:: Ancient Theatre ::



A Research work by Late DHIREN DASH , Published in the 1976 AD.

ANCIENT Kalinga was great in every sphere of art and culture. It is history.

The greatness was at its zenith during the regimes of Kalingadhipati Maha Meghavahana Aira Sri Kharavela, two centuries before Christ.

The supreme conqueror was not only one of the greatest connoisseurs of art and culture but was also an exponent of all the 'Gandharba Vidyas', himself. He had realised that to boost up the morale of the doomed populace of a great culture was greatly essential. With this conviction, he held Nata, Gita, Badita,Usaba, and Samaja regularly. He built up Catara and Jathara  everywhere in his kingdom.

One huge, Catara or Jathara (the main State Theatre ?) which he built with 50 pillars bedecked with pearls, precious stones and jewels has already been lost into the oblivion through the passage of ages. But Kharavela was not an ordinary person. He knew the immense loss the nature can bring during the course of time, by annihilating every trace of the existence of men and materials. He could foresee every thing lost. And so, he left his documentary evidences engraved on the rocks, which he felt would remain at least for a few millenniums before being wiped off by weather.

color-stones-17455590.jpg    Pearls and gemstones.JPG  gem stones.jpg main_cultured_pearls.jpg

The Hatigumpha Inscription.

And so, beside the multi-sized caves of Khandagiri and Udayagiri at Bhubaneswar,Orissa, we have the inscriptions of Kharavela in front of the Hati Gumpha, which after over two thousand years, give us the glimpses of the glory that was Kalinga.

In its fifth line the inscription reads :-

hati insc.jpg* Gandhava Veda-Budho-Dapa-Nata-Gita-Vadita-Sandasanahi
Usava-Samaja-Karapanahi cha kidapayati nagarim'


This means 'Expert in Gandharva Veda or all histrionic arts himself, Kharavela, arranged for the entertainment of his citizens, items such as Dapa(Combats),Nata(Dance),Gita(Music),Vadita(Orchestra),Usaba(festival) and Samaja(Plays).

Incidentally all these words in Prakrut of this sentence are still phonetically similar to the words in vogue in the modern Oriya language. The Samaja stands for the plays in Jatra of Orissa as it was and still is, in use throughout the Oriya speaking areas since time immemorial.

In its 13th line the inscription reads :-

! Vithi-catara (or Jathara) Palikhani-  Gopurani-Siharani Nibesayati.......'etc.


This means that Kharavela built in his kingdom Vithi(Roads),Catara or Jathara (Theatres ?)Palikhani(Channels), Gopurani (Gates)and Siharani (Temples) etc.

We are mainly concerned with the second word in the above sentence. The language of the inscription is Prakrut and is very close to Pali and is written in Brahmi script. Some experts have deciphered this word to read Jathara. In spite of this difference of opinion as to how the word will be pronounced the meanings given by these experts to this term has affinity to each other.

Now let us take the word Jathara

The Sanskrit lexicon, besides giving many other meanings of this word mentions that the word stands for CAVITY or interior of anything. And so, these experts who have read it thus, have given us the meaning to be 'excellent towers with carved interiors’. After all, a theatre is invariably like the excellent towers with carved interiors'. Hence Jathara is THEATRE.

Now, let us consider the other word Catara

'Choutara' stands for a circular or square plot of level ground or a 'court yard surrounded by wall or houses, or the Choutara'.'Choutara' means a raised square platform with open space around it. In different dialects of India it is known as 'Chabutara' or 'Chibutra' also. These Choutaras are very common every where since the inception of civilization.

It has always been a must in community life, Meetings, Kirtans, Bhajanas, Marriage and Thread ceremonies, Yajnas, and all types of religious and social functions need a Chautara. For every show business we depend on a Chautara, the built in raised platform with open space all around it. In Orissa, almost all types of histrionic performances of Jatra i.e. Leela, Suanga, Pala, Daskathia, Gotipua, Sakhinata, Ghuduki, (or Dhuduki) Nata and the like shows, need a 'Choutara' for their presentation. In absence of a suitable built-in 'Choutara’ a raised improvised platform is made out of wooden planks of bed cots known as 'Manchaa' and the performances take place over it, surrounded by spectators on all sides.

A 'Choutara' is raised so that all that goes on, on it are seen to a distance. It helps the angle of sight line for all people sitting around it. In case of slope or gallery around, a raised middle may not be needed and only the plain level ground will also do.

It is no wonder and is absolutely a fact that this 'Choutara' has remained a true people's theatre in our country since time immemorial-daringly intimate and most democratic in its design, the principles of which had perhaps evolved since the beginning of the first human society on earth out of sheer necessities.

Do we have any evidence of Kharavela's Choutara, I mean the square platform with open space at it's sides ? There is the remnant of at least one, a small one dilapidated and rearranged, located in front of the Ananta cave built by Kharavela, which is supposed to be oldest and the best preserved cave amongst the Khandagiri caves.

There we see a raised platform with open space around. Though the topography has changed, the remnants of an ancient small 'Catara' on the top of a hill and the space on the slope side bound by stone walls, gives us an idea about the structure.


Tatwagumpha 1.


Tatwagumpha 2.


Similarly the Ganesh Gumpha in Udayagiri has a huge open court yard in front of it ( images below )


Ganesh Gumpha 2

Ganesh Gumpha 3


What are those spots ? What are these structures so similar to each other in their constructions? Why are the open spaces like court yards located near these structures? Are these not Cataras or Jatharas or places earmarked for Jatras. And the structures, I mean the caves you see in the pictures consisting of rooms, verandahs, benches, pillars and all, are nothing but places of 'NO ADMISSION' during the functions. These are the so called green rooms of the modern theatre where artists do their make up or retire.

Even to-day in Orissa and everywhere in our country, we find that Choutaras are very much in use. Choutara of various sizes are located everywhere, whether in urban or rural areas with sufficient space around, an item of absolute necessity for the society living. It is the people's theatre in the true sense of the term. It is the space of Jatra.

Since this Catara or Jathara is found to be a most common thing and the type of Catara or Jathara we are very much accustomed to, at present, do not need big planning nor budgeting to finance it for its construction, how does this item turned to be an item of so much importance that in those days. His Majesty the King,Kharavela,felt the necessity of having it built everywhere in his kingdom so much so that he felt the absolute necessity of including this item Jathara or Catara more than once in his few lines of rock cut inscription, which gives details of only his main achievements amongst many ?

These Catara or Jathara would therefore definitely not be the common and the low cost mere Choutaras of today. These, by all means were regular theatre halls, worthy to have been constructed by an Emperor, who heartily had realised that "theatres are the show places of a nation".

The Prakrut expression Catara or Jathara, stands for the Sanskrit term Chatvara and the lexicon clearly gives us the direct meaning of this word to be a stage, an amphitheatre, an arena etc. amongst many others.

Incidentally both expressions of the same word Catara and Jathara are directly and very closely inter-related in its meaning, as well as in pronunciation to a most commonly used one word, Jatra in Oriya the theatre.

The difference in the pronunciation is JA instead of CA and the THA instead of TA and vice versa. Both JA and CA belong to the same CA class of consonants of the Indian vocabulary.

As in to-day's common use Jatra takes place on a Choutara or in otherwords a Jatra cannot take place or presented, without a Choutara.

Since all other words in the same sentence, in the 13th line of Kharavela's Hatigumpha inscriptions relate to what he built or constructed in his kingdom, this word Catara or Jathara or Jatra therefore, also directly related to a particular type of construction, construction of a place where performing arts could be presented with ease for a gathering. It is therefore the distinguished theatres, which he built for the entertainment of his subjects, both hypaethral and the roofed ones.

At all times, Jatra relates to the place and sphere of theatrical performances. The theatrical groups in Orissa are always known to be the Jatra Dala or Jatra Mandali or Jatra Walas. This Jatra Dala presents the Jatra or theatre. In absence of permanent pandals earmarked for regular theatrical presentations, the Jatra Dalas of today in Orissa have turned peripatetic. These groups move from place to place and accommodate themselves to present their Jatra shows at all assorted available conditions. The Jatra groups individually specialise in their repertory according to their choice i.e. Leela,Suanga,Pala,Daskathia,Ghudukinata,Rasa,Prahlada Nataka, Desia Nata,Sakhinata etc.

Tropical climate, lack of proper patronisation, age-long foreign dominations, low economic condition, inflow of outside influence, hatred of the so called sophisticated, all combindly helped the indigenous Jatra not to prosper. It is because of this that Jatra has invariably turned to be rural and open air and the Jatrawalas always a wait until fair weather.

As I have already stated, there is the repetition of the word Catara in Kharavela's inscription. While just the plain word Catara is in the 13th line, an adjective has been prefixed to it in the 16th line, thus making the combined word Patalika Catara.

The 15th and 16th line read thus :

"Arahata-nisidiya samipe patbhare cha varakara samuthapitahi anekajojanahitahi
panatisahi satasahasahi silahi silathambhani cha chetiyani cha karapayati"

"Patalika catare cha bedariya gabhe thambhe patitthapayati panatariya sata sahasahi.

Bedariya neela bochhinnan checha jatthi adhasatikan tiryan upadayati"

This means that near the slope of the mountains he [Kharavela] built up a huge Patalika Catara [a Catara with canopy of roof] having 50 stone pillars bedecked with precious stones at the cost of rupees 75 lakhs and 35000 pieces of stone slabs collected from the best quarries around.

CHOUTARANow this leads us to reflect on the conception of Patalika Catara.

Normally,Choutaras of today are open-sky, square platforms having an open space around.

During functions or performances, four poles are put at four corners and a canopy is tied over head. More poles are needed only when the open space around the Choutara is to be covered with canopy.

This is of course temporary improvisation. A permanent pandal needs permanent structures.

While four pillars are sufficient to put on a canopy at the top of the central platform more pillars are put up to hold the entire roof of the auditorium all around the platform. And this   Patalika Catara had fifty pillars.

And hence, Kharavela's Patalika Catara was nothing but his huge permanent State Theatre meant for a huge crowd where according to Kharavela's own inscriptions Nata,Gita,Vadita,Usava and Samaja were held regularly for the entertainment of his subjects.

And this theatre was built to be the most democratic in its design i.e. the stage or the acting of performing area was in the centre with spectators around, befitting the large heartedness of His Majesty the King Kharavela. Its  concept and the immense varieties of its utilities.


During the passage of these thousands of years this main state theatre is now lost but I vouch safe that slight traces of the remnants are still there to prove beyond doubt that some unique structure was there long w84.jpglong ago.

The huge open space between the two hills Khandagiri and Udayagiri is the exact spot where Kharavela's  Patalika Catara was located. During these thousands of years, the huge roof and the pillars have crumbled down and the stones have been carried away by men not knowing what it was or the importance of it.

Similarly the debris must have been bull-graded, cleared and cut, to allow the new pucca road to pass towards the Chandaka area from Bhubaneswar.

Still preserved section of a leveled open space with section of  stone lined gallery-like structure maybe Site for Patalika Catara.


With whatever is left over for us to look bewildered and awe-inspired is the still preserved section of a leveled open space with a section of a stone lined gallery-like structure. This was octagonal in shape all around with plane surface in the centre. The present condition of the existing structure gives us the first impression that the structure is there to stop erosion of the hill which is also correct. But the topography & the location of the premises, the surfaces of the nearby caves, caves around and atop convinces that some unique structure was there juxtaposed between the slopes of both the hills, the Khandagiri Ramp up tp Hatigumpha.jpgand the Udayagiri.

The present making of the huge ramp approach to the Hatigumpha though does not seem to be antique; the foundation over which the present ramp has been made seems to be of very queer type of engineering. The sides of the ramp give a step like uneven ascent in stages and bound by admixture of patterns.

On the western side of the ramp, there is a gallery like pattern. It is true that ever since this place was discovered to be of some historical importance, utmost care is being taken to preserve it as far as possible in it's original shape. Things  which are considered to be the best as and when from time to time.

This was the place where the Patalika Catara was built by Kharavela. While the whole thing was the Patalika Catara the actual Catara was the area with or without the central platform and the Patala or the roof was high up above resting on 50 pillars.

And the capacity of this Patalika Catara of the Top covered theatre was for at least 20,000 spectators, if not more sitting all around.

How do the words sound the Catara (Chatwara or Choutara etc.) or Jathara(Jatara or Jatra etc.)and the Theatre ?

How, the exact equivalent terms of the word 'theatre' are pronounced in other language of the world ?

It is very interesting to note there is a close phonetical affinity between all these words, Catara, Jathara, Jatra and Theatre.

For all practical purposes, these terms carry the same meaning and serve the same functions i.e. an acting area plus an auditorium where performing arts can be presented with ease, to some spectators.


And in the case of Patalika Catara of Kharavela we visualize that it was a fully developed permanent mass theatre with acting area Patalika Catara copyin the centre and spectators around.


But Kharavela did not stop there. In his efforts of practically doing solid things for lasting effects, he had gone a step further.

The Patalika Catara was the huge State Theatre for grand spectacles for the masses and so, what about the classes ?

Although I do not think there was any such distinct and wide difference between the masses and classes as developed in later times and we know Kharavela's life was a life of complete dedication to his people.


But, the king must also have his personal court entertainers to entertain him, his family, his officials, his state guests. So he should have a close intimate theatre for this purpose, worthy of a monarch.

An exponent of all arts (including the histrionic arts himself,) Kharavela would not have left things in a mere manner. And so, within the precinct of the double storied Rani Gumpha caves he had left another Catara or Jathara, of course with a little difference from the others, cut out of the solid rocks of Udayagiri and fortunately it is still there for every body to see and stamp on it.

What is it if not a regular cave theatre,where Nata,Gita Vadita,Usava and Samaja were being performed and the same can be presented with ease even to-day ?

This Rani Gumpha or sometimes very fondly called the Ranihamsapur or Raninaur, (the queen's palace) is for the layman, a series of rock cut caves. For all historians it has always been a huge monastery meant for Arhatas,Sramanas,Brhmanas,Jatis,Trapasas and Rishis. But the grandeur of the pattern, the beautiful and luxurious design of the structure, carving of amorous figures prove beyond doubt that this Ranigumpha was not for heretics at all. For me and from now on for all, it is going to be identified for all times to come, what exactly it is, for which it was built by king Kharavela

It is a Play House or a Theatre

In Sanskrit it is a Natya Mandap,Prekshya Gruha, or Prekshyaveshma, complete in every sense of the term.  

1306217599_638vvw.jpgStrangely enough (Strange because we had never thought of it) this Prekshya Gruha fits in to the prescribed dimensions and conditions of Natya Sastra of Bharatmuni in minutes details, as given in Chapter two, Prekshya Gruha lakshyana.

Let us see how  ? ( In the next chapter vikrasta madhyama)