The name Orissa is derived from the Sanskrit Odra Vishaya or Odra Desa. Both Pali and Sanskrit Literatures mention the Odra people as Oddaka and Odrah, respectively. Greek writers like Pliny and Ptolemy described the Odra people as Oretes. In the Mahabharata the Odras are mentioned along with the Paundras, Utkals, Mekalas, Kalingas and Andhras, while according to Manu the Odras are associated with the Paundrakas, Dravidas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Sakas, Paradas, Pallhavas, Chinas, Kiratas and Khasas. The location of the Odra territory has been given in the Natural History of Pliny in which it is mentioned that the Oretes were inhabiting the country where stood the Mount Maleus. The Greek Oretes is probably the Sanskrit Odra and the Mount Maleus has been identified with Malayagiri near Pala Lahara. Pliny associates the Mount Maleus with the people called Monedes and Sharis who were probably the same as the Mundas and the Savaras respectively inhabiting the upland regions of Orissa.
The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang who visited Orissa in about 636 A.D. gives an account of the territory named Wu-Cha which is very likely the same as Odra. The pilgrim states that the Wu-Cha (Wu-tu) country was above 7,000 li in circuit and its capital was above 20 li in circuit. The area of the territory, which was 7,000 li or (2,253 km) in circuit, was very extensive. General Cunningham who calls this territory as Odra or Odra Desa writes as follows:
“The ancient province of Odra desa or Or-desa was limited to the valley of the Mahanadi and to the lower course of the Subarnarekha river. It comprised the whole of the present districts of Cuttack and Sambalpur and a portion of Midnapore. It was bounded on the West by Gondwana, on the North by the wild hill states of Jashpur and Singhbhum, on the East by the sea and on the South by Ganjam. These also must have been the limits in the time of Hiuen-Tsang as the measured circuit agrees with his estimate”.
The Muslim geographer lbn Khurdadhbin who wrote his geography in 846 AD refers to a territory called Ursfin which is identified by the Russian scholar V. Minorsky with Odra Desa. In another Persian geography called Hudad-al Alam written towards the close of the 10 th century A.D. mention has been made of a territory called Urshin (Odra Desa) which has been associated with the territories called N. Myas, Harkand, Smnder and Andhras which were more or less contiguous. The territory called N.Myas may be Mahismati and Harkand is suggested to be Akarakhand (eastern Malwa). Urshin may be the same as Odra Desa and Smnder may be the territory bordering the sea. Andhras is without doubt the same as Andhra Desa. Alberuni has referred to a territory called Udra Vishau located 50 forsakhs towards the sea in the south from the Tree of Prayaga. Fifty forsakhs is equal to about 200 miles or 321.86 km. So Udra Vishau may be the same as Odra Desa.
In the mediaeval Muslim chronicles like Tabaquat-I-Nasiri, Tabaquat-I-Akbari, Riyadus-Salatin, Tarkh-I-Firuzsahi, etc., the Odra territory has been referred to as Jajnagar probably after the capital Yayatinagar or Jajatinagar. The territory of Jajnagar very probably denotes to the Ganga empire during the period from Chodagangadeva to Anangabhimdeva III when Jajatinagar (modern Jagati on the Mahanadi) was the capital of that empire. It was Anangabhimadeva III who transferred the capital from Jajatinagar to Baranasi Kataka. And even after the change of capital some Muslim chroniclers continued to call this territory as Jajnagar. Shams-I-Seraj-Afif called this territory as Jajnagar-Udisa with its capital city Banaras on the right bank of the Mahanadi. The word ‘Udisa’ added to Jajnagar appears very significant. It is a developed form of the word Ursfin or Urshin used by earlier Muslim writers of the 9 th and 10 th centuries A.D. In Buddhist literature this word is expressed as Odivisa or Udivisa as found in the works of Lama Taranath and the author of Pag-Sam-Jon-Zang. In the Tantric literature of the mediaeval period the word Udisa has been frequently used and in Tantrasara, Jagannath has been referred to as Udisanatha. Poet Sarala Das mentions both the words Odra Rastra and Odisa in his famous treatise Mahabharata while Gajapati Kapileswaradeva (1435 – 1467 AD) in his proclamation inscribed on the temple walls of Jagannath calls his territory as Odisa Rajya. Thus from the 15 th century AD onward the land of the Oriya people was called Udisa or Odisa.
On the height of their power in the 15 th century AD, the Gajapati Kings of Orissa ruled over a kingdom, extending from the Gangas in the north to the Kaveri in the far south. But already in the early 16 th century, the Gajapatis lost great portions of their southern dominion to Vijayanagar and Golkonda. The dismemberment of the Oriya-speaking central region began immediately after the downfall of the kingdom in 1568, when the present Ganjam district was conquered by Golkonda and when, in the early 17 th century, the districts north to the river Subarnarekha were annexed to the Bengal Subah of the Mughal Empire. The fate of Orissa was further determined in 1751 when the Marathas merely conquered central and western Orissa whereas southern and northern Orissa remained under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Nawab of Bengal respectively. And when, in the year 1803, Orissa was finally conquered by the East India Company, the districts of Ganjam and Midnapore, already several decades ago, had become part of its fast expanding territory.
The East India Company had no intention of unifying the Oriya-speaking territories which it had conquered piece by piece during a period of more than half a century. On the contrary, after further reorganization of those Oriya-speaking areas which lay outside the Orissa Division, the Oriyas were administered by five separate political authorities, i.e. Bengal and its Orissa Division, Chota Nagpur, the Central Provinces, Madras and the Garhjat Mahals of feudatory states of Orissa.
The formation of the linguistic province of Orissa in 1936 may be regarded as one of the landmarks in the history of the evolution of the Indian Union. The demand for linguistic states, which became so conspicuous in India after independence had its genesis in the movement of the Oriya-speaking people for a separate province on the basis of language during the later half of the British rule. This movement had a long and chequered history ranging from the last quarter of the nineteenth century till the new province was created on the 1 st April, 1936.
The British conquest of India was carried on according to prevailing political situations as well as military conveniences of the conquering power. In the process of territorial conquests the traditional compositions of the socio-cultural affinities of the various Indian people were very much neglected. As one of the major linguistic communities of the Indian subcontinent, but placed under several administrative jurisdictions, the Oriya people suffered the injustice of dismemberment for nearly a century since the British conquest of Orissa in 1803. Ganjam and other Oriya-speaking areas south of the Chilika lake remained tagged to Madras; Midnapore to Bengal; Singhbhum, Seraikela and Kharsawan to Chota Nagpur Division; Sambalpur and Chhatisgarh feudatory states to the Central Provinces. Thus, when the British occupied Orissa in 1803 it was confined to the three coastal districts of Puri, Cuttack and Baleswar.