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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Centuries of Hindu-Muslim amity in Cuttack

I was born and raised in Cuttack, a city in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. My 88-year-old mother still lives in the house where I was raised. I have visited her regularly for the last 34 years that I have been living in California. I always knew that Hindus and Muslims coexisted peacefully in Cuttack. But it was not until a recent visit back home last year that I realized how enmeshed the lives of these communities were.

To borrow a phrase from Czech writer Milan Kundera, Cuttack is “maximum diversity in minimum space”.

Cuttack is known for everything old. In its glory days, it was the state’s capital for almost nine centuries, starting way back in the 10th century. The word Cuttack, or Kataka, has many meanings. It means a fort, a military camp, and a seat of government. The reigns of Hindu kings, Pathans, Moghuls, and Marathas left the city vibrant with many beautiful spiritual monuments. 

The Muslims ruled Odisha from 1568 to 1751, then the Marathas defeated the Mughals, and in 1803, the British came to power and established ornate churches, educational institutions, and the  High Court of Odisha. Bhubaneswar, the new promise, replaced Cuttack as the state capital in 1949.

Rediscovering Cuttack

When I visited Cuttack last year, I went on walks in the morning to Barabati Fort, an undying landmark of the city. There I discovered many monuments I had never seen before. I would wake up to the azaan from the mosque, pass by Pathan Sahi, where Muslims and Hindus live, and watch small store owners play bhajans on the radio and offer incense sticks to their deities to kick off the day.

As soon as the sun rose, Hindu women, wearing neatly pressed saris and colorful bangles, offered flowers to the tulsi plant (holy basil) outside their doors.

Each day, I walked by the streetside Hanuman temple, where the priest opened the temple door and started his morning arati. I passed by many temples dedicated to goddesses who protect each neighborhood. I walked past several small shrines until I reached Gopabandhu Square, the “Jewel of Odisha”, with an impressive statue of activist Gopabandhu Das. Before entering the Barabati Fort, I came upon the Church of Epiphany, one of the oldest churches in Odisha, built in 1826. 

A composite history

A view of the entrance to the historic Barabati Fort in Cuttack, Odisha, India. 
(Photo credit: Annapurna Devi Pandey)
The historic Barabati Fort in Cuttack. (Photo credit: Annapurna Devi Pandey)

The city of Cuttack developed around the historic fort of Barabati. The 13th-century arched gateway, with two monumental pillars in ruins, stands out as the entrance to the fort. Today hundreds of people congregate here to walk, run, or play badminton, football, and basketball. It is a place for older people, families, and friends to socialize under the shade of mango, sapodilla, and jackfruit trees. I saw many women walking alone or with friends, a welcome change from my childhood.

The fort presents a composite culture: Gadachandi Temple (the mother goddess), a dargah (tomb) named after the great Saint Bakshi Saheb, and the majestic Fateh Khan Rehman mosque. I walked in through the open dargah gate and received  Peer Baba’s blessings.

A dargah in Cuttack, Odisha, painted in white, green and saffron, (Photo credit: Annapurna Devi Pandey)
A dargah in Cuttack ((Photo credit: Annapurna Devi Pandey)

The Sufi saints, called pir babas, still play the leading role in a syncretic tradition. They command admiration and respect from Hindus and Muslims alike.

The General Post Office campus in Buxi Bazar houses the tombs of Malang Shah and Mastan Shah, two famous pirs. A leading burial site for well-known Muslims lies in the premises of  Qadam e Rasool, a shrine built during the Mughal period in the 18th century. The shrine is dear to both Hindus and Muslims. Around this time, many Hindu sects emerged, and both Hinduism and Islam flourished.

Finding common ground and resolving differences

In October, Hindus celebrate Dussehra, the annual welcoming of Goddess Durga. Pandals (pavilions), fairs, and festivities transform the city of Cuttack. At least 160–200 Durga idols are carved each season, one for each neighborhood.

So what happens when a Muslim religious festival and Durga Puja fall on the same day? In 2017, Muharram, the most important holiday for Muslims, and Durga Puja bisarjan (the day the goddess’ idols are immersed in a water body) fell on the same day. Both these events are marked by large processions walking the streets. Leaders of both communities got together and came up with an amicable plan: they decided to take turns sharing the streets for their processions.

Cuttack is known for its neighborhood feel: bhai chara (brotherly love) transcending religious identity. Unlike exclusive ethnic enclaves like Little India or Chinatown in the US, in Cuttack, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians share the same neighborhoods, participating in each other’s lives and festivals.

Bonding over chai and shrines

One day, after a walk, my friends took me to have a glass of tea at the fort. The pot of tea was boiling, emitting an irresistible aroma. I sat on the cement bench wrapped around the majestic peepul, or sacred fig tree. My tea was not the fancy masala chai from Starbucks. It was meticulously prepared red tea, without milk, with fresh spices, including cloves, ginger, mint, black pepper, cardamom, and bay leaf. I relished this exquisite tea with a dash of salt and sugar and chatted with the chaiwala who made this delicious concoction.

He has been running this store for several decades. He takes pride that Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, rich and poor, visit the neighboring shrines and hang out to relish a glass of tea.

Although it did not surprise me that growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims in other parts of India had not touched Cuttack’s age-old communal harmony, I believe we need to be intentional in our efforts to cultivate trust among community partners in order to build a sense of a shared future.

Annapurna Pandey

Annapurna Pandey

Dr. Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was born and brought up in Cuttack, Odisha. She taught for eight years at Ravenshaw College, now...