adequate surplus2.
On the other hand, perhaps the king realized the fact that, enough surplus or additional resource was essentially required to maintain and sustain his rajya or state. During this period of state formation in West Odisha, Nuakhai as a ritual festival played a most important role3. The Chauhan rulers borrowed and adopted the tribal philosophy of Nuakhai and fused it with dhan (paddy). Rice was originally, not a tribal food. The rulers intervened in the food habit of the tribal people and introduced paddy cultivation. They opened up new areas for paddy cultivation not only by introducing plough-agriculture but also by peasantising the tribal people. Through the process of acculturation and integration, they indoctrinated the tribal people so as to ensure their subservience.
They developed this Nuakhai concept, popularized and spread it and adopted dhan-nua in different parts of their kingdom. As a way of compensation to the disorganized tribal socio-economic life the rulers upgraded their Nuakhai festival to levels of ritual elaboration. With the help of their priestly class, they improved it and raised it to the status of their national / state festival. In other words, they sanskritised it and converted it into a national festival of West Odisha. During this period, West Odisha witnessed an unprecedented agricultural as well as rural expansion which produced necessary surplus for the rise and growth of regional kingdoms.
The possibility of mass support for the rulers could be pre-empted when these rulers made it evident that they were willing to champion the local heritage like Nuakhai not only at home but also at the state level. It smoothed their progress of winning over the confidence of the local subjects. Obviously, the rulers could easily be painted as ‘ours’ if they appeared to be concerned, considerate and sympathetic to the religious traditions of the common people. It made the rulers easy to influence and persuade the tribal people in particular to become settled agriculturists and go for paddy cultivation. It also helped them to win over the confidence of the local subjects. There is no denying that, the rulers were not only dependent on the tribal people for the extension of peasant agriculture but also for military support.
As a consequence, it aided Chauhan rulers’ efforts to bring the natives under their control and authority. Accordingly, the Chauhan power could consolidate and strengthen their rajya in West Odisha. The tribal militia also came in handy for the expansion of their territorial limits. As a result, integration of tribal people was realized through their inclusion into Hindu fold. In course of ‘brahmanisation’ in the tribal dominated West Odisha, possibly, the local tribal people were transformed into jatis and their chiefs were absorbed as Kshatriyas in to the Hindu fold. Most probably, the aboriginal tribal people might have accepted their new Hindu social status without much reluctance.
At that time, the populations of West Odisha were divided and separated as found elsewhere. The rulers were attentive and caring to the fact that religious and cultural antagonism expressed along ethnic and caste lines could tear their rajya apart; communalism would weaken the state; primordial concepts would cause disharmony in social life and divert the attention of the common people from formation of a strong and healthy state. These problems could not be combated by force alone.
They knew that the crucial national identity factor should be emphasized at two levels, within the larger state in West Odisha and in the regional context or regional states like Patnagarh, Sambalpur, Sonepur and Khariar. So, it was essential for the rulers to integrate the tribal people and the non-tribal people. Nuakhai aided rulers’ efforts to bring them all on one platform. As a result of this, Nuakhai became the festival of all and stood for a larger society where both the tribal people and caste Hindus reside together. Nuakhai became the source of unity between them. It brought people, irrespective of their ethnic background, under the control and authority of the rulers so that they could consolidate and strengthen their rajya in West Odisha.
The most striking point about the contributions made by Nuakhai was that, it had been a key factor in the development of tribal dominated West Odishan society, in collapsing ethnic boundaries and in breaking up of other cultural identities towards the emergence of Patna State or Sambalpur State or Khariar state or Sonepur state or Kosala nation as we would understand today. But this was not enough. Regional cooperation among Sambalpur, Patnagarh, Sonepur, Khariar and the like in the peculiar conditions of West Odisha went deeper and embraced the potent attributes of nationhood. These princely states, proud of their common cultures, traditions and heritage were very likely to be interested in regional arrangements. Since all these princely states were Sambalpuri / Kosali speaking and have a common heritage, these links were made into pillars of their unity and was given as much weight as moves towards a West Oriya zone or Kosala zone or Sambalpur zone. Assertion of religio-cultural roots was an essential part of acquiring a new national identity in West Odisha.
Due to food intervention, tribal people became peasants. Paddy became an important food item of tribal people in West Odisha. Even today, paddy is the staple crop of West Odisha, occupying about 85 per cent of the total cropped area. The cultivated plains yield numerous varieties of paddy some of which are the finest in India. Regarding varieties, there is a local saying “Munsar nam jete, dhanar nam gute una tete” which implies, “As many names as man has, has paddy only one less”.
It may be ascertained from the F. C. King’s Gazetteer of Sambalpur published in 1932 (pp. 132-3) that there were over 300 varieties of seed in use in Sambalpur area. The Inspector of Agriculture, who was in charge of the Agricultural Farm at Sambalpur, claimed to have collected 250 varieties from the villages of Attabira, Sason and Bargarh areas. These varieties were most simply classed by the position of the fields on which they grew successfully and effectively, viz., as bahal, berna, mal and at rice4.
For example, a bahal variety would fail on upper mal terraces. On the other hand, mal varieties would rot in the wet bahal. These main classes were further subdivided into several minor groups. It may be noted here that, most of the bahal and berna lands in West Odisha are traditionally occupied by the upper castes and dominant sections of the society whereas the lower castes and tribal people generally own the mal and at lands.
The low lands like bahal and berna are generally cultivated with rice and are skillfully embanked, manure and irrigated. The uplands like mal and at are much less carefully cultivated, are not manure, and grow miscellaneous crops, such as pulses, coarse rice and cotton. Usually, harvesting finishes by the end of November. Occasionally, in the case of low-lying bahal lands, it is not completed till December for the reason that long duration high yielding varieties of paddy are generally grown here. As soon as threshing is over, the cultivator plough up his bahal fields to turn in the subtle. But the mal terraces reaped early in October dry up and harden fast and cannot be touched, unless, as is often the case, heavy showers fall in January or February. The bulk of the work is left for the hot summer months, when heavy storms of thunder and rain usually break once a fortnight, and give the cultivator his chance to plough. It is then too that manures are spread and worked in.
Cutting begins early in the month of September for the coarse rice of the uplands, and on the mal terraces it is usually finished in the month of October. The heavier berna and bahal crops are reaped in November. In the case of low-lying bahal lands, harvesting sometimes does not take place till December. In view of this, celebration of Nuakhai in the month of Bhudo or Bhadrava (August-September) in West Odisha is, in fact, a festival intended mostly for the poor chasis who live from hand to mouth, who do not own best qualities of lands, who cannot grow high yielding varieties of paddy and wait for a longer time to reap the fruits of their labor and who leave themselves to the mercy of that almighty for good.
Nuakhai in West Odisha is the sanskritised or hinduised version of a tribal festival.5 It is evident from our discussion made so far and this point will be further corroborated in our subsequent discussion. Agriculture, as discussed above, is the main source of living of a bulk of the inhabitants of West Odisha. The major chunk of the West Oriya population receives its main income from agriculture. The great masses of tribal populations are also cultivators, farm servants and laborers. The important and main tribes of West Odisha like Binjhal, Bhumia, Gond, Kondh Mirdha, Saura / Savara, etc. are at the moment settled agriculturists. Despite the fact that, the festival is observed through out the tribal belt of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal, it has a major influence on the life and culture of the tribal dominated West Odisha. It is not a pretentious celebration, not just an exhibition of tradition, either. It is a festival of worship of food grain.
In tribal surroundings Nuakhai as an institution needed a Hindu social context to survive among the caste-Hindus. It nurtured a profound appreciation and admiration for the growth of rice, which is a symbolic manifestation of life itself. Worship of food grain was not at all new. It had been there since times immemorial. In this sense, Nuakhai was of ancient origin. From Hindu point of view, the fundamental idea of the celebration could be traced back to the Vedic times when rishis had talked of Pancha Yajna i.e. the five important activities in the annual calendar of an agrarian society. These five activities have been specified as Sita Yajna (the ploughing or cultivating of land), Pravapana Yajna (the plantation or sowing of seeds), Pralambana Yajna (the initial cutting of crops), Khala Yajna (the harvesting of grains) and Prayayana Yajna (the preservation and protection of the produce). In view of this, Nuakhai may be seen as having evolved out of the third activity, namely Pralambana Yajna. It involves cutting of the first crop and reverent offering of the same to the mother goddess6. Other activities are also very important. For example, preservation and protection of the produce is essentially important because a part of the surplus is given to the State for its maintenance and in turn the State performs its duty and responsibility towards its citizens.
In view of this, Nuakhai became the festival of both the tribal people as well as the caste Hindus and stands for a larger society where both the tribal people and caste Hindus reside together, Nuakhai became the source of unity between them. One of the most striking point about the contributions made by Nuakhai is that, it has been a key factor in the development of tribal dominated West Odishan society, in collapsing ethnic boundaries and in breaking up of other cultural identities towards the emergence of Patna State or Sambalpur State or Khariar State or Sonepur State or Kosala nation as we understand today.
As it has been mentioned earlier, in order to sustain and maintain a separate rajya and independent Chauhan kingdom, most probably, the Chauhan rulers had to depend on the bhogas and bhagas. They had to persuade the local tribal people to become settled agriculturists so that production would increase and surplus would be generated because, tribal economy based on hunting, food gathering and shifting cultivation could not generate surplus and sustain a rajya. In order to legitimize their status as rajas and to augment their share of the produce i.e. bhaga, the Chauhan rulers of Patnagarh extended their influence over the surrounding territories including Sambalpur and the adjoining states.
Thus, they successfully persuaded and convinced the aboriginals to adopt settled cultivation. They converted the jungles and improved the plains into agricultural lands. They invited Brahmins to spread the Vedic significance of anna or rice and thus justification of paddy cultivation. They settled Kultas and Agharias who were perfect chasis. Accordingly, they granted lands and villages to them for agricultural development of their rajyas. All these contributed to changing the agrarian situation, formation of a hierarchical social order and brahminisation / hinduisation / sanskritisation of society in West Odisha. Understandably, in the process of building a unified and separate rajya, indigenous communities were successfully absorbed under the umbrella of Nuakhai in the mainstream of the regional Hindu tradition in West Odisha.
Earlier, farmers were celebrating Nuakhai on a fixed tithi and lagna designed by the village headman and priest. Afterward, under the patronage of royal families, this simple festival was altered into a mass socio-religious event in the entire West Odisha. Nuakhai is a celebration that speaks of an intense ritual when people of West Odisha start their life afresh. It is an occasion of reconstruction of relationships. It gives a fresh lease of life to the tillers of the land on the assurance of fruits of their labour. It provides new lease of life to the cultivators of the land on the guarantee of anna. For prana without anna is absurd and unthinkable.
A visit to West Odisha in the Hindu month of Bhudo / Bhadraba (August-September) makes one well aware and alert of the ensuing thrust of Nuakhai. Performed soulfully and with a sacred mind, Nuakhai is the very corner stone of West Odisha’s agrarian institution, where the literary meaning of Nuakhai is ‘eating of new rice’. It is, obviously, the day of rejoicing and merry-making for the people as agriculture is their main livelihood. Since paddy is the staple food of the people in general, the rice crops sustain their hope and determine their fate. This is why; a non-agriculturist is also that much concerned about this ritual as a cultivator is. Customarily, each farmer offers the first grain of the harvest to the almighty and then partakes it. The paddy is given weight as the grain of rice is measured as a representation and symbol of manifestation of life itself. The significance and utility of Anna or rice in daily life of West Oriya people is understandable. The Hindu sacred texts identify paddy as a synonym of life itself.
Anna Brahmeti Hyajanat,
Annadeva Khalwani Bhutani Jayante, Annena Jatani,
Annam Prayantyabhisam Bishantiti.
Meaning: The other name of Anna is Brahma who is Iswara i.e. God. In this sense, Anna is Iswara or God. Each life is born out of Anna. It is the source of energy. After death, Jiba or anything having a life, transforms into Anna for others. So, the importance of Anna is appreciated in every stage of life. For this reason, it is the source of life, happiness and a part of soul.7
Ahamanna Mahamanna Mahamannam,
Ahamannado Ahamannado Ahamannado,
Ahamanna Manna Madantama Drwi
Meaning: God says that He is Anna. I am the only receiver of this Anna. Whoever takes Anna I accept that.8
Message of unity is spread through this event. It reminds every farmer that the crop they yield after great sweat and toil influences the entire life’s philosophy and struggle. In view of the above quotations, it may be understood that it is the economy that decides and determines the cultural life of the people. The economy of West Odisha is predominantly based on agriculture. It is the fruit of the toil round the year that fulfills the needs of the community at large. It is a matter of great joy and happiness for the peasant and farmers admiring the fruits of their efforts and pains. Upon getting the first crop of the year, it is accepted with great respect and celebration.
Even the collection of this new rice by the head of the family is an important affair. The head of the family proceeds to the field at the lagna or time reckoned most auspicious for him and his family. There, he invokes the Pancha Mahabhutas (the five primal forces of nature) namely earth, water, light, wind, space, and offers them his devout offerings of obeisance. Then, he plucks the new grain in grategul respect, returns home and hands it over to the woman of the house for worship. Rice and gur are mixed, prepared, and offered in honor of goddess Laxmi, who is believed to bless with life-sustaining anna. The celebration of Nuakhai by the tribal people may, therefore, be viewed as a tribalised version of a Hindu notion of Anna or paddy.9
The new rice is believed to be very sacred. Even in the age of science and technology, Nuakhai has not lost its significance with the rituals still being adhered to. Nobody eats the new cereal until Nuakhai rituals are performed for the reigning deity. According to the common people, the deity is the true master / mistress of their lands. As a part of the agrarian custom, the presiding deity is offered prasad prepared from the new rice. The household, perfectly cleaned and washed in all its details, is ready to invite the deity to partake of the first pristine produce of the new season. Considered as an expression of submission, the farmers attribute the good yield to the blessings of the deities. For this reason, the first fruit of the season is first offered to him / her as a token of reverence and veneration10.
Subsequently, the people take the Prasad made out of the new rice. Then, they start eating the new rice. This is the nua, which is offered to the deity at the auspicious tithi and lagna by the karta of the family. Then, the same is distributed amongst the members of his household or clan. Largely, people think that the ceremonial ritual is an acknowledgement of the deity’s lordship over the land and the crop. It may be understood that Nuakhai is a ritual after which the newly harvested rice gets the status of consumable item. No other festival in West Odisha is celebrated with such pomp and gaiety as Nuakhai.
Nuakhai is one of the most important annual social and religious festivals of West Odisha. It deeply influences the life of this area. It profoundly influences the culture of this area. Previously, there was no fixed or permanemt day for celebration of this festival in West Odisha. The festival was held sometimes during Bhadraba Sukla Paksha (the bright fortnight of Bhudo / Bhadraba). It was the time when the newly grown Kharif paddy started ripening. There are grounds for observing the festival in the month of Bhadrava even though the food grain is not ready for harvesting everywhere. The one and only thought is to present the grain to the presiding deity even before any bird or animal pecks at it and variety of grain is ripe for eating. Old people also say that there was no proper irrigation facility in the past. In absence of widespread irrigation network, poor and small landholders used to cultivate short duration paddy, which were ready for harvesting before the Nuakhai.
Today, a number of varieties of paddy getting extinct and many more vanishing from the scene, only a bunch of stalk is picked up and presented to the deity. Every year, the Tithi (day) and lagna (auspicious time) of observance was astrologically determined by the Hindu priests. In Sambalpur, Brahmin priests sat together at the Brahmapura Jagannath temple and calculated the tithi and lagna. What we want to point out here is that observances of the tithi and lagna were not common all over West Odisha. Tithi and lagna were calculated in the name of Pataneswari Devi in Bolangir-Patnagarh area and in the name of Sureswari Devi in Subarnapur area, and in the name of Manikeswari Devi in Kalahandi area. In Sundargarh, the royal family first offered puja to goddess Sekharbasini in the temple which is opened only for once on Nuakhai. In Sambalpur, at the stipulated lagna, the head priest of Samaleswari temple offers the nua-anna or nabanna to goddess Samaleswari, the presiding deity of Sambalpur. Thus, the tithi and lagna of Nuakhai tihar or festival was not common all over the West Odisha. In other words, a common day of observance of Nuakhai tihar was barely found in all the places of West Odisha.
During the stipulated time, the households offer nua to their respective presiding deities in their homes. In some places, the lagna of celebration was/is calculated in the name of the local Gauntia and Zamidar of the village, once the tithi was/is fixed in the name of the reigning deity of that area. It shows how efforts were/are made in the past to localize the Nuakhai ritual. It also reflects the traditional nature of a village society in West Odisha and the role as well as dominance of the village headmen like zamindar and gauntia over the people. Such feudal hangovers still survive in some villages of West Odisha. In course of time, though a particular tithi is fixed for Nuakhai, the celebrations are a fortnightly event. People in West Odisha initiate preparing for the event at least two weeks in advance.
Nuakhai, also called Nabanna is understood to have nine colours and consequently nine sets of rituals are followed as a prelude to the actual day of celebration. These nine colours include 1. Beheren (announcement for meeting to fix up a date), 2. lagna dekha (setting the exact date and time for partaking of new rice, 3. daka haka (invitation), 4. sapha sutura and lipa puchha (cleanliness), 5. ghina bika (purchasing), 6. nua dhan khuja (looking for new crop), 7. bali paka (final resolve for Nuakhai by taking Prasad i.e. pahur to deity), 8. Nuakhai (taking new crop as Prasad after offering to the deity followed by dancing and singing), 9. Juhar bhet (respect to elders).
Therefore, the preparations begin on the day when the elderly persons of the village sit together at a holy place after the beheren call. As per the tradition, the beheren moves around the village and calls the villagers by blowing trumpet. People get together and discuss with the priests about the tithi and lagna for Nuakhai. It is definitely a typical gesture of priest’s authority in the village. He consults panjika and announces the sacred muhurat as to when nua is to be taken. After an informal discussion, villagers arrive at a consensus. The incorporation of Hindu idea of consultation of Panjika and in the reckoning of tithi and lagna may be viewed as a later development. Most probably, when the caste-Hindus started migrating then the local tribal people adopted the idea of astrological calculation of tithi and lagna for the Nuakhai festival. In the same way, when the caste-Hindus adopted Nuakhai from the tribal people, they had to put some Sanskritik elements to make it convenient for the caste-Hindus to accept it.
Nevertheless, there was an attempt made during 1960s to fix up a common tithi for Nuakhai all over the West Odisha. This attempt was not workable. Again, an attempt was made in 1991 and Bhadraba Sukla Panchami Tithi was fixed for Nuakhai. This is successful. Since then, the festival has been celebrated on this day. For this, the State Government has declared one official holiday too. For the sake of convenience, a common tithi is set for Nuakhai. Yet the sanctity of the ritual of lagna suddhi in accordance with rasi and nakshtra has not lost its importance. It would not be out of place to mention that, the system of setting the tithi and lagna and calling elderly persons for a consensus is very different in urban areas like Cuttack, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Bangalore and the like where Nuakhai Bhet-Ghat is observed as a fashion and get together..
Nuakhai is celebrated both at community as well as at domestic level. After all preparations are over, there is sanctification ritual before a day of celebration, which gives credence to Nuakhai. This is known as bali paka. Pahur (Prasad) is offered to the grama devta or devti in a ritual. It calls for the formal ruling of the festival. Everybody comes to know that divine will now governs Nuakhai and no one can stop it from being observed. The ritual is offered first at the temple of the reigning deity of the area or to the village deity. Afterward, they worship in their respective home and offer rituals to the domestic deity along with Laksmi. In other words, during the stipulated time, the households also offer nua to their presiding deities in their homes. On this occasion, people wear new clothes.
It is a tradition that after offering the nua to the presiding deity, the eldest member of the family distributes nua to other members of the family. After taking the nua, all the junior members of the family offers their unfathomable regards to their elders. Thereafter, follows the nuakhai juhar i.e. exchange of greetings with friends, well-wishers and relatives as well. This symbolizes unity. This is the occasion when people lay their differences to rest and start relationships afresh. Towards the evening people meet one another exchanging greetings. All differences are discarded and elders are wished nuakhai juhar. On the other hand, the elders bless their juniors and wish them long life, happiness and prosperity. Even the partitioned brothers celebrate the festival under one roof. In the evening, folk dances and songs are organized in different parts of West Odisha. People dance their way to the foot tapping rasarkeli, dalkhai, maelajada, chutkuchuta, sajani, nachnia and bajnia beats and tunes.
Nuakhai has a rich and glorious tradition of its own. As found elsewhere, Joint Family, Jajmani system and Caste System were also the three pillars of traditional society in West Odisha. Our subsequent analysis of Nuakhai clearly reflects these social systems. It is really an occasion, which strongly approves and endorses the patrilineal nature of West Odishan society. It is an event when one finds filial affection and unity of the family when all from the patrilineal side participate in the festivity. The head of the family calls up all those staying outside and intimates the tithi and lagna of Nuakhai. Definitely, it is considered a festival, which brings all the members of an extended family together and unites people in a village and community and region.
Nuakhai is the home-coming time for persons who have left their native places in search of greener pasture. More than the celebrations, the feeling of reuniting with their families holds significance for them. Juhar bhet, which follows the Nuakhai at home, is the unique aspect of this event. It is evident for its contribution to social harmony and solidarity. Thus, Nuakhai is a cohesive force. It has the power to attract and unite people of West Odisha. Nuakhai fastens hopes and aspirations of people. Relationships are renewed and repaired. Estranged souls are rejoined and reconnected. Old rivalries and bitterness are consigned to the dustbin.
Of late, it is being observed on a single day through out West Odisha except in households whose members are working outside and are unable to come. Generally, such families observe Nuakhai during Dasra or Durga puja. It is also an occasion when all the family members come home. It means, wherever they are, all the family members must assemble on this big day to celebrate Nuakhai together. This is the instance of union of family members and annual get-together. So, long wait for near and dear ones culminate in a festive mood. All ice is broken when the young of the family rush to the feet of elder ones in gesture of respect and affection.
It is a festival of masses. It is the celebration of every one. All, starting from child to old in the entire West Odisha, enthusiastically await it. All, starting from poor to rich in the whole West Odisha, earnestly look forward to it. Enemies become friends. The entire village becomes one. Earlier, there were three important aspects of Nuakhai namely, Adhia, Bebhar and Bhar. Our ancestors had recognized these practices to ensure that everyone in the traditional self-sufficient village community had the barest means required to observe the day in gratefulness to the divine mother for her generosity. It was seen as an affront to her dignity even if one needy or poor household was to be left out of the celebrations because of its indigent circumstance.11
Adhia was a provision of basic things to those families of the village whose livelihoods were dependent, not on agriculture, but on their professions as village priests, barbers, washer men, blacksmiths, potters and the like in the traditional jajmani system. In fact, they were the traditional sevakas or servitors in the village community who were easily the most vulnerable. Consequently, they were provided with adhia for their seva or service to the village community. When all agricultural families of the village made this occasion by extending their goodwill in this manner, obviously, every family in the community was taken care of and nobody was left to feel sad for want of means. In this sense, this justifies the jajmani system in a traditional village community. This strengthens the relationship between a jajman and a kamin.
It may be mentioned here that mother worship is prevalent far and wide through out West Odisha. For instance, Sambalpur is the land of Maa Samlei or Maa Samaleswari, Patna – Bolangir is the land of Maa Pataneswari, Sonepur is the land of Maa Sureswari, Bhawanipatna is the land of Maa Manikeswari and the like. Nuakhai is a way to pay homage to these mother goddesses who validate and rationalize the traditional village economy based on Caste System and unequal distribution of resources. This is a way to include and involve everyone in the traditional hierarchical social structure. On this principle, when people sink their differences to start a new life on the promise of a new tomorrow consequent upon eating of nua, then it confirms and corroborates the same age-old tradition of exploitation.
Of course, this practice of Adhia which reflects unequal exchange of goods and services is on its last legs. The second kind of courtesy and kindness is extended in the form of Bebhar which is sent to friends, equals and neighbours as a sign of goodwill, friendliness and reciprocity of sociability. Bhar, the third form of humanity is offered to the relatives living elsewhere after marriage or under other circumstances. Bebhar and Bhar except Adhia are real gesture of friendship and goodwill though these days; Bebhar and Bhar are also on the way out steadily.
Nuakhai has been observed more or less by the entire major tribes in central and eastern India, of course, with a minor difference in their nomenclature. In this context, instance can be given of Jeth Nawakhai among the Dudh Kharia and Pahari Kharia, Nawakhani amongst the Oraon and Birjia12, Jom Nawa among the Munda13 and Birjia, Janther or Baihar-Horo Nawai by the Santal14, Gondli Nawakhani by the Christian tribal people of Ranchi district, Nawa by the Birjia, Nawa-Jom by the Birhor15, Dhan Nawakhani by Korwa16 and so on. Russel and Hiralal17 have mentioned about the Nawakhani festival of the Paraja, a small tribe found in the Bastar region and Odisha.
Gautam18 has, in addition, mentioned about the new corn offering and eating rice of Santals in Santal Pargana which they term Jom Nawa. Das Gupta19 has noted the Nawa ceremony of the Birjia, a section of the Asura tribe of Chotanagpur. Bhaduri20 presents a short note on the celebration of this festival known as Kawajom among the Munda. Chatterjee21 has identified this festival of Tripura popularly as renowned as Mikatal where Mi stands for paddy and Katal refers to new. It is celebrated in the month of Aswina (September-October). In West Bengal and in the coastal districts of Odisha, this festival is named Nabanna by the caste-Hindus. Nonetheless, Nuakhai is not simply a term but a philosophy of life particularly among the tribal people in India. They celebrate Nuakhai whenever a new fruit, whether mango, kandul, or jahni comes to their society. The main objective of this festival is to get social sanction to a new crop, and to invoke the deities to bless the land with abundant crops.
Nuakhai can be studied through the concept of ‘spread’ given by Srinivas.22 The wide occurrence and popularity of the Nuakhai ritual among the caste-Hindus other than tribal people in Odisha, however, indicates that it is sanskritised. Considered as an agrarian matter, the Nuakhai has transcended caste, creed and religion with people rejoicing the festival with zeal and zest. The mode of its observance and the numerical dominance of the tribal people in the past in Odisha and west Odisha in particular maintain and support the argument that Nuakhai was a tribal festival and that the caste-Hindus gradually incorporated it in their fold when they came in wider contact with the aboriginals of west Odisha.
The fact of fixed time of observance determined astrologically by the Hindu priests also indicates strong influence of Hindu ideas in later stage to present it a Sanskritik color and image. It is commonly believed that the Hindus were originally celebrating the Nuakhai or Nuakhia festival. Over long period of interaction between the tribal and non-tribal peoples in Odisha, the tribal people have borrowed this cultural trait from the caste-Hindus.
Nevertheless, one point is clearly understandable that it is the tribal people other than the common Oriyas who are, at present, celebrating this festival. Secondly, as it is the case with all the aboriginal tribes, there was no fixed tithi for celebration until 1991. Thirdly, it appears that the word Nuakhai or Nuakhia has many similarities with the tribal names given for the same festival in and outside the state of Odisha, as discussed previously. Very likely, Sambalpuri / Koshali name Nuakhai has been borrowed from the tribal names of the similar ritual and given a regional content and flavors. Fourthly, during Nuakhai day, people celebrate their dinner at night with non-vegetarian food.
Eating of non-vegetarian food during a Hindu religious festival is generally not acceptable and permissible. In west Odisha, there is a saying that if a person does not eat meat on this day then he/she will be born as a Baka i.e. swan in the next life. Significantly, people irrespective of their caste background eat meat on this day. Even though, it is ethically undesirable on the part of a traditional Brahmin to have non-vegetarian food, he does not mind to accept it on this day. In these days, of course, meat eating has become a universal phenomenon among of all castes.23 Yet, basing on financial provisions various traditional dishes and cakes are prepared and offered to the presiding deity before it is consumed together by the family members.
Therefore, the occasion of Nuakhai is a renewal of mutual ties. It spreads love and affection, warmth and kindness all around. It binds the families in a spirit of solidarity. It unites the communities in strength of harmony. The sentimental aspect of the Nuakhai is most brilliantly reflected in the widely used nuakhai bhet ghat juhar. It is the festival of splendor and fun. It has a special significance for west Odishan people. In fact, it is a festival of thanksgiving for a good harvest. It is an agrarian festival and celebrated by taking rice from newly harvested crop after offering to the presiding deities and goddess Laxmi. Nua or new rice is offered to the deities as a mark of gratitude for a bumper harvest, good rain and a favorable farming weather.
The tribal people have easily absorbed the fundamental idea behind Nuakhai i.e. ritual ceremonies before eating new paddy, derived from a Hindu tradition because they have been also settled agriculturists. It appears that the tribal people started celebrating Nuakhai as usual in different names when they became settled agriculturists. This idea of ceremonial eating of new fruit has been applied in other areas also. For instance, in the Gundikhai festival held on the day of Phagun / Phalguna Purnima i.e. full-moon day of Phagun (February-March), the people of west Odisha first offer mango ritually to the deity and then takes it. In sum, efforts are made to tribalise the celebrations of a number of rituals and festivals, which might have been non-tribal in their origin and essence. On Nuakhai, caste-Hindus worship Goddess Laksmi along with their family deity. It is the household dimension of this festival.
An important characteristic and similarity of this ritual is the ‘mother worship’. Nuakhai is not confined to any particular ethnic group or community in west Odisha. It is a mass festival in terms of its collective nature and the sincere involvement of the tribal people and caste-Hindus in west Odisha, whereas outside this region, it is not a mass festival and it is confined to a place largely to the family and group only.24 Indeed, Nuakhai is a tradition that has cultivated noble virtues of tolerance, acceptance, sacrifice, trust, affection, understanding, and social responsibilities since a long time. It is gradually being celebrated in a big way in various parts of the country.
Housewives in general start preparing for the festival a week before by cleaning up the house and furniture, washing up utensils and clothes and collecting ingredients for special dishes to be served on the day of festivity. One finds hectic economic activity with peasants and artisans working overtime to earn some quick buck. It helps them spend something extra during Nuakhai. Besides whitewashing of houses, new clothes are worn on the festival day. Preparations pertaining to the celebration like cleaning of house and purchasing new clothes are taken up as usual. Poor clean their mud and thatched houses with cow dung. Rich do the arrangements as per their capacity.
Weavers churn out cheap handloom saris as part of tradition for these common people of west Odisha. With simple designs, the weavers roll out saris to make them affordable and ensure that these reach the users in time before Nuakhai. Keeping this in mind, the mahajans (moneylenders) are quick to lend money knowing the truthfully that the reimbursement is certain. The daily labourers stretch themselves for the festival as well. They are seen working until the dawn to earn some extra buck. With all households being cleaned for this annual festival, daily laborers are much in demand and have seized the opportunity to jack up their wages. Betras (bamboo basket makers), Luhuras (blacksmiths), Kumbhars (potters), and minor Badheis (carpenters) are also found working round the clock. While baskets made of bamboo are much in demand for use in the rituals and puja, the blacksmiths are found busy in making door latches, traditional vegetable cutters, and such other household implements. The carpenters are much in demand to take on repair work in households. While the men folk are seen toiling hard, women folk are found busy in making Khali (leaf plates) and Dana (cups).
Nevertheless, it is a festival, which brings friendship, equality, help, and cooperation and envisages the age-old tradition of this region. It helps to renew the social bonds. Thus, it strengthens the social solidarity. This indigenous culture ensures a separate identity for the natives of the whole region of west Odisha and binds them together.
Onslaught by audio video media, various cultures, tradition, modernization, and industrialization are unsuccessful to interfere and obstruct the rich tradition of Nuakhai in west Odisha. It is a symbol of friendship, love, and affection, which give foundation, and fosters to lead a peaceful life. People of west Odisha celebrate Nuakhai in much fashion and style, which off late has crossed international boundaries. In 1982, when the author was reading in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi the students of the region first organised to celebrate Nuakhai in the Jagannath Temple at Hauz Khas. In the present day,it is a cohesive and unified force not only among west Odias but also among Odias in Delhi when they come and unite on this occasion.
These days, not only in Delhi but also in other parts of India like Bangalore, Goa, Mumbai, Vishakapatnam and the like residents of west Odisha have been rejoicing Nuakhai for the past few decades. Nuakhai now being observed on the fifth day of the second fortnight of Bhadrava, was unquestionably given a new look of homogeneity and uniformity by the then Biju Pattnaik Government in 1991. On the other hand, it has lost its enormity and variousness with the passage of time. Of course, during the period of Garhjat kingship, the contours of this festival have also been reshaped and restructured by the ruling elites. At that time, it was a private function with a rather more political and public character. Looking ahead into the future, our new and young generations, groping to recognize rice and wheat apart, do not appear to be too much interested to transmit the tradition forward.
Particularly during past few decades, jungles and villages are vanished due to uncontrolled urbanization and industrialization in some parts of west Odisha. Agricultural lands are mercilessly converted into non-agricultural purposes like house sites and industries. It takes generations for chasis to prepare a piece of agriculture land. A chasi nurtures his land like a child. Today, however, it does not take even an hour to destroy the same piece of land. The way we are defiling land and defying nature is only indicative of how weak our connections with mother earth are. Uncertain about the ground beneath our feet, we are the linkage between a hoary past and frightening future. Now, a pertinent question arises whether Nuakhai will really remain as an agrarian custom or will just be celebrated as a symbol of our heritage. The admiration and respect for the land of our ancestors depends on us. Let this noble occasion of Nuakhai encourages and motivates people to give a new lease of life to their roots anew.
1 C. Pasayat, Rural-Urban Continuum and Folk Culture: An Examination of Persistence and Change in Sambalpur, Ph.D. Thesis, CSSS/SSS, JNU, New Delhi, 1991.
2.C. Pasayat, “The Nuakhai Tradition of West Odisha”, in The Eastern Anthropologist, Vol. 61, No. 2, April-June 2008, p.253.
3. Ibid., p. 253.
4. F. C. King, Bihar and Orissa District Gazetteers, Sambalpur, Patna, 1932, pp. 132-33; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti, Sambalpur District Gazetteer, Government Press, Cuttack, 1971, p. 149.
5. C. Pasayat, “Tribe – Caste Integration in Orissa: A Study of Nuakhai Festival”, Adivasi, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 26-29.
6. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 2008, p. 253.
7. C. Pasayat, Tribe, Caste and Folk Culture, Rawat Publications, Jaipur/New Delhi, 1998, pp. 124.
8.Ibid., p. 124.
9. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 2008, p. 255.
10. Ibid., p. 255.
11. Ibid., p. 257.
12. A. K. Singh, Tribal Festivals of Bihar: A Functional Analysis, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1982, p.24, 74.
13. Ibid., p. 74.
14. Ibid., p. 74.
15. Ibid., p. 75.
16. Ibid., p. 27.
17. R.V. Russel & Hiralal, “Oraon” in The Tribes and Castes of the Central Province of India, Vol. IV, Cosmo Publications, Delhi, 1975, p. 326.
18. M. K. Gautam, In Search of an Identity: A Case Study of the Santal of Northern India, Leiden, The Hague, 1977.
19. S. B. Das Gupta, Birjhia: A Section of the Asura of Chota Nagpur, K. P. Bagchi & Co., Calcutta, 1978.
20. M. B. Bhaduri, “Some Munda Religious Ceremonies and Their System of Reckoning Time”, Man in India, Vol.24, 1944, pp.149-50.
21. S. N. Chatterjee, Tripura: A Profile, Inter-India Publications, New Delhi, 1984, p. 48.
22. M. N. Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Asia Publishing House, Bombay umbai), 1952.
23. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 1993, p. 28.
24. C. Pasayat, op.cit., 1998, p. 128.
—-Postal Address Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat 152, Vijaya Vihar, Nuagaon Road PO – Sisupalgarh Bhubaneswar – 751 002 Odisha Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Chitrasen Pasayat was born in Dalai Para of Sambalpur town. He is known for his research on history and culture of western Orissa. He has published 17 books in English and Oriya language; published about 50 Research Papers in various National and International Journals namely ‘Man In India’, ‘The Eastern Anthropologist’, ‘Journal of Social Research’, ‘Man and Development’, ‘Man and Life’, ‘Orissa Historical Research Journal’, ‘Orissa Review’, ‘Adivasi’, etc.
Dr. Pasayat is associated with many Academic Associations. He has also Membership in various Professional Organisations. He is the Life Member of the following bodies: (1) Indian Sociological Society, New Delhi; (2) Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, Lucknow; (3) Institute of Applied Anthropology and Social Research, Kolkata; (4) Orissa Economic Association; (5) The Institute of Oriya Studies, Cuttack; (6) Indian Folklore Association; (7) Indian Academy of Social Sciences, Allahabad; (8) Orissa History Congress.
He is still active in research and writing. Following are some of his books: