In Bhubaneswar II: Kharavela’s Inscription

Looking out from Udayagiri at Khandagiri

Part 1 here.

I arrive at the Udayagiri Caves quite early, one of the first tourists there this morning, and therefore a prime target for the guides. I evade them, because I want to be by myself, wander, look at the popular caves, and soak in the knowledge that I am at a site that, two thousand years ago, was a retreat for Jain hermits. Today, it overlooks a growing city with a culture that has evolved with the times. Across the road is the hillock on which rest the Khandagiri Caves and an active temple, presenting a sight quite different from the time of the ascetics who took refuge here.

I walk up the gently rising mound of Udayagiri in search of Kharavela’s inscription. The first marvel on the way is Rani Gumpha, with elaborately carved figures lining its walls. The caves look majestic in the morning light, and it is almost hard to believe that if you peep over the hill, you will look upon a bustling city that is going to work on petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles. It is always a pleasant surprise to come across such a quiet, ancient site in the middle of a city, and Udayagiri is no exception. However, the plastic bottle on the lawn is a reminder of why we need to cherish these remnants of our glory, because nothing we create now might survive even two centuries.

Rani Gumpha

I don’t have to go far to reach Hathi Gumpha — the cave which bears Kharavela’s famous inscription. The fading Brahmi script has clearly suffered a lot of weathering; at times like these, I remember all over again how much we owe archaeologists, historians, scientists, and others who bring us back the past in a form we can understand, to try to quench the inexplicable curiosity to understand the lives of people who ate and breathed like we do. This particular Pali inscription describes the life, rule, and conquests of Kharavela, going by the similarly dilapidated translation boards placed at the site. Some of the meaning is disputed, thanks to differences in interpretation and nature’s doings. However, as the source that provides the most information about Kharavela, a king who defeated the Mauryas some decades after Ashoka ravaged Kalinga, this cave is extremely significant.

Sanjeev Sanyal summarises Kharavela’s conquest in his book The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History.

Kharavela realized that the old empire was on its last legs and four years later he returned with a large army and sacked the Mauryan capital. He tells us proudly that he brought back the Jain idols that had been taken away to Pataliputra at the time of the Nanda kings and that he made King Bahasatimita (probably the last Mauryan king Brihadhrata) bow to him. With the prestige of the Mauryas in tatters, the last emperor would be deposed by his general Pushyamitra Sunga who founded a new dynasty that would later re-establish control over most of north and central India.

Remember that Ashoka’s brutal invasion has taken place only three generations earlier and would have still been fresh in Odiya memory. So, when Kharavela returned from his Magadh campaign, he had his exploits inscribed on a rock on Udayagiri hill, now effectively a suburb of Bhubaneswar. The hill has a number of beautifully carved caves cut into the hillside for the use of Jain monks. If one climbs up the hill and stands in front of Hathigumpha and looks out over Bhubaneswar, one can see Dhauli on a clear day (smog can often obscure the view). It is unmistakable how Kharavela had his inscriptions placed directly looking out at those of Ashoka at Dhauli. It is as if to tell Ashoka that he, Kharavela of Kalinga, had sacked Pataliputra and caused the end of Mauryan rule.

I didn’t know enough then to look for Dhauli, a site I had visited a decade earlier — but I was fascinated to find myself now in a place that was instrumental in rewriting the version of history we were taught, to learn that Ashoka the Great wasn’t actually the man he was made out to be.

I perched on a boulder by the caves to enjoy the contemplative stillness of the hillock — it was as if vestiges of the ascetics’ meditation remained in the air, despite all the change time had wrought. Wispy clouds floated in the vast sky. Where ascetics once retreated for solace, I was enjoying a newfound freedom from the isolation of lockdowns and restrictions. It was magical.

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A woman from many places.

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Jaya Srinivasan

Jaya Srinivasan

A woman from many places.

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