The role of Kalinga in shaping the history of Bharatavarsha is profound, particularly as one of the critical regions unifying Uttarapatha with Dakshinapatha. Inarguably, the most significant ruler in this region's history was the legendary Kharavela of the Chedi clan. The most important source to study the history of Kharavela and his exploits is the Hatigumpha inscription located near Bhubaneshwar. This prashasti provides a detailed, sequential sketch of Kharavelas life, right from his childhood to his conquests and eventual retirement in the Udayagiri Hills. As this happens to be a hagiography, it invariably contains exaggerations, but historians use it carefully to derive at least a partial sense of the emperor in order to locate him in the broader contours of Indian history.
Decline of the Mauryas
The Chedis of Odisha were one of the clans that emerged in Eastern India after the decline of the Mauryan Empire. Ashokas defeat of Kalinga is etched in history for the sheer cruelty inflicted on the victims, and his subsequent acceptance of Buddhism. Nonetheless, by the time this realisation had dawned on Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire was in possession of territories all across the subcontinent, from present-day Sind to Odisha. The Kalinga War is rated among the most devastating wars to have ever taken place, and it was hard to wipe out from collective memory the atrocities perpetrated upon the hapless citizens of Kalinga. This bottled up aspiration of vengeance required an outlet, and with the disintegration of the Mauryan Empire, the churn had begun. At the dawn of the second century BCE, Bharatavarsha was in a state of turmoil, there being no unifying force of the kind present even half a century earlier. The Indo-Greeks had grown in stature and other West Asian powers were making steady inroads. The civilisation was in dire need of an inspiring leader, and it is in such circumstances that Kharavela made his mark, enshrining a golden chapter for himself in the annals of Indian history.
Born into the Maha-Meghavahana kula of the Chedi clan at around 215 BCE, Kharavela was given a rigorous training from a younger age. His upbringing played a significant role in moulding him, laying the foundations for the gargantuan heights he went on to reach in his career. He was installed as yuvaraja in his 16th year and by the time he turned 24, had become the Maharaja of Kalinga.
Career as Maharaja of Kalinga
He embarked on a policy of rapid territorial expansion from the time he acceded to the throne. However, he took up on priority the renovation of the damaged city of Kalinga by building dams and canals. His administrative prowess was often overshadowed by his military achievements, but it undoubtedly played an integral role in making him a force to reckon with across Bharata.
He decided to establish his supremacy in dakshinapatha before moving northwards. His most formidable enemy at the time of coronation would have been Satavahana king Sri Satakarni. Kharavelas forces defeated the Satavahanas and further subdued the Mushikas. In his fourth year, he subdued the Rathikas and Bhojakas (also called the Maharathis and Mahabhojas respectively), victories that were celebrated with great pomp considering that these two groups wielded a lot of currency in the Deccan.
Kharavela spent his fifth year facilitating some long-due renovations in the city of Kalinga. He extended a canal constructed under the Nandas nearly three centuries earlier. The very next year, he performed the Rajasuya yajna, which symbolically cemented his position as a ruler who exuded great power.
His eighth regnal year onwards, Kharavela diverted his resources towards Uttarapatha, realizing that the great Mauryan Empire was in its deathbed. He first destroyed the fortress of Gorathgiri, and then plundered Pataliputra. This sounded the death knell on even the slightest ambition nurtured by the Magadhan rulers of regaining their past glory. This onslaught forced the legendary Greek King Demetrius to retreat to Mathura. Kharavela reached Mathura to find that the Greek king had shifted outside the Bharata territory in morbid fear of the powerful Kalinga army. This incident portrays Kharavela's stature as a warrior, and the hegemonic nature of his Kalinga army at a certain point in history. It is also said that as a testament of his magnanimity, Kharavela did not harm the citizens of Mathura in any manner, instead organising lavish feasts for them. [ref]
He went on to triumph over the Tramira-desa-sanghatam (purportedly a League of the Tamils). In his twelfth regnal year, he launched another assault on the royals of Magadha, and this time defeated the Sunga ruler Pushyamitra to submission. He also carried back a Jina idol that had many aeons back been taken away by a Nanda ruler. Jubilant celebrations followed as the victorious Kharavela came back to his capital. When he returned from his Magadha campaign, he had his exploits inscribed on a rock on Udayagiri hill. As Sanjeev Sanyal notes, his inscriptions are placed directly looking out at those of Ashoka at Dhauli. This may have been a statement of superiority and one-upmanship. That very year, he went on to subdue the Pandyas as well, making him by far the most powerful ruler of India at that stage. Though the prashasti may be a convenient exaggeration of Kharavelas exploits, it does sufficiently highlight his clout among his contemporaries. [ref]
After the second and decisive conquest of Magadha, Kharavela denounced warfare to devote more time to spiritual endeavours and the welfare of his subjects. As noted earlier, he was a devout Jaina, and has been hailed as Bhikshu-raja or a monk-king. He gifted robes and gave generous grants to Jaina saints. He may have even conducted a Jaina religious council on top of the Udayagiri Hill. He also supervised the excavation of a hundred and seventeen caves for the resting of the Jaina saints. Kharavelas role in reviving the fortunes of Jainism in Bharatavarsha is akin to Ashokas contribution towards Buddhism. [ref]
Kharavela's death remains a mystery. The Hathigumpha inscription abruptly stops at his fourteenth regnal year, which if extrapolated implied that Kharavela would have been in his 37th year. The inscription doesn't highlight any illness or disorder, living up to the spirit of a prashasti, and so it is hard to conclude what led to his demise. It may be surmised, though, that the great warrior king spent his last years immersed in religious service and penance. The Chedi dynasty too didn't last the test of time, as only two rulers followed him before a steep decline followed. The Shungas followed by the Kanvas revived their fortunes in Magadha, while South India remained under the sway of the Satavahanas.
Encapsulating the foremost legacy left behind by Kharavela, historian Mamnatha Nath Das notes, The arm of this magnificent monarch was the cementing bond between the north and the south and from the homeland of Kalinga, his scepter shone as the visible symbol of imperial unity. Right through his brilliant career, Kharavela refrained from performing excesses, and lived up to the kshatriya dharma. His was the perfect fusion of brahma and kshatra, a combination of intellect and warrior-spirit, that sustains any sanatana society. Tolerance was considered to be his hallmark, though in warfare he was ruthless to the core. As noted earlier, he was a proficient architect and a prolific administrator. Moreover, he also happened to be a patron of music and as is evident through his prashasti (an attribute that historians value the most) was a fine litterateur.
Thus, Kharavela is one of the most important figures in Indian history, whose story continues inspiring people in contemporary India.