After informing the audience about the advent of Iron Age in the Southern India, Sanjeev Sanyal discusses the Oriyas.

Sanjeev Sanyal:

But meanwhile a little further to the east, you have an absolute explosion of maritime activity that begins to now happen, in what is now Orissa and West Bengal. The zone from the western most outlet of the Ganga which is the one that we now call the Hooghly (to) all the way down to the coast, towards the Chilika lake. That coastline now just bursts out with activity! In fact very very recently, like literally a few weeks back, a major new site which is about 1500 years old has been found outside of Bhubaneshwar. A Small town that has been found. But there are many many smaller ports all along the coast.

And the Oriya now begin to draw these major voyages. Firstly, they begin to go slowly along the coast. So, some of these Oriya sellers and merchants make their way slowly down the coast and certainly, by about 5th – 6th century B.C.,  they begin to turn up to Sri Lanka. And this is quite interesting because you would think that the people who will begin to populate Sri Lanka would be the Tamils and the Keralites, who were right next the door and they possibly did go to the northern bits but first clear signs of what we would call civilization, so to speak, turns up with these people of clearly coming from significantly further out.

There were already some people living there they called the Vedda but the major group of people suddenly turn up and they are not just going down south, they also going down the other way along the coast towards southeast Asia. To a place where the Isthmus of Kra, this is basically a thin strip of land from which Malaysia hangs off now in the Thailand and they are going over there and then some of them just hop across and then begin to sail across the gulf of Thailand towards Vietnam, Southern Vietnam and Cambodia.

We now actually have some records at least in oral histories and some inscriptions and in old mythologies of what was possibly going on. In fact, the founding myth of these Sinhalese of Sri Lanka is, in fact, the story of prince Vijaya who claimed to be the grandson of a lion and a princess. A bit of the story I have some suspicion about! He basically takes 400 hundred or so of his followers. He was thrown out by his father, by the way, for behaving particularly badly. And he makes his way down the coast and he turns up in Sri Lanka. It is quite interesting that these people then begin to settle in and the majority population of Sri Lanka today takes its roots back to this migration of people. Of course, this must have been in many migrations afterward but they take their root back to this migration.

And, they bring with them very interesting cultural motifs that are still alive.

Let’s take for example the idea of the lion. Now, the lion is there in the Sri Lankan flag but where did it come from? If you go to Orissa and wander around in some of the older settlements of Orissa. One thing that will strike you is that many of them have got Narsimha temples. This is also true for Andhra by the way. Even in Puri, the older temple is not that to Jagannath but to Narsimha. And even today when the bhog is first served, it’s not taken directly taken to Jagannath but it is actually first taken to Narsimha. So the worship of Narsimha or some sort of veneration of the lion was clearly a very important part of the culture of that area. Which is all very odd because that is all tiger territory now.

But there is also incidentally signs of that in Bengal which is also a tiger territory but again, of course, that veneration of lion continues to this day because Durga’s Vaahan is a lion. So I cannot explain why, maybe it is that familiarity breeds contempt. So they didn’t think much of tiger or maybe the climate was different or maybe there were more lions. I do not know! But it is the case that there were plenty of lions in the iconography of this part of the world and that gets transferred.

And that survived to this day in the Sri Lankan flag.

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