Odissi traces its origins to the ritual dances performed in the temples of ancient India, known as 'Odro' that is now referred to as "Odissi". This Indian classical dance form belongs to the eastern state of India “Orissa”. The antiquity of Odissi has been traced to early sculptures found in the Rani Gumpha caves at Udaygiri in Orissa dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Odissi is the oldest and most sensuous classical dance form rooted in rituals and tradition.
As in other parts of India, in Orissa also dance came to be closely connected with religion. The dance was considered as a mode of worship where dancers and musicians were dedicated to deities. The present day Odissi dance is closely related to the tradition of dance ritual in the temple of Lord Jagannath. It is generally agreed that Chodaganga Deva established the Devadasi tradition in Jagannath temple in the 12thcentury AD.
The Devadasis of Jagannath temple are called Maharis. The Maharis had to go through a ritual marriage with Lord Jagannath called Saribandha in which a piece of silk cloth taken from Lord Jagannath was tied around the Maharis’ head in a symbolic “tying of the knot”. The Maharis performed two daily rituals; dance during the Sakala Dhupa (morning meal) and sing during the Badasinghara Vesa (Lord’s ritual adornment before being put to bed). These rituals have now stopped altogether. Although the dance ritual of the Mahari system died a natural death, it has survived as a living art form as the modern day Odissi dance. An event of immense significance for the evolution of Odissi dance was the establishment of Gotipua system in which boys of tender age were trained in the art of dancing and singing.
The boys dressed as girls started performing for the general public. Apparently this system was established during the reign of Prataparudra in early part of 16th century AD. The Gotipua troupes travelled all over Orissa spreading the dance form. The Gotipuas were trained to sing the songs written by poets like Gopalakrishna, Banamali and Kavisurya Baladev Ratha. These lyrics still dominate the present day Odissi dance. Gotipuas were not only good singers but also skilled in abhinaya or interpretation of lyrics with appropriate gestures. In addition, they performed some skilled dances like the Bandha (acrobatic) nritya and the Thali (plate) nritya. Initially Gotipuas did not perform in the Jagannath temple but were later absorbed into rituals like Chandana Jatra and Jhulana Jatra that are held outside the temple premises. Gotipua style has been absorbed into the modern day Odissi dance in it pure form.
Both Mahari and Gotipua systems have given rise to the Odissi dance of the present day.