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Kalahandi: Hidden in Plain Sight

Kalahandi has always been one of the most backward parts of the country. We have known this. Everyone knows this. The development index of this district is very low, with constant rumours of famine related deaths. But hidden behind all this tragedy is a history of defiance. Of rebellion against nature.

In this post we will discuss the history and culture of this place we left behind in our pursuit of progress. We will examine its environment, its people, its traditions and its contributions to Odisha. So let us begin.

Historical Origins

There have been many archaeological finds in Kalahandi that date to ancient times, many of them dating to stone age civilizations. The presence of a cemetery indicates that there used to be a civilization in those times.

In more recent finds, the Archaeological Society of India has also unearthed remains in Asurgarh dating to the Mauryan period (2300 years ago). It is postulated that Kalahandi and Koraput were the first regions in South Asia where paddy cultivation was started. In ancient times, this region was called Mahakantara (Great Forest)and also Karuna Mandala (Treasure of Precious Stones) for its extensive forests and mining of precious stones like corundum, garnet, sapphire etc.

This region remained unconquered during Ashoka’s Kalinga War and was the site of many battles during the medieval period. However the Ganga kings did manage to conquer Kalahandi. Thus, the Marathas of Nagpur ruled over this region.

Under British rule, Kalahandi was a princely state and joined the Union of India in 1948. However, there were many anti-union agitations in the area as the people believed that their grievances would not be heard in comparison to coastal districts.

In a way, they were correct. Kalahandi has been overlooked post-independence by almost everyone. This is this reason why even 60 years after India got Independence, Kalahandi remains a backward region.

Places to Visit

Due to its rich history, Kalahandi is full of places that can be considered tourist spots. However, the low development status of the district has so far made it difficult for people to appreciate the beauty and the weight of history behind the area.

Bhawanipatna (Wikimedia)
Dokarichanchara (Wikimedia)

If you want to witness the natural beauty of this region, there are many waterfalls in the district. Dokarichanchara near the Kalahandi-Nabarangpur border is a picnic spot with two waterfalls and a prehistoric cave by the name of Gudahandi. If you are interested in some place close to Bhawanipatna, there are the Phurlijharan Falls about 15 km out of the city. Also close to Bhawanipatna are the Rabandarh Falls, which lies about 12 km away.

On the other hand, if you are interested in monuments and temples, you have the ASI excavation site at the fort of Asurgarh. There is also a fort at Junagarh, the old capital of Kalahandi which has many temples inside it.

For religious tourists, Belkhandi would be of interest. Located 67 km from Bhawanipatna, this town sits on the confluence of the Tel and Uttel river and houses many temples dedicated to the Shakti cult. Plus, it also has many other 12th century monuments that can be visited as well.

The conservationists would appreciate the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary. Situated about 15 km from Bhawanipatna, this 175 sq km protected region serves as a home of many endangered species like leopards, tigers, sambar, nilgai, barking deer, mouse deer, a wide variety of birds like green munia, Great Eared-nightjar and various reptiles.

The People

This region has a substantial tribal population who speak a distinct dialect of Odia called Kalahandia. In fact, a number of publications run two different editions of their regular printing, one in the standard Odia form, and the other in Kalahandi Odia form.

Overall though, as the region sits on the border of Western and Southern Odisha, its culture also resembles that of those regions. Sadly the influence of coastal Odisha is eroding and supplanting the regional traditions and is a subject of much debate.

Art and Crafts

Since Kalahandi has been known for its precious stones, jewellery is an important artform here. Habasipur specializes in its own pattern of handloom sarees. There is also Khaipadar, where export quality woodwork is made.

Music and Dance

As a backward region, Kalahandi does not have many nationally recognized dance or music forms. Except for one – Ghumura. Many classify it as a folk dance due to the tribal apparel worn by the dancers but the dance form itself has many similarities to classical Indian dances. In fact, Ghumura is so famous that it has represented the region in international events.

In terms of songs nd music, it is primarily folk music, with some forms similar to those found in adjoining regions and some forms which are endemic to the region.


The local festivals to watch for are mainly

  • Chatar Jatra in Bhawanipatna. It is celebrated on Vijayadashmi for Maa Manikeswari, the presiding deity of the King of Kalahandi.
  • Khandabasa at the temple of Maa Lankeshari in Junagarh.
  • Nuakhai. It is mostly a harvest festival celebrated in Western Odisha. Even tribals who have converted to other religions from Hinduism observe it.
  • Poda-Unas is a festival for children. When the red coloured flowers of some trees bloom, the guardians of children make wooden playing carts for them adorned with toys and poda-phool so that they can play for the whole day.
Chatar Jatra
Chatar Jatra (Wikimedia)

Besides that, the influx of immigrants have brought with them the classical Indian festivals to the region like Durga Puja, Diwali and Ratha Jatra.

Current Conditions

There is no denying that Klahandi is a backward region. The name Kalahandi Syndrome still brings to mind emaciated people who die of hunger and thirst. The famines of the 1980s are still in people’s psyches and sadly, not much has been done to alleviate these problems.

There are still infrastructure projects stuck in limbo due to funding concerns. The irrigation project connected to the Indravati dam still has not been implemented, even as farmers have repeatedly demanded for its completion. Aside from that, the literacy rate of the district according to the last census is 59%.

Most of the native population of the district is involved in migrant manual labour outside the state. The reason for this is the low rate of industrial development. There are pending proposals in the Odisha Government for opening up a railway factory but there has not been much progress in all these years.


Overall, this is a region with a lot of potential, but it has been neglected to hell and back. It is our sincere hope that the days of marginalization of this magnificient region is a thing of the past but it all depends on the people. If they wish to, they can surely pressure their elected representatives to pay attention to their plight and help them out of tis quagmire.

I hope you found this post useful and informative. Stay safe and practice social distancing.

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