by Ajit Kumar Sahoo

The Paiks and Identity formation in colonial and post-colonial Odisha

Generally, Identity is understood as an object of construction with specific socio-political or cultural relevance. Eric Hobsbawm has stated that most traditions, which appear or claim to be old, are often quite recent in origin and sometimes even invented. This paper is an attempt to understand how the idea of great martial race- the Paik (literally: ‘foot soldiers’) tradition- did invoked by Odia nationalists and intelligentsia for the purpose of creating regional consciousness during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They traced back the idea of nationalism from the Paik rebellion of 1817 and projected this rebellion as first great rebellion in India against colonial power. Memories and histories of the Paiks and the heroes of the 1817 rebellion such as Jai Rajaguru, and Buxi Jagabandhu were constructed, invented and presented through various kinds of agencies such as stories, poetry, drama, and museum with certain socio-political motives. The transformation of the Paik as only a military category into a tool of Odia nationalism is the main focus of this paper. I would like to analyse the way in which the martial tradition has been designed and maneuvered within a specific situation and context in both pre-independent and post-independent era.


Like every person, every society has its past, which it retrieves, reconstructs, interprets, and represents differently at different times. This martial identity could be seen as a product of Odia nationalists infusing the idea of self-hood in the mind of Odia people. In pre-independent period it was a very common feature in most of the regions in India where “regional nationalists” used their respective cultural aspects of the region to negotiate with the colonial government on the issue of regional political identity.  It is my contention that no doubt were both the Odia language and Lord Jagannath the prime factors for the growth of Odia identity, but so many other icons and traditions such as Yayati Kesari, Dharmapad tradition, Baji Rout, Paik tradition and Surendra Sai were invented, reinvented and popularized during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and even post-independent period for the sake of the creation of Odia identity. It is true that these cultural movements in different regions are mostly apolitical or motivated by politics.

The “Paiks’ (literally: ‘foot soldiers’) who evolved during the sixteenth century A.D. were recruited from a wide variety of social groups ranging from landed magnates (Khandayat) and peasants (Chasa, Pana, Bauri) to tribes (Kandara, Khondh, Bhuyan, Sabara), and even Muslims. They received hereditary rent-free land in lieu of salaries as well as titles (Dalbehera, Gadanayaka, Khandwala) from the rajah (king) for martial services rendered in battle. During the early years of British administration since 1803 when it captured Odisha, feelings of discontent developed among the people due to their worsening condition and due to the introduction of various administrative policies by the colonial government. But, the main and foremost reason for the discontentment of the Paiks was the resumption of their rent-free jagir lands, which they had enjoyed for more than three centuries, irrespective of any change in rulers – Mughals, Afghans, and Marathas. As a result, the Paiks revolted against the British in 1817 under the leadership of Buxi Jagabandhu, the commander-in-chief of the king of Khurda. Although the rebellion was crushed by the British, it was remembered as a very important event by the people of Odisha.

British Colonial Perceptions of the Odias

Mostly, the colonial officials relied on Bengalis to study the geography, history, people, society and culture of Orissa who had been associated with the Europeans and especially British since seventeenth century and more over the British had no knowledge of Odia language. The colonial state faced a stiff resistance in the form of Paik rebellion just after its acquisition of Orissa in 1817. Hence, in most of the early colonial writings, Orissa and its people were projected in very degrading manner. Few examples can be taken in this regard. In 1818, Walter Ewer wrote, “The state of intellectual acquirement amongst the Ooriahs (Odia) is far below that of any other people of India. Their ignorance and stupidity are indeed almost proverbial, and they don’t hesitate to acknowledge their own inferiority in intellect and comprehension to their more highly gifted neighbours.” According to Robert Ker, another British official, “The people as sunk in the most object state of human degradation and intellectual and corporeal imbecility. They are the most rude and ignorant of all the races in India subject to British dominion.” In 1872, W.W. Hunter, a colonial official wrote ‘Orissa’ in two volumes.  Prior to Hunter, an article titled, “An Account (Geographical, Statistical and Historical) of Orissa proper or Cuttack” by Andrew Stirling was published in Asiatic Researches (1822s) which throws some lights on historical aspects of Orissa but it missed to give a clear picture of pre-colonial Orissa. Another British officer W.W. Hunter his book Orissa (1872) projected Odisha and its people in a very derogatory way. For him, “To the world’s call-roll of heroes it will add not one name. The people of whom it treats have fought no great battle for human liberty, nor have they succeeded even in the more primary task of subduing the forces of nature to the control of man.”Similar perceptions were constantly reflected in the writings of colonial officials.

Defining Odia Masculinity

To counter such colonial stereotype of the people of Odisha as effeminate, weak and uncivilized Odia intellectuals tried to project themselves as one of the strong and masculine races of human civilization. They realized the need of a history with long and glorious tradition for the people of Odia speaking region. This popular discourse emerged in the late part of nineteenth century. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, print technology and modern education shifted Odia society into a different and upward direction, and also played a major role in the formation of an educated middle class. This new emerging educated intelligentsia cum nationalist tried to inject the feeling that the people of Odisha had been a powerful race since time immemorial, by presenting a long connected history. The great writers of Odisha attempted to give a long lasting and glorious history of Odisha. Contemporary vernacular newspapers such as Utkal Dipika, Sambalpur Hiteisini, Balasore Sambadabahika and Asha, and journals viz., Utkal Prabha, and Uktal Sahitya continuously highlighted these aspects. Hence, the Odia historians justified their existence, contribution, and heroic activities in the past through their writings. For example, Jagabandhu Singh traced Paiks as far back in time as the Kalinga war (261 BCE), where they fought bravely against Asoka’s army. In the same vein, the Paik rebellion of 1817 was interpreted as the first war of independence. In some cases, they exaggerated facts to glorify the history of Odisha. So many legends and oral traditions became popular during that period. For an example, according to the local tradition of the Khurdha region, “[Jagabandhu] was a man of fine physique and of great bodily strength. In an old temple at Khurda there still exists a stone 10 x 5 x 2 ½ feet, which he is said to have partially raised from the ground.” This type of legends still exists in Khurda and its periphery regions.

Here, I have analysed the works of some contemporary Odia intellectuals to show how they invented the idea of Odia consciousness through the exercise of glorification and construction of history. The first of this kind was Kachi-Kaveri,a play written in 1880 by Ramsashankar Ray, who is regarded as the father of modern Odia drama. The plot of this play is the battle between the Suryavamsi king Purushottamadeva and the Kanchi king Saulava Narasimha of southern India. Interestingly, Ray’s play had come out when there was strong reaction against British policy towards the Jagannath temple and especially Gajapati Divyasinghadeva’s imprisonment for life in 1878 on a murder charge. Ray also portrayed the bravery and sacrifice of Odia Paiks in war.The presentation of power, valour, and heroism of Odia Paiks inspired and motivated the people to revive their past glory. Phakirmohan Senapati, known as the father of modern Odia literature, depicted the glorious military tradition –brave, daring, heroic Odia – to construct the history of Odia in Lachhama (1901) one of his novels. Though the subject of this novel deals with the Maratha invasion of Odisha, Senapati has mixed historical facts with the idea of glorious fiction. Senapati argued that though Odisha lost its independence in 1568, the martial spirit of Odias had never vanished. This novel demonstrates the conflict between Alivardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, and the Maratha power led by Bhaskar Pandit. It shows the courage and bravery of the Paiks and their leader Mandhata Samantaray, an Odia chieftain, as an ally of Alivardi Khan against the Marathas. He was well aware of the defeat of Odia Paiks at the hands of Afghans, Mughals, Marathas, and British in 1803 A.D. Senapati, himself a Khandayat by birth, conceived of the heroic deeds of his ancestors. Through the character of Mandhata, Senapati revived the idea of heroism among the Odia Kshatriya, which had declined due to the repeated invasion of outsiders. Godavarish Mishra was another noted Odia writer-cum-nationalist, who glorified Odia jati with his famous novel Atharasah Satara in which he highlighted the heroism of the Paik rebellion and the sacrifices of its hero Buki Jagabandhu and the Paiks against British rule. According to Godavarish, though the British suppressed the Paiks in 1817, they could not kill their quest for freedom forever. He was optimistic that the Odia would show the same zeal and spirit again against foreign rule for the freedom of the motherland. Kuntala Kumari Sabat, another Odia writer-cum-nationalist, tried to revive the martial tradition of Orissa. Her main motive was to inject the idea of self-confidence and self-belief in the mind of the people of Orissa as she felt that the Odias had lost their self-confidence. The Odia youths should enroll in the army like the Sikh, Rajput, Maratha, Gurkha, and identify themselves as the bravest soldiers in front of the world. She said there should be gyms and physical training centers to train the Odia youths. She even argues that both Rajputs and Odia Khandaits belonged to the same ancestor. The tradition of glorifying the Paiks continued with the Odia writers viz., Godavarish Mohapatra (Paikara Yudhayatra) Aswini Kumar Ghosh (Govinda Vidyadhar, Keasari Ganga, and Paika Pua), Bhikari Charan Patnaik (Raja Purusottamdeva and Katak Vijay) and many others.

During the national movement, the Odia nationalists invoked the martial glory by establishing various volunteer organizations with the objective of preserving peace and order and protest against colonial government. One such organization was the Lal Paik Dal formed in Balasore during the Civil Disobedience Movement. The main idea of inserting the term “Paik” was mooted by Surendranath Das, and endorsed by Gopabandhu Choudhury to popularize the zeal for past heroism among the people of Orissa. The Lal Paiks were to offer public services like extinguishing fire, saving people from drowning, and helping people during epidemics. Another important transition occurred due to the glorification of Paik tradition, i.e. the quest for martial identity led to caste mobilization in the last part of colonial Orissa. Many caste people tried to recognize themselves as Khandaits which was clearly visible in colonial census operation. Even Bhuyians who were the part of Paik system during pre-colonial period claimed for Khandayat status.For example, in Cuttack district the number of Khandaits and Chasas in 1901 in Cuttack district was 422,573 and 236,466 whereas in the 1931 Census report, the figures were 548,664 Khandaits and 153,663 Chasas. Akio Tanabe, who has done extensive fieldwork in the Khurda region in 1992, suggests that there was virtually nobody who willing claimed oneself to be a Chasa in this region. All agricultural caste people claimed to be either Khandayats or Paiks. Hence, the word ‘Paik’ has now become a caste term.

Paik Tradition and Post-colonial situation

There have been deep involvements of both agents and agendas to constitute and to construction a martial identity for the Odia speaking region even after independence. During the post-colonial India it has been seen that the exercise of retrieving the key elements of past glory still continued and celebrated with joy. Stories, novels, plays have been constantly highlighting the heroic deeds of the paiks and their leaders such as Buxi Jagabandhu, Jai Rajaguru, and others. The leaders of the Paik rebellion became heroes and legends in space and time and are now examples for Odia youths. Stories related to the paiks find place in the school text books. Schools, colleges and various organizations were named after the great heroes of the Paik rebellion. Most importantly, it gained importance in public sphere and also among politicians. The politicians and statesmen did not hesitate to glorify the Paik tradition. For instance, Harekrishna Mahatab, ex-chief minister of Orissa invoked the Paik tradition and their heroic activities for the sake of motherland and appealed to the youth of Orissa to serve the people and society selflessly like the paiks, for the development of Orissa. Even in his book he glorified the paiks and condemned the actions of colonial government against the paiks. To keep the martial tradition alive in minds of the people, the state government of Orissa started organizing state-level martial art competition in 1979 and first was held in Bhubaneswar in 1979. These competitions have been sponsored and organized by the Directorate of Sports and Youth Affairs, the State Government of Orissa. Since that year competitions are organized at regular intervals. In 2003 around 110 paika troupes took part in a three-day Martial Tradition Festival of Orissa. It was inaugurated by Gajapati Maharaja of Puri, Dibyasingha Deb, the Chief Minister of Orissa, Naveen Patnaik, was also present.

To encourage the persons associated with sports and traditional martial practices the government of Orissa began a pension programme in 1st June 2006 for those who have made significant contribution in the field of sports and game including Martial Arts and Akhadas. Even, the spouse of the deceased indigent sports person is liable to get pension.On 9th October 2008, the government of Orissa proposed to establish a ‘Paika Akhada Academy’ in Gajapati district in south Orissa to promote the traditional martial arts of the State. To get benefits from the government they have been constantly trying to project them as the true ancestors of Odia heroes of the past who had fought against the enemies. On 5th December 2006 a group of paiks organized protest in the capital Bhubaneswar with few demands such as setting up of two paik training academies in the state, priority in police and defence service recruitment, recognition of the akhadas and monthly allowances for paik trainers, and conservation and protection of two historical monuments- Khurdagarh, a fort and Barunei, a religious place of the paiks. Dilip Srichandan, president of Khurda Atithya Surakshya Samiti and noted Odia film producer argues that the state government should adequate step to protect the interest of these people. According to him, “the youth of the community should get priority in recruitment of police and defence. The youths trained from akhadas should be issued certificates equivalent to the certificate of NCC.” In 2011, he made a fine documentary on Paik rebellion titled Paika Bidroha to present the heroic acts of the paiks through visual media. The documentary is simultaneously made in three languages, which includes Odia, Hindi and English. Orissa Tourism Department also has been organizing ‘Kalinga Mahotsav Martial Dance Festival’ in regular intervals, which showcases the dance and various war tricks of the paiks. The government of Orissa has taken initiative to celebrate the second centenary of the Paik rebellion in 2017 in grandeur manner. All these methods are used by the government of Orissa in different times not only to glorify the paik tradition, but an attempt to acquire political support from the present successors of the paiks of the past. Tanabe suggests that the idioms of imperial rituals have been continuing even after independence and political intentions work behind such cultural ceremonies. He says public rituals provide both occasion and arena for performance based on various political and cultural ideas and ideologies, in which identities are shaped, confirmed and contested. In the memories of heroes of Paik rebellion, statutes and memorials have been installed in different parts of the state. Even, colleges and schools have been established in their names. So, constant attempts have been made by the most of the political parties to involve in the cultural arena of different castes and communities and to create their political influence over the people.


This paper tracks the transformation and usage of the category ‘Paik’ from a martial community to a marker of Odia identity. The central argument that this paper that the Paik tradition was invoked during colonial period with the purpose of inculcating the idea of ‘freedom’ in the mind of Odia masses against colonial power during the period of national movement and to create an identity for the people of Odisha when an identity of Odia speaking region at a crossroad. Hence, the Paik tradition was incorporated along with Odia movement as well as national movement. Even it has been placed its position both in literature and public sphere in post-independent period.

[i] Here I have used the term “regional nationalists” for the leaders who had demanded the creation of separate province, but wanted regional identity in the spectrum of Indian nationalism.

[ii] Mohanty, Panchanan. ‘British Language Policy in Nineteenth Century India and the Odia Language Movement’.  Language Policy 1 (2002): 53-73.

[iii] Behera, Subhakanta. Construction of an Identity Discourse: Odia Literature and the Jagannath Cult (1866-1936). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2002.

[iv] Dash, Gaganendra Nath. ‘Soma-vamsi Yayati in Tradition and Medieval Odia Literature’. Studies in History 28(2) (2012): 151-177.

[v] Dash, Kailash Chandra. ‘The Dharmapada Tradition Revisited’. Studies in History. 27 (I)  (2011): 21-40.

[vi] Stirling, Andrew. ‘An Account, Geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack’.  Asiatic Researches, vol. 15 (1822): 163–338.

[vii] Hunter, W.W. Orissa, vol.1. London: Smith, Elder& Co., 1872. 3.

[viii] Toynbee, A Sketch of the History of Orissa from 1803 to 1828. 14.

[ix] Ray, Ramsashankar. Kanchi-Kaveri(Odia), Cuttack:1977, Kanchi Kaveri(Odia), Orissa State Museum, Acc. No. 3002.

[x] Samantrai, Natbara. Oriya Sahityara Itihasa,1803-1920(Odia). Cuttack: 1964. 432.

[xi] In 1568 A.D. Afghans captured Orissa.

[xii] Senapati, Phakirmohan.  Atmajivan Charita,(Odia). Cuttack, 1963.

[xiii] Generally, the term ‘jati’ in Odia connotes race, clan, caste, community and nationality. Hence, in Odia, ‘jati’ has context-specific usages. Here, it implies for the Odia nationality.

[xiv] Dash, Sabita & Gaurang Charan Dash. Kuntala Kumari Granthavali (Odia). Eds. Cuttack: Nabadiganta, 2008. 627-55.

[xv] Mohapatra, Godavarish. Godavarish Lekhavali, (Odia). Part.1. Cuttack: 1978, 122.

[xvi] Ghosh, Aswini Kumar. Aswini Kumar Granthavali,(Odia). Vol.1. Cuttack: 1963.

[xvii] Samantrai, Natbara. Odia Sahityara Itihasa. 463-64.

[xviii] Nanda, Chandi Prasad . Vocalizing Silence: Political Protests in Orissa, 1930-42. New Delhi: Sage Publication, 2008. 34-35.

[xix] Malley, L.S.S.O. Bihar and Orissa Gazetteers, Puri. Patna: Government Printing Press, 1929. 86-87.

[xx] Risley,H.H. The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, vol.1. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, 1891. (Reprint 1981, Calcutta: Firma Mukhopadhyay),.462.

[xxi] Malley, L.S.S.O. Bihar and Orissa District Gazetteers, Cuttack. Patna: Government Printing Press, 1933. 61.

[xxii] Mahapatra, C.D.  ‘Jai Rajguru’ Banaphula (Odia monthly), February 1917. 66.

[xxiii] Prajatantra, 20th June 1973.

[xxiv] Mahatab, Harekrushna. History of Orissa, vol. 2, Cuttack, 1960. 439.

[xxv] The Hindu, 26th January, 2007; The Telegraph, 13th January , 2011 & The Hindu, 22nd  November 22, 2010.

[xxvi] The Hindu, 7th December 2003.

[xxvii] Government of Orissa (Sports and Youth Services Department), Letter No. 2134, dated 12.07. 2006.

[xxviii] The Hindu, 10th October 2008.

[xxix] The Hindu, 6th December 2006.

[xxx] Tanabe, Akio. ‘Remaking Tradition and Martial Arts Competition in Orissa, India,’ p. 223.

(The writer is an Assistant Professor in Pg dept. Of History, Utkal University