The cultural efflorescence of Odisha during the Ganga period was undoubtedly the outcome of the able leadership, political stability, strong administration and economic prosperity. The art, architecture and sculpture developed during the Ganga period. The Ganga rulers were also great patern of learning and literature. Their court adorned many great literary persons. The people in the society were living in a peaceful state as the kings of the Ganga dynasty were benevolent in nature.
In order to understand the cultural significance of Ganga dynasty, it is essential to know about the society and condition of people during the Ganga period, the religion, art and architecture, music, dance, language and literature, trade and commerce etc.
Traditional Varna system
During the Ganga period the traditional Varna system (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra) was prevailed. The Brahmanas enjoyed the highest status and maximum privileges in the society during this period. Many of them enjoyed land grants (Agraharas) as scholars and priests. During this period it is found that a number of Brahmanas entered into non-religious professions like military service, other categories of government service, and trade.
Development of Karanas (Kayasthas) caste
The records of the Ganga period mention the Karanas (Kayasthas) as an important caste developed during this period. They were a hereditary class of writers. Their Varna status is not clear from the available records. Some sources say that they were Kshatriyas. Others hold that they were Shudras. Whatever might be their Varna status, they occupied all cadres of posts in government, from that of a village-headman and accountant to that of a prime minister and army general.
Position of women during the Ganga period
During the Ganga period women were held in esteem in the society specially in case of royal women. In many of the donative records the donors state the names of their mothers. Royal ladies were noted for their pious disposition and devotion to husbands. It appears that the royal ladies had access to education and specialised forms of art like music and dance. Chandrikadevi, the daughter of Anangabhimadeva III was accomplished in music and dance. She built the temple of Ananta Vasudeva in Bhubaneswar. Sivarani, a lady of Ganga lineage was called the Kaliyuga Saraswati (Goddess of Learning in Kali Age). However, the women’s status seems to have been some extent reduced during this period. The Smritis and Nitisastras of the time restrict their freedom. Women were expected to be devoted to their husbands. But the Ganga kings themselves were polygamous. The Smritis also permitted the rulers to go for poligamy. In practice it appears that women enjoyed a good deal of freedom. They also danced as Devadasis in the temples. The plentiful depiction of women as singers and dancers, erotic partners and seductive Nayikas also point out their independence.
Religion during the Ganga period
The early Ganga rulers were devout Saivites. But after capturing Odisha, the Gangas accepted Vaishnavism. They showed great devotion to Purushottam-Jagannath who was regarded as a manifestation of Vishnu. Chodagangadeva built the present gigantic temple of Lord Jagannath. Anangabhimadeva-III declared that he ruled the empire as the Routa or deputy of Lord Jagannath. Puri with Lord Jagannath as the presiding deity became a great centre of Vaishnavism during the Ganga period. The great Bhakti saints like Ramanuja, Narahari Tirtha and Jagannath Tirtha came to Odisha from outside during this period. The recital of Gita Govinda of Jayadeva (the Vaishnava poet of this period) was introduced into the daily rituals of the Jagannath temple.
Secular nature of the Ganga rulers
The Ganga rulers were secular in nature. Inspite of allegiance to Lord Jagannath, the state deity, the Gangas also patronized the worship of other deities – Siva, Parvati and Sun-God. Chodagangadeva donated a village for the maintenance of a perpetual lamp in the Lingaraj temple of Bhubaneswar. Parvati temple was built inside the precinct of the Lingaraj temple during the Ganga rule. Narasihmhadeva-I built the temple for Sun-God at Konark. The Ganga rulers seem to have attempted a harmony between Saivism and Vaishnavism. The transformation of Siva of the Lingaraj temple into the conjoint deity, Harihar (Vishnu as well as Siva), and the construction of the Vishnu temple of Ananta Vasudeva by a Ganga princess named Chandrika devi in the midst of the Siva temples indicate attempts at such a synthesis of Hari-Hara cult.
Art and Architecture during the Ganga period
The art and architecture of Odisha reached the zenith of glory in the constant and strenuous building activities of the great Ganga monarchs like Chodaqanqadeva, Anangabhimadeva-III and Narasimhadeva-1. The Gangas built two unrivaled and beautiful monuments – the Jagannath temple of Puri and the Sun temple of Konark. These two temples are remarkable for their massive structure, architectural skill, fine ornamentation and beautiful images representing animals, gods, goddesses, episodes from mythology and erotic partners.
Patron of Learning
Being learned and cultured themselves, the Ganga monarchs extended their patronage to the promotion of learning. They offered land grants to the learned Brahmins, temples and maths (monasteries). The temples and maths were centres of religious culture as well as learning. The copper plate grants and stone inscriptions show the high water mark of Sanskrit literature in Odisha during the Ganga era. During this era there were a number of intellectual luminaries in Odisha. Pandit Vidyadhar ( Ekavali ), Jayadeva (Gita Govinda), Shridhar Acharya and Nilambar Acharya (the Smriti writers), Viswanath Kaviraj (Sahitya Darpan), and Satyananda (the astronomer who wrote Surya Siddhanta) belong to Ganga period.
Evolution of Odia Language
During this period some stone and copper plate inscriptions of the Ganga period clearly indicate that Odia language and script took a definite shape. As a result, during the reign of Kapilendradeva, the immediate successor of the Gangas, Sarala Das could write his magnus opus, Mahabharat in the language of the masses i.e. Odia.
Music and Dance during Ganga rule
The Ganga monarchs were great patron of music and dance. The Natamandapas (Dancing Halls) of the temples were the places where the Devadasis (the maidens dedicated to the temples) were performing dances to the tune of compositions and musical instruments. The temple of Jagannath at Puri and the Sun Temple of Konark (which were built by the Gangas) have Natamandapas. Anangabhimadeva-III added Natamandapa to the temple of Lingaraj in Bhubaneswar. The Ganga kings employed damsels in the temples for singing and dancing. Tradition states that Padmavati, the wife of poet Jayadeva was a Devadasi, dedicated to Lord Jagannath. She used to dance to the tune of the songs, composed by her husband. The Ganga temples, particularly the Natamandapas are full of singing and dancing girls in ecstatic postures with musical instruments found in the panels.
The development of cultural activities of Odisha during the Ganga period was possible due to her economic prosperity. During this period Odisha continued her ancient commercial relation with South East Asian countries. The engraving of boats in the Bhoga Mandapa of the Jagannath temple of Puri, a panel show in the transportation of elephants (preserved in the Odisha State Museum) and, the reference to a township, inhabited by the artisans and traders in the Nagari plate of Anangabhimadeva-1I1, etc. are the evidence of Odisha’s overseas trade an commerce during the Ganga period. Clothes, diamonds and elephants were exported from Odisha to outside countries.
Thus, the four hundred years of glorious rule of the Gangas is unique in many sense in the history of medieval Odisha. The land was politically and culturally got united. The Kalinga school of architecture reached the zenith during the Ganga period. Further, the Sanskrit literature developed to a great extent during that period. The overall socio-economic-political and cultural pictures of this period testify to the fact that peace and tranquility prevailed all over the empire during the period of the mighty rulers of the Ganga dynasty.