Sea power has had a major influence on Odishan history, and water continues to dominate the lives of almost everyone who lives here. The Bay of Bengal licks the state’s coastline for 482 km, nearly all of Odisha’s urban residents live within rock-throwing distance of the Mahanadi River Delta, and most of its rural population toils in half-submerged rice paddies. Right after dawn, fishing fleets set out from the beach at Puri in their narrow wooden boats; watching as hundreads of these small crafts fight the pounding surf calls up images of the power that the Kaligas and other local dynasties once wielded over the high seas, sending colonists as far as Java. In the backcountry, thick forest cover has allowed adivasis (tribal people) to survive relatively undisturbed, although they suffer from a mix of poverty, prejudice and disenfranchisement, and as urban India races ahead, they are likely to be left farther behind.
Although unequivocally a part of modern India, Odishans have defended their independence for thousands of years. The Kalingas held out against the expanding Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC, capitulating only after a battle so sanguinous that it convinced the emperor Ashoka to renounce violence and convert to Buddhism. Odisha also withstood Muslim rule until 1568, almost 400 years after surrounding regions had been conquered. Odisha’s contained cultural continuity led to the development of the distinctive artistic forms for which it is hailed, including its style of Hindu temple architecture, which is one of India’s finest, and the Odissi form of dance.
Today Odisa is one of India’s most uniformly Hindu states, with over 95% professing the religion and worshipping first and foremost Lord Jagannath, a local version of Krishna. It is also one of India’s poorest, prone to cyclones and heavy monsson that wreak havoc on crops. Poverty, though , is difficult to detect amid the fertile greens that color the countryside, the many temples in Bhubaneswar and Konark and the mighty Jagannath Temple in Puri, sight of the Rath Yatra festival.