Dance, divinity and devotion in Orissa

Dance in Orissa is not merely an art form; it has always been a conduit for connecting with the divine since its inception. The carvings in the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves, dating back to the 2nd century BCE, vividly illustrate the historical intertwining of dance with religious practices. Throughout history, the form of divinity associated with dance in Orissa evolved with the rise and fall of various dynasties. Hence, it is imperative to delve into the rich history of Orissan temples and the contemporary prevalent cults, to understand the profound bond between religious practices and dance.

Odisha has provided opportunities since ancient times for the growth and progress of various religious cults like; Buddhism, Jainism, Saivism, Saktism, and Vaisnavism along with their amalgamations. From the Kharavela dynasty to the Bhaumakaras, every ruler not only patronized dance but also left behind a legacy of their support in the form of inscriptions and architecture which was embedded in their religious inclinations

 After Ashoka, the most prominent dynasty was Kharvelas which ruled in the 2nd century BC. The above-mentioned Khandagiri and Udyagiri caves were built by Kharvelas to patronize Jain ascetics. Named after lord Ganesha, Ganesha Gumpha of Udyagiri includes carvings that feature both deities and dancers. The interplay between divine and human figures in dance scenes underscores the spiritual significance of dance in ancient Orissan culture.

 The next came the oldest surviving Shiva temple Parashurameshvara, in Bhubaneshwar that illustrates the dance of Shiva as ardhanareshwar. Here other carvings also depict dancers in acrobatic movement; which is an integral part of Gotipua tradition; a folk-dance form that remains an integral part of Jagannath Yatra to date. Parashurameshvara temple was constructed in the 7th century by the Sailodbhava dynasty who were ardent believers of lord Shiva, Interestingly, it also contains sculpted images of Saptamatrikas; the Shakta deities namely, Chamunda, Varahi, Indrani, Vaishnavi, Kaumari, Shivani and Brahmi, which are otherwise normally part of Shakta temples.

The architectural marvels of the 64 Yogini temples in Hirapur and Jharial, built during the Bhaumakara reign in the 8th to 10th centuries, further highlight the confluence of Shakta, Buddhist, and Shaiva traditions. The depiction of deities in dancing postures, such as the sensual Tribhanga pose, illustrates the fusion of dance and devotion. This pose, a basic posture in Odissi dance, underscores the influence of Gotipua dance and the deep roots of devotional dance forms in Orissan culture.

The fusion of dance and devotion in Orissa reached new heights during the Kesari dynasty with the initiation of dedicating dancing girls to temple service. This practice evolved into the Devadasi tradition which later became an integral part of worship ritual in Jagannath temple. Devdasi tradition exemplifies the enduring power of dance as a form of devotion. This tradition exemplifies the enduring power of dance as a form of devotion which became the base philosophy of Classical dance Odissi.

 The medieval period saw a transformation in Orissa’s cultural and spiritual landscape with the arrival of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who accelerated the Bhakti movement. His philosophy of Krishna as the sole “male energy” and all devotees as his consorts fostered a profound devotional fervor. Gotipua dance is the classic example of this philosophy where boys dress up as girls to revere Lord Jagannatha. The Jagannath Temple in Puri, one of the four major pilgrimage sites in India, stands as a testament to the enduring bhakti tradition.

 Today,  classical and folk dances of  Orissa, such as Odissi, Gotipua, and Medha Nacha, continue to captivate audiences worldwide. Deeply rooted in devotional themes, these dance forms showcase the timeless beauty of Orissan culture, reflecting its rich history of spiritual and artistic expression. The enduring legacy of dance and devotion in Orissa is a powerful reminder of the region’s profound connection between the flourishing religious cults and culture patronaged by magnanimous dynasties. Hence the amalgamation of dance, devotion, and divinity is a tradition that continues to inspire and elevate both practitioners and audiences alike.


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