Odishi dance originated in the “eastern belt” of India, by the bay of Bengal, in the geographic area now known as the state of Odisha. The dance traces back thousands of years, and was greatly shaped by the prominent spiritual views of these diverse eras. It is important to understand these various influences in order to deeply grasp Odissi, and apply it as a spiritual practice.
Below are the main spiritual doctrines that the predecessor of Odissi – temple dance, was developed and celebrated under:
- Buddhism and Tantric-Buddhism: prominent between 5th century BCE to about 4-5th century CE (although there are records Buddhism was in practice in Odisha until 12th century CE, slowly declining).
- Shaktism: Became popular with the decline of Buddhism, Shaktism is known for its various traditions of tantra and goddess worship, and was overlapping with Buddhism and Shaivism.
- Shaivism: Was the dominant religion in Odisha between the 4th or 5th century CE until the 16th century CE. Known for its practice of Yoga as means to unite with Shiva.
- Vaishnavism: Became the most popular religion in Odisha since the 16th century to this day. Jaganatha, whom is the presiding deity of now-days Odissi, is a form of Vishnu.
There are evidences of dance worship in temples during all of these eras, in particular after the 8th century CE, a unique time period in which Buddhism, Shaktism, Saivism, and Tantrism had become amalgamated into one practice. You can see many evidences of this hybrid in the ancient temples around Odisha. For example, the temple of Vaital in Bhubaneswar combines imagery of Chamunda (the goddess), Bhairava (Shiva), Ardhanadishvara (Tantric Deity half shakti /half shiva), Buddha, Shiva nataraj (the cosmic dancer), and more.
The ancient form of Odissi Dance was practiced by Devadasis, “divine-servants”, as their spiritual devotional ritual. The purpose of Odissi dance was to provide both the dancer and the audience with a path to embody Divine Presence.
The Devadasi tradition was highly regarded over the ages and supported by rulers and kings for millenniums. During the time of British rule, it lost the support of the affluent society and retreated into hiding. Through the modern revival of Odissi Dance, the sacred quality of the dance was reestablished in society, and its intimate link with Yoga and Tantra is preserved.