Ancient Kalinga’s Maritime Legacy & its Global Significance

Situated on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, ancient Kalinga once comprised the coastal regions of modern Odisha and the adjacent coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh and Bengal as well. Owing to its location between the two great East Indian deltaic regions of the Ganges and the Krishna and Godavari rivers, Kalinga itself had two distinct historical core areas in the delta regions of the Mahanadi in the Central Odisha and, further to the Southwest, of the Rishikulya and Vamsadhara rivers in Southern Odisha and Northwestern Andhra Pradesh. The earliest historically known centre of Kalinga was at Toshali and Kalinganagara (Sisupalgarh) near Bhubaneswar, the respective capitals of Ashoka and Kharavela in the third and first centuries B.C.  It was most likely this central Odishan core area under Kharavela’s successors to which the Roman geographer Pliny referred in the first century A.D. Pliny writes: “The royal city of Calingae is Parthalis (Toshali). Over their kingdom 60,000 foot soldiers, 1000 horsemen, 700 elephants keep watch and ward in precinct of war.” However, in the Buddhist Jataka stories of the fourth and third centuries B.C., a kingdom of Kalinga is mentioned with Dantapura as its capital.  The historical geography changed considerably in the post-Gupta period with the rise of several small independent kingdoms on the Eastern shores of India. Thus, in the 7th century A.D., the Chinese monk Xuan Xang clearly distinguish three coastal regions. U-cha (Odra=Central Odisha), Kong-u-T’o (Kangoda, the present Ganjam district), and Kie-ling-kia (Kalinga). Whereas Northern and Central Odisha henceforth became known as Odra and Utkal.  Kalinga comprised coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh. Since the sixth century, the Vamsadhara estuary in Srikakulam district became the nucleus area of the Eastern Ganga dynasty with Kalinganagara and Kalingapatanam as its capital and harbor respectively.

As known from many sources early kingdoms of  Eastern India had their own port towns. Among the ports of ancient Orissa/Kalinga are Palura and Chelitalo, mentioned respectively by Ptolemy and Xuan Xang in the second century A.D. and seventh century A.D.

Palura, mentioned by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in the second century A.D. and in a South Indian inscription of the third century, must have been an internationally important emporium further to the southwest, most likely at the Rishikulya  estuary or nearby, on the Southern elongation of Chilika Lake, whereas village known as Palur still exists today. According to Ptolemy, there was a place near Palur, called Apheterion, the “point of  departure” for ships bound to Chryse,  the “Golden Land”, the “ Suvarnabhumi” of South East Asia. It is quite likely that the prominent hillock south of the present village Palur, which in fact, is the highest peak on the coast up to the mouth of the Ganges, and which was known to the Portuguese of the sixteenth century as Serra de Palura served as a landmark for early seafarers in the Bay of Bengal.

About Chelitalo in U-cha (Central Orissa) Xuan Xang writes, “Here it is merchants depart for distant countries, and strangers come and go and stop here on their way. The walls of the city are strong and lofty. Here are found all sorts of rare and precious articles.”

During these early centuries A.D., Kalinga’s importance for trans-Asian maritime trade seems to have been strengthened by the fact that in the early centuries A.D. even large vessels usually did not yet cross the Bay of Bengal directly from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. Instead, they proceeded up to Palur and Chelitalo from which points they crossed the ocean for Survarnabhumi.

Kalinga’s importance and association with the Bay of Bengal is confirmed by Kalidasa (C. 400 A.D.) who praised the King of Kalinga as “ Lord of the Ocean” (Mahodadhipati) in Raghuvamsa and in the late eighth century by the Buddhist text Manjusrimulakalpa, which refers to all the islands in the “Kalinga Sea” (Kalingodra).

During these centuries, traders, Buddhist monks and Brahmins of Kalinga traveled to, and sometimes settled in the countries of Southeast Asia. Although we have no historical sources to substantiate the historicity of a legend prevalent in early ninetieth century Java, concerning the immigration of 20,000 families from Kalinga to Java, we know a few cases of settlers from Kalinga in the East. Thus, an inscription from East Java even mentioned Kalinganagara, indicating perhaps a “colony” of traders from Kalinga. But Southeast Asian traders and the fame of their merchandise had an impact on Odisha as well. A portrayal of an Indonesian dagger (kris) on the Parasuramesvara temple in Bhubaneswar (7th Century AD) is a testimony to such relations between Odisha and Indonesia. Harbours and early kingdoms of Odisha and Kalinga may have derived considerable income from these trade relations. Thus, an early tenth century inscription of Bhaumakara dynasty of Odisha contains interesting information about the existence of Samudrakarabandha on the shore of Chilika lake, most likely meaning an embankment (bandha) on the shore of the (Samudra) where taxes (kara) were collected.

Beginning in the third century B.C. when Ashoka embraced Buddhism after having realized the atrocities of his Kalinga war, Buddhism began to play a significant role in the relations of Odisha and Kalinga with other countries. From Dantapura, the most venerated relic of Buddhism, Buddha’s tooth, was brought to Sri Lanka. This tradition forms the basis of a lasting special relationship between Kalinga and Sri Lanka.

In the 8th century AD, Subhakara Simha, probably a prince of the Bhaumakara family of Odisha, accepted Buddhism and went to China and visited Emperor Xuan Zung of the Tang dynasty. He introduced esoteric Buddhism in China and translated the Maha Vairochana Sutra.

At the same time, Orissa’s monasteries of Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udayagiri produced veritable masterpieces of Buddhist Art which might have influenced contemporary schools of Buddhist Art in Southeast Asia, particularly in Java under the Shailendra dynasty. Orissan architecture of the ninth and tenth centuries appears to have played an important role in the development of Mon architecture in Lower Burma. Equally promising would be a comparative study of early Javanese Hindu sculptures and the art of Odisha. Such studies should be conducted in their broader Indian context. Only the study of the mutual relationships between various schools of Indian art will permit more specific statements on the influence of Kalinga in South Asia. The same is true with regard to the erstwhile flourishing trade and ancient ports of Kalinga which have to be studied in the context of Indian and Asian trade and trade routes as a whole. Indian sea trade and maritime contacts with other regions of Asia have existed from the time of the Indus valley civilization. Their maritime trade spread Indian influence to Southeast Asia. However, Southeast Asian people are also known to have been some of the most daring and successful sea farers of mankind. Their mastery of navigation is aptly evident from the famous depictions of Javanese ships at the Borobudur. In the last millennia B.C., Southeast Asian peoples spread throughout the Southern Pacific, and in the first millennium A.D. they reached even East Africa and Madagascar. Thus Indian trade with Southeast Asia was never a “one-way affairs”. In fact, Southeast Asian traders were clearly instrumental in spreading Indian culture to the East. The greatness of Indian culture induced early Southeast Asian rulers to invite Brahmins to their courts.

However, the role of East India in the Indian Ocean during the following centuries, witnessed the paradoxical situation of the apparent decline of the active role of Odisha in the Indian Ocean, while, at the same time, political and cultural development in Odisha reached their point of culmination under the later Gangas and Suryavamsis who had brought the whole of Eastern India from Bengal to the southern Krishna-Godavari delta under their rule for more than hundred years. Was this situation caused- as some Indian historians presumed by -an agrarian based medieval “Indian feudalism”?  Or, was the gradual recession due to political developments in the wake of the rise of the Imperial Cholas of South India in the eleventh century and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the early thirteenth century, which brought the harbours of the West and Northeastern India under Muslim control? In this connection it is important to know more about the role of Muslim traders and of Islam, which Odisha resisted successfully from the twelfth to sixteen centuries, at a time when Muslim traders of West and South India increasingly dominated Indian trade with the East. Furthermore, it is interesting to consider the consequences of the decline of Buddhism in Odisha.

The silting of river mouths and ports in the medieval period also contributed to the decline of maritime contacts. In the past the fabulous wealth of Southeast Asia had attracted the sailors and merchants of Kalinga. It had its impact on the folklore of Odisha. The Tapoi story, popular in every household of Odisha, evokes the memory of sea voyages to distant land. It is the irony of history that the great maritime tradition has been reduced to the ritual of sailing tiny boats on the Kartika Purnima day.

Derived from the preface of the book “Kalinga-Indonesia Cultural Relations” published by Odishan Institute of Maritime and Southeast Asian Studies (OIMSEAS), Department of Culture, Government of Odisha which was edited by eminent historian Prof. Karuna Sagar Behera.


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