Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Revenge of Kharavela

It was somewhere around 180 BC. The aura around Magadha was waning. Ashoka, the great Magadhan emperor, was gone. Kalinga, the land between the rivers Mahanadi and Godavari, had always been in a state of turmoil. Ever since the Nandas and the Mauryas ruled Magadha, the Kalingans have always been at the receiving end. The very mention of “Chandasoka - Ashoka the cruel”, still evoked a primordial fear in every Kalingan. His brutality in the vicious Kalinga war was still deeply etched in their memory. Ashoka which means "no sorrow" ironically created so much sorrow for the kingdom of Kalinga. The immense destruction and savagery that Ashoka heaped on them was still something that was indelible on their psyche. 

Kalingan people were freedom loving people and fought valiantly against the huge army of Ashoka. Ashoka had the largest standing army of his day and there was no way Kalinga could defeat it. But Kalinga was no pushover and this was evident from the fact that while Chandragupta Maurya conquered almost the whole of India and defeated the Greek king Seleukos, he did not invade Kalinga which was next to Magadha. Bindusara, his son, who was known as the Amitraghata or the ‘Slayer of the Foes’, never ventured into Kalinga for a good reason.  The Mauryan emperors were clearly aware of the military might of Kalinga and never invaded it. Ashoka, the third Mauryan emperor, had to wait and prepare for long eight years after his coronation to undertake that invasion. Pushyamitra Sunga, the army general was now ruling Magadha after assassinating the last Mauryan emperor Brihadratha. 

Kalinga was now a free country now. Although Kalinga was in a relatively peaceful time, the kingdom needed an heir apparent that could lift her from the woeful burden of yesteryears. Someone so powerful that he could wipe the slate of humiliation and defeat clean and write a new epoch in her history and be a beacon of light for all of her future generations. They were tired of their enervated lives with the burden of insult weighing heavily on their shoulders.

It was precisely at this time that the royal couple were blessed with a son. The kingdom was overjoyed and the Kalinga king Vriddharaja named his son “Mahameghavahana Aira Kharavela” – “the swift moving wind”, “the storm incarnate”. Kharavela was a descendant of the great Kalingan king Mahameghavahana. He was born at an auspicious moment and the astrologers that were invited to read his horoscope looked at the bright handsome features of the baby and knew that this was no ordinary child. This prince was special. Everyone predicted great things for the prince and for Kalinga. He will become as great as his ancestor, the saintly king Vasu, they said. Kalinga will shine like a bright star under him. It was as though Kalinga was reborn again.

The people had never known so much joy in the last three hundred years or so. The birth of the prince offered them a bright ray of hope of redeeming their lost glory. This meant just one thing for the people of Kalinga- the return of the sacred Jain idol of their 23rd thirthankara Parsvanatha who was an Ikshvaku prince of Benaras and had renounced the world to become a Jain monk. He lived in the ninth century BC. Earlier in history,  Mahapadma Nanda the Magadhan emperor before the Mauryas, had forcefully plundered the idol from them and  took it away. Mahavira, the last Jain thirthankara had himself visited Kalinga four hundred years ago and worshipped the idol of Parsvanatha. Their heads bowed in shame, every Kalingan had one wish – that a king as fierce as the storm would bring the idol back. And more importantly avenge their belittling and spirit crushing defeat  to Ashoka in the fateful Kalinga war.  Kharavela could be the King that will bring them glory, their lost splendor. 

Well, the astrologers predicted great things for Kalinga, didn’t they?? What more could the Kalingans want? Kharavela, the storm incarnate, will bring them glory, and let them hold their heads up high. He will bring back the idol and redeem their pride. 

For centuries, the capital city of Kalinganagara had been at the receiving end of the Magadhans and their domineering and condescending treatment. There was nothing more painful to the proud lineage of the kalingans than this servitude. They have been living with the affront of having their revered idol being taken away by the Nanda emperor and then the death blow that Ashoka heaped on them on the banks of river Daya, a century ago, was crushing.  
Magadha, the all-powerful empire, led by their blood thirsty king Ashoka had  wreaked havoc with their lives – hundred and fifty thousand were killed and an equal number were banished to the deserts of north western frontier of India, never to return. The powerful Mauryan king Ashoka had decimated them. It had sapped all courage from the Kalingans . They had lost all hope. All sense of self-respect and pride was destroyed. Ashoka left them in tatters. The pain was etched way too deep in their psyche. Who would restore their pride? 

Kharavela – The storm incarnate

Most of the information about Kharavela comes from inscriptions in the caves near Bhubaneswar called  Udayagiri and Khandagiri, famous in ancient times as the Kumari Parvata and the Kumara Parvata. According to Jaina tradition, Lord Mahavira  came to the Kumari hill from where he preached his doctrines. Ever since that time, the hill had been venerated as a sacred centre of Jainism. The Hathigumpha cave is one among many caves on the Udayagiri hill and can be considered the only surviving repository on Kharavela.  

The inscription which consists of 17 lines highlights the achievements of Kharavela. It contains a record of events during the first 13 years of Kharavela’s reign. The Hathigumpha cave (Elephant cave) was probably the place from where Lord Mahavira had preached Jaina religion in Kalinga. This could very well have been the reason for Kharavela to record his achievements here at this particular cave. The inscription is engraved partly in front and partly on the roof of the Hathigumpha cavern and unfortunately the inscription is badly damaged. Only the first seven lines can be read with any degree of certainty. The rest have been obliterated to a great extent. Sadly, this is all that is available of this great king for us to go by.  

The inscription states that in the first year of his reign Kharavela spent his time in repairing the damages to the city of Kalinga caused by a cataclysmic cyclone. In the second year, he undertook his first campaign of his reign; he sent his army westwards and destroyed the city of Mushikas. This campaign becomes very important when we come to know that this was done in defiance of the great Satavahana king –  Sri Satakarni, the third ruler in the Satavahana dynasty. Kharavela also happens to be the third ruler from the Mahameghavahana dynasty . It is quite possible that both the Mahameghvahana and the Satavahana empires evolved into independent kingdoms soon after Ashoka’s death. 

Sri Satakarni was a powerful king and the Naneghat inscription by his queen Nayanika describes her husband as “Dakshinapatha- pati” or the lord of Southern India. Sri Satakarni was ruling over some territories of Magadha, the Deccan and extensive areas of Western India and to proclaim his royal glory performed both the “Rajasuya” and the “Ashwamedha” Yagnas. At the very same time, the fierce and valiant Mahameghavahana Aira Kharavela was trail blazing his conquests down south. In that struggle for supremacy, Kharavela defeated Satakarni,  and annexed parts of the Satavahana empire. Defeating the great Satakarni who had just performed the Ashwamedha and Rajasuya yagnams was nothing short of incredible. Kharavela was no ordinary man. He was a force to reckon with. He was on a mission to prove that Kalinga was no longer a kingdom that should be taken for granted. 

The third year was marked by great rejoicings in the capital Kalinganagara and in the fourth year he subdued the Rashtrikas and the Bhojakas who were feudatory tribes to the Satavahanas. In the fifth year he repairs and extends a canal to his capital city. In the sixth year Kharavela performs the famed “Rajasuya” yagnam to commemorate his victory against the great Satavahana king Satakarni. In the seventh year his son Kudepa was born.

Kharavela was now a name that everyone heard loud and clear. To the Magadhans it sounded like a death knell. It was only a matter time before the powerful Kalingan king would march to the gates of Pataliputra. Kharavela had waited patiently for eight years building up the crescendo to finally look towards Magadha. Exactly, the same way that Chandragupta Maurya did when he overthrew the Nandas from the periphery.  

Magadhans beware! Kharavela is coming.

And finally, in the eighth year of his reign, in exactly the same number of years that Ashoka waited and planned his attack on Kalinga, Kharavela marches with a great army towards Magadha. He had lived all his life listening to how Magadha subjugated his people and banished his ancestors to the deserts thousands of kilometers away. He knew of the sacred idol that was forcefully taken away from them and about a hundred years ago how the arrogant Ashoka had massacred and decimated the Kalingan army never to rise again. Ashoka was so adamant on keeping Kalinga a spent force that he, after killing hundred and fifty thousand soldiers,  deported an equal number of able bodied men all the way to the north western border of India probably to the deserts of Balochistan. He made sure that Kalinga’s will to fight was broken. For another century. 

It took Kalinga a hundred plus years and a king like Kharavela to rise up again on its feet and muster enough courage to challenge Magadha. But this challenge was nothing that Magadha had ever seen in its history. This had vengeance written all over it. And this was no ordinary mortal. This was the great Kharavela burning with revenge marching to their gates. How dare Magadha steal their idol? For all the wrongs that Magadha committed, this was retribution time. Kharavela’s army was possessed. They had just defeated the great Satakarni. They believed they were invincible. There was no looking back now. Everyone in the Kalingan army including Kharavela was ready to die a thousand deaths for the glory of Kalinga - to die for their ancestors and bring back the idol from Magadha. If ever, they had anything to prove, to themselves or to their future generations it was this single act of bravery that would be etched in time. This war would be the defining moment for them. It was time to avenge the deaths of their ancestors. This time Magadha will pay. 

Kharavela must have rejoiced at the birth of his son. However, the shadow of shame that hung over him probably didn’t permit him to sit on his accolades and reminisce on his earlier victories. Unless he erased the memories of Magadha on Kalinga he was never going to be truly contented. The fire of revenge burnt in him like an eternal flame. “What good is my life if I don’t wipe of the shame and humiliation inflicted by Magadha on Kalinga? The holy idol of Parsvanatha still resides in Pataliputra. How can Kalinga sleep in peace? How can the souls of my ancestors who died in the Kalinga  war be at rest? Not until I avenge them, can I sleep. so he pined.

Magadha was still a formidable kingdom. Laying siege to their capital city was difficult. It was well protected by a fort to the south of it called Gorathagiri – a natural hill fortress. Kharavela knew that if he had any chance of defeating Magadha he needed to capture Gorathagiri first. His soldiers were prepared to fight till their last breath, if necessary. For, they all considered it their sacred duty to defeat Magadha and bring back the idol of their beloved Parsvanatha. It was their life's mission. With an army that was possessed by a single goal Kharavela attacked Gorathagiri with such venom that the royal walls shook with utter fear in Pataliputra. This was an attack that had destruction of Magadha written all over it. Never before had Magadha seen an army that was so hell bent on the destruction of Magadha.

Pushyamithra Sunga, the king of Magadha knew of Kharavela’s valor and rage, and surely enough began to tremble with fear at the impending onslaught. This was the Mauryan emperor who had most of North India under his control. But he wasn’t dealing with any non-descript king. This was Kharavela – the great Kalingan king at his door step intent on exacting revenge for all the wrongs that Magadha committed. He and his people knew that Kharavela was a man of extraordinary prowess and that this man defeated the great Satakarni. They also knew that Kharavela actually saved Magadha by driving away the Greek king Demetrius. Demetrius wanted to attack Magadha at the same time to share the spoils with Kharavela. Kharavela wanted none of that and instead attacked Demetrius and drove him all the way back to Mathura. If he wanted, he could have let Demetrius ravage Magadha. But he didn’t let a foreigner destroy Magadha. Or maybe, perhaps, he simply wanted the honor for himself. They trembled as they remembered the fate of a town called Pithunda, which had been razed to the ground by Kharavela not long ago. 

Panic gripped Magadha. It was unanimously decided that it was in Magadha’s best interest to surrender to Kharavela. They knew full well why Kharavela was so angry with Magadha. Their ancestors had wrongfully brought the idol of Parsvanatha from Kalinga. Kharavela and his people considered this as a great humiliation. It was evident to the people of Magadha that unless this humiliation was wiped out, Kharavela’s anger would not subside. It was therefore decided to hand over the idol to Kharavela with all honors. 

Pushyamitra sunga sent word to Kharavela that he wished to meet him. Kharavela agreed to this. Pushyamithra sunga  went to Kharavela with all his ministers and generals and surrendered and pleaded with him to spare Magadha. It is said that the Magadhan emperor touched the feet of Kharavela and beseeched him to show mercy. Kharavela must have thought of the destruction that Ashoka heaped on Kalinga and decided to go the peaceful way. He accepted the Parsvanatha idol and returned victorious to Kalinga. The fire that had been burning in the hearts of the Kalingans, ever since the Nandas carried their idol away was now put out. Magadha had surrendered. The blot on Kalinga has now finally been erased. 

Kharavela returned to Kalinga with the idol of Parsvanatha. Hundreds of sculptors started building a splendid temple for their deity. The deity was duly installed. All over the land there was great rejoicing. Kharavela's praise was on everyone's lips. He had wiped out the disgrace that had for long stuck to them.

Kharavela, unlike Ashoka, did not destroy Magadha. He didn’t want the Magadhans to remember him like the Kalingans remembered Ashoka. He knew the burden of history that the Kalingans would have to carry if he had destroyed Magadha. He didn't want to be another Ashoka.

Interestingly enough, Kharavela’s inscription describing his great victory over Magadha, and his other conquests stands within a visible distance from Ashoka’s Inscription at the Dhauli hill. From the top of the Udayagiri-Khandagiri hills one can see the Dhauli hill and vice-versa to remember the achievements of the two great monarchs, both conquerors as well as patrons of their respective religions.

The first and the second lines of the Hathigumpha inscription describe Kharavela –“ one who is endowed with the qualities as a warrior capable of protecting the whole of this earth extending as far as the four seas”. The third phrase then describes Kharavela as a prince “had the very best bodily form with graceful majesty, so lovely as to captivate the heart of grace himself – the veritable god Vishnu in human garb. The Amarakosha describes Kharavela as having a beautiful reddish body. In the Ashokan legends of Divyavadana and Mahavamsa Tika, the unsightliness of Ashoka in physical appearance is brought out blatantly.  There are no qualms in stating that it was his ungainly appearance that stood as an obstacle for him, especially when he wanted to appeal to his vast empire. The Hathigumpha inscription, as though belittling Ashoka describes Kharavela as the human embodiment of god Vishnu himself. It was as though Kharavela wanted a one-upmanship on Ashoka. In everything.

Standing on the Udayagiri hill, Kharavela must have looked at Dhauli hill where Ashoka had his inscription and said to himself  and maybe to Ashoka too– that Kalinga took his revenge on Magadha. And that Kalinga will sleep in peace now.

This great king who defeated the greatest of the empires ever to have ruled Ancient India – the Satavahanas and the Mauryas has been a forgotten figure until the 1820’s. It is sad that only fragments of his glorious achievements remain – only seven of the seventeen lines that are decipherable. The greatness of Kharavela is such that he manages to shine bright even from those fragments.

Kharavela chose Udayagiri hill to record his achievements for a particular reason. The hill overlooks the Dhauli hill that had Ashoka’s inscription on it. It was as if Kharavela  was sending a symbolic riposte to Ashoka. Surprisingly enough, Kharavela did not obliterate the Dhauli inscription of Ashoka, which eulogized his conquest of Kalinga. It looks to be a deliberate decision on the part of Kharavela not to destroy the Dhauli inscription and to let future generations know that the Kalingan revenge was complete. 

It was. 


  1. Very well written. Kudos nagesh muntha

  2. Very Well Written!! Did you see Sanjeev Sanyal's speech on this piece of history.He had shown the true nature of asoka in his book "The ocean of churn".He said Ashoka portrayal of turning to pacifist mode after kalinga war is not true.His talk was on youtube.Do checkout.You will get to know some more interesting stuff.Kudos Nagesh gaaru!! Very well written.

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