Odisha was variously known as Kalinga, Utkal, Odra and Kosala with geographical variations owing to the change of political entity under different dynasties. With the beginning of the historical age in 6th century B.C. Kalinga was already a major powerful kingdom under Indian political system.
Kalinga was parceled out into a number of petty political units in course of her history and as such there was no single overlord of Odisha. Under Sailodbhabas, Bhoumakaras and Somavansi rulers, the political history of Odish has been acquired importance inspite of earlier discontinuity and fragmentation. The Ganga and Gajapati rulers united Odisha into a powerful state and consolidated it. But after the fall of Hindu kingdom, Odisha successfully entered into an era of bondage in the hands of the Afghans of Bengal, the Mughals, the Nazims of Bengal and the Marathas & finally the British. The present text is aimed at to focus on port and towns of ancient Odisha and medieval Odisha.
Odisha has a glorious maritime tradition. The merchants of ancient Odisha braved the perils of the sea to seek fortune in the land supposed to be rich in gold. On its coast flourished several ports which served outlets of external trade. The existence of such ports is alluded to in the Greek writings , Hsuan Tshang’s account & Budhist literature, the indetifications of which are still in the domain of scholarly debate.
Different parts of present Odisha were known under different names in the ancient and early medieval period. There was not a single name to denote the whole of present Odisha. The most important of the names was Kalinga. In the very early period Kalinga extended from the mouth of Ganga in the north to the mouth or river Godavari in the south.1
This was the land inhabited by the Kalingas. In the west perhaps it extended as far as Amarakantka hills. 2 This Kalinga was conqured by Asoka Mourya in the 3rd century B.C. This was also the kingdom of Kharavela in the 1st century B.C. There after the extent of Kalinga rapidly decreased and by 500 A.D. it denoted a narrow coastal strip comprising the southern part, undivided Ganjam district and northern part of Vizagpatnam district of Andhara Pradesh.3By 16th century it was further reduced to an administrative unit, Dandapata.
In the early medieval period, under the Bhaumakaras4 and Somavansis, the coastal region from Midnapur district of west Bengal to Puri district was known as Utkal. 5 It was earlier known as Uttaara Tosali. To the south of it was Daksina Tosali which comprised parts of Puri district and the Ganjam district. In the 7the century A.D. the southern Tosali was called kangoda where ruled the Shailodbhavas. It is generally believed that the present name Odisha has been derived from Odra which indicated an extensive area between western Odisha and Southern Odisha.
The Chinese pilgrim Hsuam Tsang refereds to it as wu-cha where the port of che-li-ta-lo was located. The ancient ports of Orissa were included in the above mentioned terriotorial divisions. The western part of Odisha was known as Kosala. The river Mahanadi served as the arterial link between the western and coastal Odisha. The ports were joined with their hinterland by major rivers in which the Mahanadi, played an important role.
The rulers of the Samavansis and the Gangas are important from political and cultural points of view. But in that period the signs of the decline of Odisha’s maritime activities were quite apparent.
An important port of Kalinga was Tamralipti, modern Tamluk in the Midnapur district of west Bengal. Since present Midnapur district was included in Kalinga, Utkala and Uttara Tosali portions of Odisha. It was through this port Asoka Mourya sent his mission to Simhala, Srilanka.
The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien after completing his Indian itinerancy returned to his native place by availing of a merchant vessel from this port. From Tamralipti he sailed to Simhala and from there he returned to China by merchant ship via Java. Ships to Myammar also sailed from this port. Thus India’s trade with South-East Asia was handled through this port.
The grand route originating at Taxila and passing through Pataliputra terminated here. A major trade route from north to southern India passed through Odisha6 and port was situated on this highway of trade. The importance of this port continued upto the Gupta period.
A port named Pithunda is mentioned in the Jaina Uttaradhyayana Sutra.7Sylvain Levi 8 identifies it with Pithunda of the Hatigumpha inscription of Kharavela of 1stcentury B.C. probably it was the same as Pithunda metropolis of Maislia mentioned by Ptolemy 9. It was an important urban centre. It may be tentatively located near Kalingapattinam. 10 Jaina Uttaradhyana Sutra relates a fact that a merchant of Champa came to the port of Pithunda by boat. It is evident from this fact that merchants from distant places came to this port for their sea-viyage.