History Files


Iron Age India


by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 2 August 2009

Kalinga was roughly comprised of the present day districts of Puri, Ganjam and Cuttack within the state of Orissa.

The name Kalinga appears prominently during Emperor Ashoka's reign (269-232 BC), and later during the reign of King Kharavela of Kalinga (c.177-152 BC, or c.50 BC - theories vary to a large extent). The name also has a mention in the book 'Indica' by the Greek traveller, Megasthenes.

Kalinga must have been a powerful kingdom, even during the reign of Ashoka, for it dared to challenge the might of the Magadhan empire which was under Mauryan control. Ashoka invaded Kalinga around 260 BC, presumably to chastise Kalinga for refusing to accept its suzerainty, or for a dispute over a Nanda canal and allowing access to the Magadhans over the eastern trade routes. The Magadhans managed to defeat the Kalingans after a gruesome battle. But the loss of life and destruction of property which followed was so enormous that it is said to have dramatically transformed King Ashoka into renouncing violence and accepting Buddhism. Kalinga was annexed to the Magadhan empire. Peace prevailed until the end of Maurya rule in 185 BC. The rule of the empire was inherited by the Sunga dynasty, and later by the Kanva dynasty which ruled the Magadhan empire with Kalinga as a subsidiary.

Later the Chedi dynasty established its rule over Kalinga. The Chedi dynasty was commenced by Mahameghavahana. The great king of the dynasty, Kharavela, was probably his grandson and the son of King Vakradeva. Kharavela is also said to have descended from the royal sage, Vasu. A Jain text also calls him a descendent of the Asura king, Ravana, from the Ramayana.

Kharavela was the third ruler in the Chedi dynasty, ruling Kalinga around the first (or second) century BC. He ascended the throne at the age of twenty-four and his rule was said to be the golden period for the Kalingans. Kharavela was a Jain, but all religions could be freely practiced during his rule. He was often referred to as Bhikshuraja (or the monk king), apparently because of his patronage of the monasteries.

Hathigumpha inscriptions discovered near present day Bhubaneshwar give us an insight into the life of Kharavela. After becoming king, Kharavela is said to have immediately started repairs on the city. He restored the gardens, built embankments around the lake, constructed tanks and cisterns, started several irrigation and public welfare projects in the city. This pleased his subjects immensely. After gaining the confidence of his people, Kharavela embarked on his conquests.

In Depth

In his second year Kharavela is said to have forced an huge army comprising of strong cavalry and elephant units through the western regions which were controlled by the Satvahana king, Satkarni. He also threatened the city of the Mushikas.

In his fourth year the Rathikas and the Bhojakas submitted to Kharavela.

In his fifth year he extended the canal built by the Nandas.

In his sixth year he performed the Rajasuya yagna. He is said to have remitted taxes and cesses and granted funds to various institutions.

In the seventh year Kharavela's wife became a mother.

In his eighth year, he is said to have threatened the Indo-Greek king Demetrius, who fled to Mathura. This was followed by many gifts which included golden trees, chariots, horses, elephants, residences, and rest houses. That year he exempted the bramhanas from paying any taxes. The same year, a royal residence was also said to have been built at a cost of thirty eight hundred thousand.

Hatigumpha Pillar inscription
The Hatigumpha Pillar inscription in modern Orissa, ancient Kalinga

In the tenth year, again, he set off on his conquest of Bharatvarsha. He defeated Pithunda, southwards towards the Krishna river. Further down, he broke the confederacy of the Tramira (the Tamil countries), which had been a threat to the Kalingans. He brought back precious stones from the Pandya kingdom.

In the twelfth year, his armies turned northwards, attacking Magadha and Anga. He pillaged the kingdoms. He brought back with him riches and several Jain images which had been captured by the Nandas.

He settled a hundred builders in Kalinga, after giving them exemptions from land revenue. He constructed huge buildings, towers and carved interiors and stockades for the elephants.

In his thirteenth year Kharavela offered maintenance and gifts to the Jain monks and their monasteries. He arranged an assembly of several ascetics, sages and monks and had Jain texts compiled. Kharavela is said to have excavated several caves to serve as dwellings for the Jain monks, in the Khandagiri mountains.

Before his accession to the throne, Kharavela was said to be a great sportsman, with an athletic physique, and was very handsome. He had received an education in various arts and sciences including music, mathematics, law and finance. He also propagated education in a big way during his rule.

The Chedis are also attributed to spreading Indian culture into south-east Asian countries where it holds an influence to this day.

There is little known about the death of the great king Kharavela or, for that matter, the lives and deaths of his descendents. Some generations of Chedis did rule Kalinga and parts of neighbouring Andhra, but afterwards the Kalinga kingdom is said to have been swallowed up by its neighbours.


Main Sources

Altekar, A S - State and Government in Ancient India, Motilal Banarasidas Publishers Ltd

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.