In This Odisha Village, the Art is On the Walls, Leaves and Stones

Meet the storytellers of Raghurajpur.  
Nearly every family in the village of Raghurajpur is involved in making traditional handicraft, like hand-painted wooden sculptures. Photo: R Modi/Dinodia Photo
Nearly every family in the village of Raghurajpur is involved in making traditional handicraft, like hand-painted wooden sculptures. Photo: R Modi/Dinodia Photo

The lush little village of Raghurajpur in Odisha is the keeper of an ancient legacy. Situated a half-hour drive away from Puri, Raghurajpur has at least one artist in each of its 120-odd homes. Each family is dedicated to the making of a traditional handicraft, made entirely from indigenous materials sourced from the surrounding coconut, palm and jackfruit groves on the banks of River Bhargavi.

Some families specialise in the making of the patachitra, a style of painting on cloth. Others engrave folklore onto palm leaves, or turn coconuts and betel nuts into miniatures of Lord Jagannath, Odisha’s most prominent deity. The community excels in making stone carvings, papier mâché masks, and paintings on tassar silk.

Patachitra is Raghurajpur’s most famed art form, and the paintings have been traced as far back as the 12th century. The style is said to have evolved under the cult of Lord Jagannath, and the paintings are still used in rituals at the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Not much has changed in the rendering. In Oriya, pata means cloth and chitra means picture. The canvas or patta is prepared by binding two layers of cotton with a gum made of powdered conch shell and tamarind seeds. Stones are used to polish the surface until it is a smooth base for the painting. Artists use vibrant hues and delicate lines to portray stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The pigments used are natural, such as white from conch shells, and black from lamp black and burned coconut shells. In fact, the only new flourishes are that some artists prefer to use poster colours today.

Raghurajpur also draws travellers and artists for its practice of talapatrachitra, or palm-leaf engraving. The yellow-green leaves are stuck together to form strips that are then sewn together with thread. The artist uses an iron stylus to etch scenes from the epics between the veins of the leaves, and may fill in the grooves with lamp black or another pigment. It takes a practiced hand to ensure the leaf doesn’t crack.

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Lord Jagannath, Odisha’s most prominent deity, frequently appears in Raghurajpur’s various art forms and on murals in the village. Photo: Anil Dave/Dinodia Photo

Raghurajpur’s stories are not restricted to fine art—the village is also known for its tradition of Gotipua, the earlier form of the classical dance form Odissi. In fact, this is where famous Odissi exponent Kelucharan Mohapatra was born, and where he trained in Gotipua. Today, the Gotipua Gurukul Academy trains young boys to sing and perform acrobatic postures, in praise of Krishna and Lord Jagannath. Exclusively performed by pre-teen boys dressed as graceful, feminine dancers, Gotipua adds yet another dimension to Raghurajpur’s storytelling prowess.

The village welcomes travellers, but doesn’t have guest accommodation so it is best explored as a day trip from Puri. Most artists display a wide spread of crafts, from patachitra to Lord Jagannath miniatures and wooden toys, outside their homes that function as studio and gallery. Feel free to strike up a conversation with them; the villagers are keen to share insights into their art and folklore.

The Guide

Orientation 

The village of Raghurajpur lies in the eastern part of Odisha. It is located around 11km/25min from Puri, and around 55km/1hr20min from Bhubaneswar.

Getting There 

The nearest airport is Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha. Though Puri has its own railway station, the Bhubaneswar railway station is more convenient as it’s connected to major metros in the country. Taxis and buses are readily available from Bhubaneshwar airport and railway station to Puri. As Raghurajpur does not offer accommodation, it is best to stay in Puri (which has budget stays and luxury hotels) and make a day trip to the village.

When to Go

The village can be visited throughout the year, though temperatures are scorching in the peak of summer, between April and June.

The village hosts a five-week art residency every year, called The Raghurajpur International Art/Culture Exchange, where artists and art lovers exchange ideas and skills with the local craftspeople. Residency applications are open for international artists; more details on the website and Facebook page.

Travellers seeking to soak up the temple town vibes of Puri can look out for the iconic Rath Yatra celebrated in late June-early July every year.  

For more details, see our Puri guide.

  • Amrita Lall is a former Web Intern at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves people-watching, reading books, and all the dogs in the world. She strongly believes that the best stories are right here, in our everyday lives.

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