The brief reign of Kharavela was like a landmark of Orissa history. Recorded in the Hatigumpha Inscription with religious symbols, the account of that reign has been acknowledged as sacred and truthful.
It speaks of a monarch who was one of the most fascinating figures of ancient history.
His estimate rests on his contributions to the history of Kalinga and of India as a ruler and conqueror, a patron of culture, and a champion of Jainism.
In respect of Kharavela’s contribution to Kalinga history, the following factors are noteworthy. Firstly, Kharavela confirmed the fame of Kalinga in the political annals of ancient India. Though the name of Kalinga had appeared prominently in the great epic Mahabharata, and in the Buddhist and Jaina literature, the first historic proof of Kalinga’s greatness was established by the Kalinga War of Asoka. But, much more than that was the role of Kharavela in carrying the name of the Kalinga people as a martial race to far corners of India.
His extensive conquests in the west, the south, the north and the north-west, and his victory over many people’s proved elaborately that Kalinga was a mighty political state of India. Kharavela’s military achievements were the brightest testimony to the vigour and vitality of the Kalinga people. Kalinga, in one sense, gave a fitting reply to the Maurya invasion under Asoka by defeating Magadha under Kharavela’s command. Though brief, Kalinga supremacy over a large part of India can be regarded as the most remarkable achievement of Kharavela. In essence, by providing bold leadership to a brave race, Kharavela made Kalinga great.
Secondly, as a ruler Kharavela gave to Kalinga an ideal form of ancient monarchy. As benevolent as Asoka after his conversion, Kharavela devoted his administration to the welfare of his subjects. From the beginning of his reign he adopted the policy of providing happiness and pleasure to his people, besides taking up public works of gigantic character. In the very first year of his kingship he took up the developmental works for strengthening his capital Kalinganagari.
Towers, gates, and walls of the fort were repaired and rebuilt, embankments were constructed, water tanks were provided with steps, and the city was beautified with parks and gardens. In subsequent years of his reign, more and more of development works were undertaken. Even the old canal of the time of the Nanda King was renovated for use, and extended to the capital to serve the need of the inhabitants.
Like King Harsha Vardhana of future, Kharavela showed remarkable zeal for displaying his wealth for charitable purposes. He remitted taxes and cresses in the sixth year of his reign to give relief to all people, both in urban and rural areas of the empire. By his lavish expenditure in public works, he proved that the royal treasury was meant for the people and their well-being. His monarchy thus provided a period of happiness to the people of Kalinga.
Thirdly, Kharavela was a versatile patron of the culture of Kalinga. The Hatigumpha Inscription bears a graphic picture of all that he did to promote the traditional culture of the land. Himself well-versed in the Gandarva Veda, he encouraged dance, music and artistic performances on a vast scale. In order to make Kalinganagari a city of culture, he used to entertain the people lavishly with such artistic performances as dapa or acrobatism, nata or dance, gita or songs, and vadita or instrumental music. He also encouraged and held various utsava or festivals and samaja or social gatherings.
Fourthly, as a patron of literature, his own ‘Charita’ is in itself a proof of his patronisation. Like Samudragupta patronising a Harisena, and Harsha encouraging a Bana, Kharavela patronised that nameless Harisena or Bana of Kalinga who left for the posterity an elegant piece of prose, a precious example of the ancient Indian literature, the so-called Kharavela-Charita, as inscribed in Hatigumpha Inscription.
We have seen the emperor in his busy days at Udayagiri while he was deeply engaged in the scholarly discussions with the wise; we have seen him inaugurating a celebrated council of the Indian intellectuals; and finally we know that he revived the lost literature of the Jains after a highly intellectual pursuit. All these facts go a long way to prove that Kharavela was one of the wisest men of the East of his time.
The wise emperor was equally a pearless builder. No Monarch in ancient India except Asoka, had so much of a passion for building as Khavavela, and a few in the entire range of the Indian history were so successful builders as that king. Kharavela’s architectural activities in his capital and in the Udayagiri- Khandagiri hills had earned for him an undying fame.
Finally, Kharavela was a unique builder. ‘Great Victory Palace’ or the Mahavijaya Prasada, built in Kalinganagari at a huge cost, has vanished forever, as also many of his other monuments. But, the caves of Udayagiri-Khandagiri hills with their excellent sculptures and fine artistic works are like the dumb and mute witnesses of a splendid period of Orissan history.
Kharavela, in fact, laid the foundation of the fame of Orissa as a land of art, architecture and sculpture by his own activities in those spheres. His religious architecture contained innumerable rock-cut caves of different designs, sacred sanctuaries and beautiful shrines, decorated stone pillars, and ornamented pavillions. Most of these have been lost to posterity.
But, whatever are still in existence, reveal the elegant artistry on the facades of some of the existing edifices, the beauty of their sculptures and their massive and imposing body built. In his passion for building, Kharavela is comparable only to Asoka in those ancient times. Asoka and Kharavela may be said to have laid the foundation of Indian architecture in that remote antiquity.
Kharavela’s time was like a golden age in the history of ancient Kalinga. In power and prosperity, in artistic as well as spiritual realms, Kalinga under Kharavela enjoyed a period to be proud of.
In the wider context of Indian history, the role of Kharavela is significant for three notable reasons.
Firstly, Kharavela rose to power in Kalinga when India was passing through a phase of political disintegration. After the fall of the Maurya Empire, the theory of Chakravarti Kshetra was fast losing ground as disunity overtook the land. It was Kharavela who in his brief period of power effectively revived that political tendency, and tried to become a Chakravarti monarch. His military campaigns in form of Dig-vijaya were aimed at creating a large empire comprising of south, north, east and west. In that attempt, he achieved spectacular success.
His political supremacy was established over the whole of the Deccan and extended to the far south. In the north and the north-west his power was felt by many rulers and their people. From Mathura in the far north to the Pandya territory in the far south, and from the eastern sea to the western sea, the empire of Kharavela was vast enough to signify the unity of a larger part of India. Kharavela is said to have performed a Rajasuya ceremony to proclaim his sovereignty.
Though a Jaina monarch, he did not give up the traditional mode of the ancient Indian monarchy in performing the Brahmanical ceremony of the Rajasuya. That shows his faith in conquests in the larger interest of the political unity of India. In a sense, between the Mauryas in the past and Kanishka in future, Kharavela attempted at a bigger political empire to uphold the traditional virtue of powerful monarchy.
Secondly, Kharavela’s victory over the Indo-Greeks of the North West was an achievement of great significance. Right from the time of the decline of the Mauryas, the Greeks from outside attempted to invade India in an aggressive way. When Kharavela was advancing towards Pataliputra with his victorious armies, the Yavanaraja or the Greek King was leading his forces towards that ancient capital of Magadha. Even though the identity of that foreign ruler is a subject of controversy, yet, his power for aggression has not been doubted.’ At that critical moment, Kharavela dropped his invasion of Pataliputra and directed his army against the foreign invaders. Like an Indian first and a Kalingan next, the statesman in Kharavela inspired him to fight the foreigners to save the motherland.
This was a masterpiece of Kharavela’s politics. As his army advanced to face the foreigners, the Greek King, aware of Kharavela’s power, retreated to his stronghold in Mathura. But the Kalinga King marched from Magadha towards the far-off Mathura to reach the base of the Indo-Greek power. In fear, the Greek King with his army fled from Mathura and vacated Uttarapatha. Most probably, the Yavan forces fled beyond the Indus.
The victorious Kharavela thereupon entered into Mathura. In that moment of victory, instead of acting as a sanguine plunderer, Kharavela showed a rare example of ancient magnanimity as a liberator by entertaining the people of Mathura to their entire satisfaction.
Kharavela’s victory over the Indo-Greek power saved north India from a political disaster. Like Chandragupta Maurya, he too was an Indian hero who humbled the outside invaders and drove them out.
Finally, Kharavela’s patronisation of Jainism ranked him with other great royal patrons of religion like Asoka, Kanishka and Harsha. While the above-named monarchs were the patrons of Buddhism, Kharavela was a patron of Jainism.
Kharavela liberated the sacred city of Mathura, which was a strong-hold of Jainism from the Yavanas and opened the city to Jaina pilgrims coming from all parts of India. From there he brought a sampling of the sacred Kalpa Tree to Kalinga in a spectacular procession. This Tree is believed to have been connected with the life of the first Jaina Tirthankara, Rishabhanatha. Veneration to that Kalpa Tree, like the Buddhist veneration for the Bodhi Tree, gave a new impetus to the Jaina faith in India.
Kharavela also brought back from Magadha the image of the Kalinga Jaina to its original site in Kalinga, supposed to be at Pithunda. That work of restoration was also a religious work of higher merit for the Jainas of the land.
But, it was Kharavela’s architectural activities in the Udayagiri hill which gave a fresh vigour to Jainism. Countless rock-cut caves, and other rest houses for the Jaina saints and monks made that place a prominent centre of Jainism. The Jainas from hundred corners of India made it their holy abode for centuries after Kharavela. The art, sculpture and architecture of that place became the precious contributions of Kharavela to Indian culture. Till today, the remains of Udayagiri-Khandagiri complex are considered as priceless examples of Jaina monuments.
Though a devout Jaina, Kharavela was tolerant towards all other religions like Asoka or Harsha. At Mathura, he showed his respect for all faiths by offering respectful charities to “those who kept to household life, of those who turned ascetics, those who belonged to Brahmanical orders or those who belonged to other religious orders.” At the Udayagiri hill, too, he constructed majestic rest houses and dwelling places not only for Jaina Sramanas, but also for Brahmanical Rishis, and Buddhist Samghayanas, coming from all places. And, finally, he concluded his Hatigumpha Inscription by describing himself as “the worshiper of all religious orders, the repairer of all shrines of gods.”
Thus, in the general assembly of India’s great men, Kharavela shines as a bright luminary. A soldier and a savant, a conqueror and an administrator, a king and a sage, Kharavela occupies a striking place in the annals of this land. India is proud of such a son-a great hero of her history and a fine specimen of her culture.