Odisha is a confluence of Aryan, Dravidian and adivasi cultures and the annual calendar is busy with festivals. These are inspired by the changing seasons, agricultural practices or are dedicated to various gods, goddesses and folk deities. Many of the celebrations are associated with the para-mount deity Lord Jagannath, though the Puri Rath Yatra towers above all of them. Owing to its rich cultural legacy, song and dance festivals are also regularly organised by the state tourism department.

Besides nationally celebrated festivals, there are several festivals that are unique to the state. No matter when you visit, there’s always a celebration in some corner of Odisha.

Folk Dance Festival, Sambalpur (4–7 January)

Sambalpur Lok Mahotsav is a three-day cultural extravaganza where hundreds of international, national and local artists perform exquisite folk dance forms. The festival was started in 1997 with an aim to revive dying art forms and one can witness local dances like Ghubkudu, Karma dance, Chutkuchuta and other folk dances from India and beyond.

Courtesy Konark Dance Festival
Dancers strike a pose at the Konark Festival
Dancers strike a pose at the Konark Festival

Sume-Gelirak, Koraput (January)

The 10-day festival of the Bondas of Koraput is associated with the reaping and threshing of the rice harvest. It starts on a Sunday with the Sisa (tribal priest) worshipping gods and spirits through animal sacrifice and liquor offerings. Young men and women visit neighbouring Bonda villages and choose their life partners while dancing. Another aspect of the festival is the lashing session for men. In this practice, a pair of boys stand and strike each other with flexible tree branches to the sound of drumbeats. Once they have had enough, they salute and embrace one another and the next pair takes their place. After the face off, the Sisa offers cakes and sermonises on the value of friendship. The next evening the ritual is repeated with the older men, ending only when enough blood has flown.

Ekamra Utsav, Bhubaneswar (10–20 January)

The 10-day temple city festival is an expo of traditional art and craft with a flower show, a food festival, cultural programmes, heritage walks, the state’s biggest half marathon and attractive discounts by shopping centres.

Mukteswar Dance Festival, Bhubaneswar (14–16 January)

Held on the courtyards of the famous Mukteshwar Temple every evening, leading exponents of Odissi dance enliven the stage with their performances in solo, duet and group categories.

Mukteswar Dance Festival
Mukteswar Dance Festival

Rajarani Music Festival, Bhubaneswar (18–20 January)

A showcase of India’s glorious tradition of classical music, this festival is held against the backdrop of the Rajarani Temple, with performances by the best instrumentalists and vocalists in the country.

Adivasi Mela, Bhubaneswar

(26 January–9 February)

The Odisha state-level Annual Adivasi Exhibition or Adivasi Mela kicks off on 26 January at the Advasi Exhibition Ground in Bhubaneswar. The tribal fair is held across two weeks and show-cases the art and craft of various tribal communities, forest produce, tribal products and handicrafts. The mela also has cultural programmes in the evening.

Kalinga Mahotsav, Dhauli (February)

The festival of martial dances is befittingly held at the foothill of the famous Peace Pagoda at Dhauli, where emperor Ashoka was so distraught by the bloodshed of the Kalinga War that he adopted Buddhism. This festival commemorates the victory of peace over war as renowned dancers fuse the vitality of martial arts with the finesse of sublime dance forms, using swords, spears, shields and other weapons.

Adivasi Mela at Bhubaneswar
Adivasi Mela at Bhubaneswar

Dola Purnima or Holi (March)

In Odisha, the spring festival is held over five days and followers carry images of Krishna on their shoulders in dolas or vimanas (wooden temples) from house to house. Offerings are made to these processions. Vimanas from different villages assemble in an open field followed by bhajan-kirtan (singing of devotional songs). The day after the full moon, people playfully smear each other with abir (coloured powder) and coloured water. As a tribute to Krishna, cattle are bathed, anointed with vermillion, garlanded and fed sumptuously in rural areas. Jatras or village fairs continue till the month of Chaitra across Cuttack, Puri and Ganjam districts.

Chaita Parva (mid-April)

The most important festival of the tribal people of Koraput and the Bhuiyans of Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar, the whole month of Chaitra dons a festive mood. They go on hunts and sacrifice birds and beasts to appease their gods, wear new clothes, feast, drink, sing and dance.

Chhau Festival, Baripada

(11–13 April)

The three-day festival showcases the Mayurbhanj style of the martial dance Chhau, which does not rely on masks, but on facial expressions. Earlier celebrated to mark a successful harvest during spring time, the Chaitra Parva Chhau was institutionalised by maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanj Deo of Mayurbhanj in the 19th century.

AP
Thousands gather for the annual Rath Yatra, Puri
Thousands gather for the annual Rath Yatra, Puri

Rath Yatra, Puri (June–July)

The grand chariot festival of Lord Jagannath is the world’s oldest rath yatra and commemorates his annual visit to Gundicha Temple via Mausi Maa Temple. It is one of the world’s largest human gatherings. The idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken in a procession of elaborate chariots to Gundicha Temple where they remain for nine days, after which the deities return to the main temple, and this journey is called Bahuda Jatra. Lakhs of devotees throng Puri to pull the raths through the streets.

The festival opens with the Chandan Yatra at Narendra Sarovar, where the divine trinity is anointed with sandalwood paste for 21 consecutive days and taken for a ride around the lake in an ornamented swan-shaped boat. Thereafter, an elaborate bathing ritual is performed, which is called the Snana Yatra. After the deities are ritualistically bathed, there is a fortnight-long purification ceremony in seclusion prior to the Rath Yatra.

At an auspicious time on the full moon of the following month of Ashada (July–August), the deities are placed in their respective chariots, which are colour-coded. The yatra is led by elder brother Balabhadra who is seated in the green chariot, followed by Subhadra’s chariot in black and the 13-m-tall mammoth chariot of Lord Jagannath, draped in red and yellow and rolling on its 18 wheels. The chariots are then led by the 4,200 devotees and dragged all the way to their holiday home, the Gundicha Ghar or ‘Garden House’ about 1.5km away, where they remain for nine days. After this, the whole routine is repeated in reverse. The sight of thousands of devotees tugging at the ropes of the chariot forward in a frenzy of devotion is a scene to behold. It is a festival that unifies all, irrespective of class or status. Here, kings sweep the ground before the chariot and the poor, lesser privileged have the honour of accompanying the deities.

Karam Festival

(August–September)

Widely celebrated amongst the Bhumij, Oraon, Bhuiyan, Ho and Kisan tribals in Mayurbhanj, Sambalpur, Balangir, Dhenkanal and Keonjhar, the presiding deity Karam/Karamsani (god/goddess) is represented with a branch of the Karam tree. Traditionally held on the eleventh day of the bright fortnight of the rainy month of Bhadra, people go to the jungle accompanied by drummers and cut branches of the Karam tree. These are carried by unmarried girls who sing in praise of the deity. The branches are brought to the village and planted in the centre of a ground, which is plastered with cow-dung and decorated with flowers. The tribal priest propitiates the deity with liquor, germinated grams and blood from a wild fowl for wealth and children.

Puri Beach Festival (November)

Held across five days, the Puri Beach Festival has cultural events, classical and folk dance performances, beautiful handicrafts, food festivals, rock concerts, beach parties, sand sculptures, regatta, fashion shows and traditional sports such as beach volleyball, kabaddi and malkhamb on display.

Konark Festival

(1–5 December)

Eminent classical dancers from all over India congregate to perform against the magnificent backdrop of the Sun Temple at Konark. As part of the festival, the International Sand Art Festival is also organised on the sandy Chandrabhaga Beach, 3km from Konark.