Kalinga’s King Kharavela (2nd BCE – 1st BCE)

Kalinga’s King Kharavela (2nd BCE – 1st BCE)

Kharavela was the mighty king of Kalinga who rebuilt the empire destroyed by Ashoka and greatly expanded its territory. Yet we know so much about him from so little – just 17 lines of text inscribed in the Udayagiri caves in Odisha. Catch the story of this powerful but enigmatic ruler whose legacy lives on to this day

Salutations to the Arhats (Jinas)… by illustrious Kharavela, the Aira, the great, the descendent of Mahameghavahana, increasing the glory of the Chedi Dynasty, endowed with excellent and auspicious marks and features, possessed of virtues that have reached the four corners, overlord of Kalinga.’

Thus starts one of the most talked-about inscriptions, high up on Hathigumpha (Elephant Cave), one of the caves in Udayagiri, a complex of largely Jain rock-cut temples and viharas near Bhubaneswar, the capital of present-day Odisha.

The ‘illustrious’ Kharavela, who talks to us through this long and flattering inscription, is one of the most interesting characters from ancient Indian history. He bursts upon the scene some time in the 2nd BCE -1st BCE, leading expeditions and battles, thwarting Greek invaders, fixing irrigation systems, restoring the ‘pride’ of Kalinga, patronising Jain monks and building great temple complexes and viharas. The fact that he did all this in a matter of a few years – historians believe he died when he was 38 years old – makes him enigmatic, as does the fact that he is fondly remembered in Odisha even today, even though he was the only significant ruler of his line.

Hathigumpha inscription | Wikimedia Commons

Historian Romila Thapar in her book Early India From Origins To AD 1300, describes the Hathigumpha inscription, the source of much of what we know of Kharavela, as one of the earliest biographical sketches of a king in India. She underlines its importance when she says ‘(it) deserves a more detailed summary as it represents the beginnings of a style of royal eulogy.’ And that’s precisely what it is.

So who was Kharavela and why is he so important? The biggest source of information on this king is the king himself. Although limiting, it is a good start.

The Rise of Kharavela

The post-Mauryan period was marked by an era of political realignment. As it often happens with the fall of a large, centrally controlled empire, there were two forces at play – an attempt to hold it all together by an authority (a weaker usurper) trying to replace the old order; and the emergence of independent states, with their own political ambitions in what was once the empire.

The Shungas took over from the Mauryas after the unceremonious and cold-blooded murder of the last of the Mauryan rulers, Brihadratha. He was killed by his senapati or general, Pushyamitra, around 185 BCE. Little is known of Pushyamitra except that he was a Brahmin and he wasn’t very tolerant. He is said to have destroyed Buddhist monasteries and stupas, including the Great Stupa in Sanchi.

Sanchi Stupa | LHI

The 4th century CE Buddhist anthology Divyavadana mentions that Pushyamitra sent an army to persecute Buddhist monks as far as Sakala (Sialkot in present-day Pakistan). He is recorded to have performed the Ashvamedha Yajna (horse sacrifice) to legitimise his right to rule. While Pushyamitra’s son is said to have undone many of the wrongs his father committed – Agnimitra rebuilt the Sanchi Stupa and added its iconic railings – the Shungas didn’t last long. They were followed by the Kanvas and, by this time, what had been a vast empire straddling most of the Indian subcontinent during the Mauryan era, was now a small kingdom limited to Magadha.

In his book Glimpses of Kalinga History (1949), historian Manmatha Nath Das, former Vice-Chancellor of Utkal University and former Member of Parliament, spends a considerable amount of time looking at the rise of Kharavela and his reign. He compares Kharavela to Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire. He sets the tone for the rise of Kharavela when he writes, “It is really a wonderful phenomenon in the history of Kalinga that from the depth of ruin, the Kalingans could revive themselves within a short time.”

He explains how the great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga had caused widespread devastation and wiped out a whole generation or two of people in Kalinga. But then, he says, “barely seven years after Ashoka’s death, a new dynasty rose in Kalinga, in 225 BCE – that of the Chedis.” Kharavela would emerge as the brightest star here.

While there are major differences of opinion on the dates of the Chedis and Kharavela’s reign, we know that he was probably the third in his line in the Chedi dynasty. Das is of the opinion that Kharavela was born in 207 BCE but historians K P Jayaswal and R D Banerji believe that Kharavela reigned around the first half of the 2nd Century BCE. They cite references to the Satavahana ruler Satakarni and the Greek king Demetrius I to support this. Others, like archaeologist Bhagwanlal Indarji, say he reigned at a later date. Indraji believes Kharavela ruled around 103 BCE while scholar D C Sircar believes it was even later, in the second half of the 1st Century BCE.

The Hathigumpha Inscription

The confusion in dates is largely due to differences in the reading of the inscription at the Hathigumpha cave, which while yielding a lot of information, also leaves much to interpretation. The Hathigumpha prasasti (eulogy) even referred to as ‘Kharavela Charita’ (like the much later Harshacharita ), is attributed by some scholars to a royal chronicler. But given the tone of the inscription, other historians believe it may have been dictated by Kharavela himself.

The 17-line inscription written in the Brahmi script was first discovered by a British historian A Stirling in 1820. He went on to publish a copy of it in the Asiatic Researches Journal. But it was the famous scholar James Prinsep who deciphered the inscription. Subsequently, some of the most famous names in the world of Indian history, archaeology and epigraphy, including the founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, Sir Alexander Cunningham, and scholars like Bhagwan Lal Indraji, R D Banerji, K P Jayaswal and D C Sircar studied it.

This is the translation of the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela by K P Jayaswal and R D Banerji, adapted from Epigraphia Indica as quoted by Dr Romila Thapar in her book, Ancient India. It offers a fascinating peek into Kharavela’s life, and starts at the very beginning.

‘Fifteen years were spent in youthful sports with a body ruddy and handsome. Administration as an heir apparent lasted for nine years and he mastered corres­pondence, currency, finance, civil and religious law and was well-versed in all.’

These lines are interesting because, apart from telling us that Kharavela was anointed crown prince at the age of 15, they also tell us of the training he underwent – in areas of finance, administration and law, before he wore the crown at the age of 24.

‘On attaining manhood, he was crowned king in the dynasty of Kalinga. In his first year, he repaired the gates, walls and buildings of the city damaged in a storm; built embankments on the lake, and tanks and cisterns in the city; and restored the gardens. This was done at the cost of thirty-five thousand and pleased the people.’

When he became king, the first thing Kharavela did, we are told, was to focus on repairing the infrastructure in his capital. Archaeologists excavating what is believed to have been the site of his capital, Kalinganagari in Sisupalgarh, near Bhubaneswar, have found evidence of a natural calamity, probably a cyclone, that may have ravaged the city during the period.

Excavation at Sisupalgarh

‘In the second year, his strong army of the four-fold units of cavalry, elephants, infantry and chariots, was sent against the western regions controlled by Satakarni [the Satavahana king], and also threatened the city of the Mushika peoples.’

Within the first year of his reign, Kharavela seems to have begun planning his expansion – first targeting the areas adjoining Kalinga – the Deccan and Telangana. While historians are divided on which Satavahana king these lines refer to – Satakarni I or Satakarni II – the consensus points to the former. After defeating the Satavahana army, he turned south and defeated the Mushikas, a tribe believed to have lived in part of present-day Telangana.

This was followed by a year of revelry.

Map of India during the time of Kharavela | LHI

‘The third year was given to dance performances and music at festivals assemblies, and in the fourth year, the Rathikas and Bhojakas were attacked and they submitted to him.’

Here, the reference is to the Maharathis and Bhojakas, who controlled small kingdoms in the Deccan. Kharavela seems to have ventured out on his conquests every alternate year. Between these, he seems to have spent money, probably the riches won in war, to build his capital. We infer this because we are told that:

‘In the fifth year, he extended the canal originally built by the Nanda king.’

There is some confusion on which Nanda king the inscription is referring to. Views vary greatly, with some historians saying it must be a reference to the pre-Mauryan Nanda King Mahapadmananda. Others believe this could even be a reference to Ashoka or even Pushyamitra, the Shunga king.

This was also the year Kharavela did the Rajasuya, for which, we are told, he raised taxes.

‘Since he was performing the Rajasuya sacrifice, he remitted taxes and cesses, and bestowed many hundreds of thousands on the institutions of the city and the realm.’

‘In the seventh year, his wife became a mother.’

Kharavela must have been 31 years old when he became a father. Interestingly, another inscription in the Udayagiri caves, where the Hathigumpha inscription is, makes a reference to his wife. The Manchapuri cave inscription engraved on the raised space between the second and third doorways of the cave, which is part of the double-storied cave complex in Udayagiri, mentions that ‘by the blessings of Arihants (Tirthankar), the chief queen of Kharavela, the Chakravarti monarch of Kalinga, the great-granddaughter of Hathisiha (Hasti Simha) and the daughter of Lalāka or Lalārka, caused to be constructed the caves for the sramanas of Kalinga.’

Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Complex | Wikimedia Commons

It is interesting that Kharavela’s queen, who is referred to as the ‘princess of the kingdom of Vajiraghara’, makes references to her father and great-grandfather. Reminding one of another queen Naganika, who around the same period, referred to her Maharathi father.

Returning to the Hathigumpha inscription, it gets exciting for Kharavela in the eighth year of his reign as he takes the battle to the doors of the dreaded Magadhans. But there is a twist.

‘In the eighth year, he threatened the capital of Magadha, which led to the King Dimita [Demetrius, the Indo-Greek king] retreating to Mathura. More gifts follow – golden trees, elephants, chariots, residences and rest-houses as well as the declaration that Brahmans were exempt from tax.’

In the Hathigumpha inscription, the writer boasts that Kharavela’s army was so fierce that King Dimita retreated to Mathura. Scholars like R D Banerji and K P Jayaswal, who studied this inscription, have interpreted this to be a reference to the Bactrian-Greek ruler Demetrius I, who sent two armies deep into India in 170 BCE. He wanted to do what Alexander had been unable to. We know that during this time, Demetrius’s army had taken advantage of the confusion in the North to conquer major cities including Pataliputra and Ujjain. We also know that the armies were pushed back to Mathura. Was Kharavela responsible for this? There is still uncertainty over this as the dates are confusing.

In any case, the inscription refers to an obviously important victory, because for a year, there are celebrations.

Extent of the empire of Kharavela | LHI

M N Das in his book even refers to Kharavela marching to Mathura and says that instead of plundering the conquered city, he ensured the safety of its people and ordered feasts. It is not clear where the reference to this comes from.

In the 9th year, Kharavela also builds himself a grand palace. The inscription says:

‘A royal residence was built at the cost of thirty-eight hundred thousand.’

Go to Sisupalgarh, on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, and you can see evidence of this palace, where ornate pillars now stand forgotten in the middle of a paddy field. According to archaeologist R K Mohanty, who was part of the team that excavated the site, there are remains of many other pillars buried in mounds around here. This has led archaeologists to believe that this was part of a large hall or perhaps a palace.

Monolithic pillars at Sisupalgarh | LHI

In the 10th year, after the palace was built Kharavela set out again.

‘In the tenth year, he sent an expedition to conquer Bharatavarsha.’

‘Another expedition went south towards the Krishna river and attacked the town of Pithunda, which was ploughed with a plough yoked to asses. He broke up the confederacy of the Tramira [Tamil countries] which had been a threat to Kalinga.’

These lines have been interpreted by historians like Das to mean that after the first march south, Kharavela faced more problems from the Mushikas (from present-day Telangana), who had been subjugated before. Their capital Pithunda was captured and in a ceremony that would echo through the ages, the land was symbolically ploughed by donkeys/asses. This ‘defiling’ of the land was done as a final insult by conquering armies to assert their power over the people and their subjugation. Also, the old confederacy of southern rulers – which had been around for some time, probably from the time of Chandragupta – was broken. Interestingly, this quote is important also because it marks the first epigraphic reference to the term ‘Bharatavarsha’

But the crowning glory for Kharavela came in the 12th year, when he once again marched on Magadha. We are told:

‘In the twelfth year, his armies turned northwards causing panic among the people of Magadha. He retrieved the image of the Jina which had been taken away from Kalinga by the Nandas and brought back the riches of Magadha and Anga. (Meanwhile, from the south…) Precious stones were brought to his court and pearls from the Pandya realm…’

It is believed that the image of the Jina referred to here was probably the footprint of a Tirthankara that had been taken away to Magadha during an earlier conflict. This has been interpreted differently and also indicates the underlying conflict over faith. Was Kalinga a mostly Jain area and did Ashoka try and impose Buddhism here? Or was it Mahapadmananda who took away the much revered Jina of Kalinga earlier?

What we do know is that getting back this Jina was seen as the biggest achievement of Kharavela, an act of revenge to the affront that the Kalingans had faced earlier. There are reliefs in the Udayagiri complex that show the Jina being brought back to Kalinga in a grand procession.

This also marks a turning point in Kharavela’s reign. After the 12th year and its successes, Kharavela seems to have become even more religious. There is also a reference to a major Jain Council – a meet-up of Jain monks and scholars that he hosted, probably at the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves that he and his family had built.

‘In the thirteenth year, he offered maintenance and gifts to the monks of a Jaina monastery.’

‘An assembly was held of ascetics and sages and monks and the depository of the relic of the Arhat was embellished. He caused Jaina texts to be compiled.’

The inscription at Hathigumpha ends at this point, leading some scholars to believe that so did the story of Kharavela. Did the great king die by the young age of 38? Or did he, like Das believes, adopt the garb of a Jain monk and renounce the world? Did he spend his last years sitting atop the Udayagiri hill, meditating or wandering with other Jain monks? And did he finally do what Chandragupta Maurya is said to have done – choose death by starvation?

Historical records are silent about this. Meanwhile, the Hathigumpha inscription ends with these words:

‘He is the king of peace, of prosperity, of the monks and of the teaching. He is accomplished in extraordinary virtues, respects every sect and repairs all shrines. His armies cannot be vanquished and he protects the realm. He is descended from the family of the royal sage, Vasu.’

As the curtain comes down on Kharavela, the Chedis fade away. The king was probably succeeded by his son Kudepasiri or Vakadepa, in whose name there is a minor inscription in the Udayagiri complex, but from there on, Kharavela’s line drops off. As a historian eloquently puts it, “From here on, the history of the Chedis of Kalinga is enveloped in darkness.”

Interestingly, outside the Hathigumpha inscription and the minor inscriptions in the caves in the complex, there are barely any references to King Kharavela. As historian Dilip Kumar Ganguly writes in his book, Historic Geography And Dynastic History of Orissa, “There is no mention of Kharavela in the Puranas even though they mention a host of other rulers.” Could it be because Kharavela was a Jain or was it because he was an insignificant ruler?

Equally interesting is the fact that while the Hathigumpha inscription mentions the various adversaries of Kharavela and also the Nandaraja a few times, there is absolutely no reference to Ashoka, who had wreaked havoc in Kalinga. Interestingly, there is also no unique currency minted by Kharavela. It appears that Kharavela and the Chedis continued to use the Mauryan currency, the karshapana.

While many questions remain, it is a testament to the aura of Kharavela that despite the fact that we know so little about him and his reign (which most probably lasted just 14 years), he remains an enigmatic figure in the history of that era.

Interestingly, this period of confusion after the fall of the Mauryas – between 200 BCE and 100 CE – seems to have laid the foundation of much of the regional identities we see in India even today, from the then Kunindas to today’s Himachal, the Maharathis to present-day Maharashtra and the Kalingans (Chedis) to present-day Odisha. No wonder Kharavela is a hero, who is still fondly remembered in Odisha today.

Sanchi – A Canvas of Buddhist History

This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this series here.