With Odia Asmita or self-respect emerging as the central theme for the state assembly elections underway in Odisha along with the Lok Sabha contest, the polls could be seen as a referendum on the political legitimacy of Biju Janata Dal leader VK Pandian.

Pandian, who has served as a key aide to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for more than a decade, is seen as the frontrunner among his potential political heirs. The Bharatiya Janata Party has questioned how someone native to Tamil Nadu can be allowed to rule over Odisha without a democratic mandate. This criticism has support from a significant section of educated, urban, middle-class Odias.

A national-level controversy has already erupted over BJP’s focus on Pandian’s Tamil identity. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has expressed his displeasure over Narendra Modi’s campaign remarks in Odisha, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of characterising Tamils as “thieves” in front of the Odia people.

“Can the prime minister term the people of Tamil Nadu as thieves who have stolen the keys of the treasury of Lord Jagannath temple?” Stalin is reported to have said.

Stalin has cited an excerpt from a speech Modi made in Cuttack on Monday, in which he said, “Whatever is happening in relation to Jagannathji’s Ratna Bhandar [Jewel Store] has angered the whole of Odisha. Now people say that the keys to the Ratna Bhandar have been dispatched to Tamil Nadu. Who has sent [the keys] to Tamil Nadu?”

The Ratna Bhandar of Puri’s Sri Jagannath Temple, which has not been opened and examined in 40 years, has been the focus of BJP’s campaign in Puri since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The keys to the chamber were reportedly missing for six years and then duplicate keys were apparently discovered after the state government came under pressure.

It is widely understood that the Modi remarks on the keys being dispatched to Tamil Nadu were meant to target Pandian. BJP leader in Tamil Nadu, K Annamalai, fired back at Stalin after he questioned the Modi’s speech.

Meanwhile, a growing deluge of social media posts and whisper campaigns are suggesting Pandian’s rule over Odisha is revenge against a historic victory by an Odia emperor over a southern king. Pandian, it is being alleged, will ultimately carry back to Tamil Nadu the wealth that had been won by the Odia ruler in medieval times.

Biju Janata Dal leader VK Pandian and party chief Naveen Patnaik. Credit: @bjd_odisha

According to the 16th century legend, the king of Kanchi kingdom, presently a district in Tamil Nadu, had expressed an interest to marry his daughter Padmavati to Suryavamsi Emperor Purushottama Deva. The king had sent emissaries to Puri to unearth more information about the emperor. The informants, who reached Puri during Rath Yatra, saw the Odia emperor sweeping the floor of the chariot of Lord Jagannath – a tradition called chhera pahara. Unaware of the ritual and political significance of this act of sweeping, the southern king declared he would not marry his daughter to a Chandala, a sweeper.

To avenge this insult against himself and his deity, Purushottama Deva led an expedition to the territories near Kanchi and Kaveri rivers. He was unsuccessful in his first attempt. He returned and prayed to Lord Jagannath, who promised to ride ahead of the royal army with brother Balabhadra. The second assault was a great success and culminated in the capture of Princess Padmavati.

Purusottama Deva commanded Padmavati to be married to a suitable sweeper as a final blow against her father. During the subsequent Rath Yatra, one of the ministers of the Emperor pointed out that the chhera pahara ritual made him the most suitable sweeper for the princess. Accepting the merit in the argument, Purusottama Deva married Padmavati.


This tale was immortalised in the Kanchi Kaveri Upakhyana composed by poet Purusottama Dasa in the 16th century. The popularity of the legend has remained undiminished over centuries. As political scientist Bishnu Mohapatra has established, Ramsankar Roy had chosen the Kanchi Kaveri legend to author the first modern play in Odia.

This was followed by the publication of Godabarisa Mishra’s play titled Purusottam Dev. Odia singer Akshyay Mohanty recorded in the seventies a song based on the Kanchi Kaveri legend, which became a roaring success. Even to this day, radio and television commentaries accompanying Rath Yatra rituals frequently allude to the legend.

Eminent linguist Gaganendranath Dash had located six sources and versions of the Kanchi Kaveri legend. But he has cautioned that there is little historical evidence to support the narrative. Other historians have attempted to find a place for the story in India’s medieval history. While scholars still debate the story’s historicity, the story continues to survive because it has been used to serve different political aims.

For instance, a medieval reading of the story, by Bishnu Mohapatra, brings out the conflict between Vaisnavite and Saivite cults as the tale ends in the victory of Jagannath over Ganapati, the god of the Kanchi king. But in the hands of Odia nationalists in the 20th century, Kanchi Kaveri has been used to construct a collective Odia identity through this tale of triumph of the Odia jati.

Meanwhile, the Kanchi Kaveri narrative finds political relevance even in the year 2024. The Biju Janata Dal’s opponents have selected a potent weapon from the past, which they have wrapped in rumours, to fight battles in the present.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Odisha.