My recent discovery of a place called Jajpur in Odisha, caused a lot of excitement mainly due to the revelations of the vast potential of its past.
As mentioned in my previous post on Jajpur, Odisha, the district administration of Jajpur has initiated the HACT Jajpur project which is working towards safeguarding and promoting the Heritage, Art, Culture and Tourism of this district.
Jajpur district is a gold mine of interesting attractions for the tourist. It is home to a multitude of ancient temples, Buddhist archaeological sites, villages teeming with local arts and crafts like silk weaving, grass weaving, terracotta and stone sculpting, musicians who keep traditional music and instruments from going extinct and other such enticements, especially for those interested in tourism involving heritage, arts and crafts … or as I like to call it, HACT’ual tourism 😉
A 2 part series featuring my experiences at Jajpur, Odisha, covering the overview of the place and the specific list of things to do here.
Apart from the mainstream arts and crafts, even the regular village homes are given an artistic touch with the façade adorned with local paintings called Saura tribal art which is similar to the geometric Warli art of Maharashtra. The creative work brings alive even the smallest and most humble of homes.
But I should stop the generic talk now and actually take you to a few of the popular places that I visited 😊
So let us quickly go on a tour of the Biraja Temple, Barahanatha Temple, Dasaswamedha ghat and Jagannath Temple, after which we can wander in fascination in the vast Buddhist ruins of Udayagiri and Ratnagiri. Lalithgiri also forms a part of this trail which is known as the Diamond Triangle but it falls in the neighboring district of Cuttack and hence was outside the purview of this particular Jajpur specific tour. But you need not limit yourself when you visit, so do make sure to complete the triad on your tour.
After this, if you are still thirsting for more (as I am sure you will be), we will make our way into the villages of Gopalpur and Antia and interact with the craftspeople who are masters of a variety of skills, right from their enthralling traditional music and folk instruments, to exhibiting their expertise in weaving Tussar silk fabrics and golden grass products. The terracotta artisans and stone sculptors of Sukuapada village, were unfortunately missed due to a lack of time but hopefully I will be able to bring their stories to you another day.
In case I have alarmed you with such a hectic itinerary, fret not, for this is an exercise that can be gently performed over 3 days or even more.
In order to give you an idea of a comfortable schedule, the temple circuit can be accomplished in one morning, the archaeological sites on the next morning and the village tours on the third day.
Of course, all the places are fascinating and some of them are spread across several acres, so how much time you wish to spend at each one, will be up to you.
Here is a quick video recap before you proceed to read the details.
The Temple circuit –
Ma Biraja Temple –
This is Jajpur’s most important pilgrimage site. The Ma Biraja temple is dedicated to goddess Biraja, also called Girija. The goddess is an avatar of Durga or Shakti as she is also known as. One can actually fill a book with details of this place but I will be able to share mere snippets here because there are other places to visit too, remember? However, I am sure that you will visit the place yourself and then you can explore it to your heart’s content but for now, let us be content with a glimpse.
This temple is famed for being not just one of the 51 Shakti peetas but also among the 18 more exclusive ones called Ashtadasha Shakti Peetas.
So what is a Shakti peeta? Legend has it that when Sati or Shakti immolated herself, Shiva was so distraught that he wandered around with the body in his hands. Vishnu then used the Sudarshan chakra which sliced the body into 51 parts which then fell to earth, scattered across various sites, which came to be known as Shakti peeta.
The 18 Shakti peetas are those where the most important body parts are said to have fallen. The Ma Biraja temple marks the spot where the navel of the goddess lies.
Built in the 13th century, the temple consists of the main part which is built in Kalinga style architecture. The temple also has many smaller shrines in the premises and a number of valuable stone carvings too.
The various components of this place also extend around the main walls, including a large tank nearby, known as Bindusagara.
There are 4 gates that lead into the main temple area and one has to leave their footwear outside before entering the precincts.
At one of the side gates where I entered, there are 2 rooms on either side which contain rows upon rows of Shivalingas which have been unearthed over time, from various locations in the region.
Devotees also come to Ma Biraja to pray for fulfillment of their wishes which she is said to grant.
A red ribbon which is said to be a part of the goddess’s Chunni is attached to a red bangle and people buy this from the pujaris (priests) to use them in order to indicate their wishes. There is a Bakul tree in the courtyard where people loop these ribbons with the bangle and tie them to the branches.
Once the wishes are fulfilled, they are supposed to return to this place, untie the ribbon and drop it in the nearby holy River Baitrani. The priests here are friendly and happy to answer questions and explain the rituals to tourists and devotees alike.
This temple also has the distinction of being the only Shakti Peet where Pind daan can be performed. Pind daan refers to prayers and rituals offered to one’s ancestors.
The temple has a well called Nabhi Gaya which is said to never get filled, regardless of how much offering is deposited into it.
Tourist information – There are washroom facilities outside the temple but I did not check to see whether they were passable or not. There are also many small shops and other facilities outside.
Barahanatha Temple –
Around 5 km away from the Ma Biraja temple, lies another important one called the Barahanatha/Varahanatha Temple. It also goes by the name of Yajna Varaha Temple because it is dedicated to the Varaha or Boar avatar of Vishnu.
This temple lies on the eastern bank of the holy river Baitrani.
This 15th century complex is built in Kalinga style architecture like most of Odisha’s ancient temples. And like many major temples, this too has a few more smaller shrines in the premises.
In the same compound there is also another colorful temple dedicated to the Sun god, called the Shree Shree Suryanarayana Nabagraha mandira.
Tourist information – The temple is at a more remote location compared to the Ma Biraja and there are no shops or any other facilities in the immediate vicinity. However, I did see a public washroom in the distance.
We did spy a lot of monkeys too, so be careful of your belongings.
Dasaswamedha ghat –
On the opposite bank of the river Baitrani, lies the Dasaswamedha ghat. This is said to be the second most important cremation ghat in India, after its namesake in Varanasi.
There is a proper road that descends down towards the river bank and this is used to access the ghat. The road is wide enough for regular 4 wheelers to use but large vehicles like buses etc will have to park at the head of the road and the rest of the journey of a few hundred meters will have to be on foot.
Jagannath Temple –
One associates Odisha with the world famous Jagannath Temple in Puri , Odisha, India. However, there is also a Jagannath Temple located in Jajpur built which was by King Anangabhimadeva of the Ganga dynasty.
The bright white imposing structure stands to the left of the sloping road, en route the Dasaswamedha ghat.
The walled complex is quite large and courtyard contains the main temple and smaller shrines. The architecture of the temple is typical again of the Kalinga style.
There is a Laxmi temple too, at the entrance of the Jagannath temple.
The Diamond Triangle – Buddhist archaeological sites
Jajpur is a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist archaeological sites. The Diamond triangle refers to the trio of hillocks namely Udayagiri, Ratnagiri and Lalithgiri, where giri refers to Hill. Vast tracts of land have yielded thousands of priceless sculptures, monasteries, stupas and other such remains. As mentioned earlier, since Lalithgiri falls in the Cuttack district, my tour did not include it. However, I did visit the first 2.
The sheer beauty and Stupa’ndous number of excavated items are sure to Stupa’fy any visitor to these places (sorry but that begged for some word play in an otherwise serious post 😎)
Translating to the sunrise hill, Udayagiri lies near the river Virupa which is a tributary of the Mahanadi. This hill is one of the important and the largest Buddhist sites in Jajpur.
With an expansive view of the mountains in the background and the earthy and ancient statues, stupas and other Buddhist remains, this place is a visual treat for not just lovers of history and heritage but also for regular tourists who come there to enjoy the ambience.
The large gates lead to a wide gravel path and one is greeted by a statue of Avalokiteshvara (a manifestation of Buddha) which stands to the right of the path.
The trail then leads to a central yard with a huge banyan tree, evocative of the one under which Buddha was enlightened.
There is a small Jagannath temple to the left which adjoins a step well of sorts.
Excavated sculptures stand sentinel on the opposite side of the yard, behind which lie the administrative buildings.
The main ruins have to be accessed by paths that climb further ahead on the hill. The place is divided into 2 parts, Udayagiri 1 and Udayagiri 2 as per the excavation sequence.
The excavations yielded the remains of what was known as Madhavapura Mahavihara, which was of a large complex housing a stupa and monastery.
Several more stupas, monasteries, sculptures of Buddha and other smaller sculptures have been brought forth out of the earth and several hundreds are said to await unearthing.
Currently the entry to Udayagiri does not require a ticket.
Ratna means gem and this hill truly has brought forth gems from its land, in the form of the Buddhist ruins and monuments and other related remains that are studded across it.
A fleet of stone stairs have to be conquered before getting to the first exhibit, which is a fenced array of votive stupas. Votive stupas are those that were offered in fulfilment of vows.
Further ahead lies the main monastery and several more stupas. The place is very large and it could take a few hours to tour it in detail.
Ratnagiri also has a museum where one can view the progress of excavation over the years via the photographs there. However the museum is closed on Fridays and that unfortunately coincided with my visit.
Entry to Ratnagiri requires a ticket.
This is said to be one of the earliest Buddhist sites in this region and excavations that took place in the late 1980’s have yielded a Mahastupa (a very large stupa) from which Buddha’s relics in the form of bones, have been discovered in caskets.
I have no photographs of this place since I did not visit it but I will depend on you to do the needful when you go 😊
Arts and crafts –
The serene and laid back exteriors of the villages of Gopalpur and Antia, belie the vibrance of the skills that they hold within. The melodious strains of ancient musical instruments, the shimmering filaments of exquisite Tussar silk and the glimmer of the special golden grass, await tourists and connoisseurs of artisanship and they are guaranteed to be dazzled by these age old arts and crafts which are being nurtured and sustained by the administration through several means, like rural management schemes and self help groups.
My first stop was at Gopalpur where I was going to witness musical performances and also get a glimpse of the Tussar silk weaving processes.
At the entrance to the village, my group was accorded a traditional welcome by the village ladies, with a high pitched sound made while rapidly moving the tongue from side to side in the mouth. Colloquially termed Hulahuli (which gives you an idea of what it sounds like), this loud and enthusiastic noise was then followed by showering us with flower petals, before we were led into the hall where the performers awaited.
Folk Music –
The melodious strains of the tiny Kendara fill the air. The accompanying singer is lost in his music as his face contorts in complete concentration, oblivious of his equally enraptured audience.
The Kendara is made from coconut shell, bamboo and monitor lizard skin. It is a single stringed instrument which was used in olden times by people who went from house to house singing devotional songs and seeking alms in return.
Alek Das, our elderly singer for the program, has been playing the Kendara since his childhood and says that currently he is the only person in the village who knows to handle this instrument. If efforts are not made to sustain this expertise by training the younger generation, this will be another skill which will die out.
After the rendition of his devotional song, Das ji is accompanied by another musician on the Khanjari, as they give the audience another musical performance. The Khanjari is a mini drum like circular instrument. This is a percussion instrument with a round band usually made of jackfruit wood, with a taut monitor lizard skin surface on one side and open on the other.
Tussar silk weaving –
The clickety clack of the looms attract my group of Instagrammers like moths to a flame. I already foresee stories after stories featuring the rhythmic motion and accompanying sounds 😉 I too move forward to capture my share of action, as we troop from room to room and loom to loom, gazing in fascination at the dexterous movements of the nimble fingers of the artisans as they weave the lustrous silken threads into shimmering silk fabric. Focusing entirely on the threads before them, they seem not to heed our presence until some gentle coaxing and pleading gets a couple of them to give us a shy smile or a quick glance which our equally excited cameras instantly capture.
Gopalpur is home to 1700 families of silk weavers who have been organized into Self Help Groups or managed by ORMAS which is the Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society, a body that manages a set of activities related to marketing rural products in Odisha.
Silk is obtained from silk worms which feed on the leaves of certain plants and form cocoons. The cocoons when ready, are unravelled into silk fibre which is then woven into fabric. There are various species or ecoraces (breeds) of silk worms.
The Tussar silk is got from the Antheraea mylitta moth which is also called the Tasar moth. The moth from this region of Odisha, breeds in a place called Sukinda, 35 km from Gopalpur and hence it is also called the Sukinda ecorace of cocoons.
These silk worms feed on the leaves of the Arjun and Asan trees. This is a wild ecorace and hence has been under the threat of extinction. However, under the Corporate Social Service Responsibility (CSR) of the Tata Steel Foundation, efforts are on to sustain this breed with the help of various methods, including creating more cocoon production centers and increasing nursery facilities for the Arjun and Asan plants.
The Tussar silk threads are dyed and woven into fabric which is then used to produce a variety of products with the saree of course, heading the list.
Golden grass weaving –
Deft fingers manipulate long strands of tawny hay. The long needles pop in and out, and the pliant fibres are adroitly entwined into various forms. I am now at the village of Antia in Jajpur and it is delightful to watch the women weavers engrossed in creating items that have utilitarian as well as aesthetic appeal. The secretary of the 6 year old Adishakti Self Help Group, Sri Bipin Kumar Rao shares a few details with us about this raw material and process.
The Golden grass is a reed that grows wild in this region. This hardy grass develops a lustre after harvesting and drying, which bestows it with the adjective Golden.
The craft is decades old and is said to have begun in 1952 and is yet another way for the local people to ‘Make hay while the sun shines’, so to speak.
The Kaincha, as it is referred to locally, grows abundantly in the surrounding regions and hence ensures an easy availability of the raw material.
Most of the young girls and women from 1000 families out of the 1300 households of the Antia village, are engaged in this profession, thus empowering them and ensuring a sustainable means of income for them.
Speaking of sustainable, the products made from this grass also have the advantage of being eco friendly since the grass easily replaces plastic in items like small containers, trays, hats, mats, baskets and other decorative pieces.
The products are said to be washable and easy to maintain and hence are long lasting.
Odisha is a state with an event driven culture. So also, the Jajpur District Administration conducts cultural and other such exhibitions, shows and fairs frequently through the year.
One such event was the Jajpur International Crafts Summit which took place on Jan 20th and 21st, 2023.
The other event this year was the annual Jajpur Mahotsav, which I had the pleasure of attending on one of the 5 days of its duration.
Please Note –
This trip was in collaboration with the Jajpur District Administration and I thank them for the hospitality. My narration is based on the inputs I received from various sources as well as my personal experiences.
Feb 8th – 10th, 2023