Over a thousand years ago, a young Prince of the Keshari dynasty got separated from his companions while hunting along the banks of the river Mahanadi. Lost, he wandered for hours- finally crossing the river itself and appearing upon a small marshy island. There- the legends go- he saw a pigeon killing an eagle in front of a small temple of Chandi.
The Prince realised that he had found a spot which the forces of Kali Yuga hadn’t besmirched completely, where warriors of Dharma still could hold their ground against Adharma. Awed at the sight of the miracle Ma Chandi had bestowed upon him, he built a Fort around the Temple.
More than two hundred years later, the Prince’s legacy was put to the test.
The four-hundred year long War between the Kings of Kabul- guardians of the gateway to India- and the uncountable hordes of the Middle East ended when King Trilochana was assassinated treacherously and his successor slain. The hordes rushed in- and were met in combat by the Rajput Kings of Delhi who kept them at bay for another two centuries- but then one day, everything collapsed.
The enemy hordes swept into the Sindhu-Ganga Valleys, butchering and massacring at will. Temples were destroyed, Statues were torn down, Cities were set aflame, thousands of innocents were murdered, raped, and carted off to slave markets. The cities of India, the largest and most prosperous in the World- Mathura, Varanasi, Pataliputra, Kanyakumbha- became ghost towns overnight. At its peak, these murderous hordes were unstoppable; Bengal fell so easily that for centuries the story went that eighteen horsemen conquered the Kingdom.
From controlling almost nothing east of Kabul in 1191 CE, the hordes of the Sultanate were at the mouths of the Ganga within a mere 15 years.
At this point, it was almost a given that all of India would be overrun shortly. The Delhi Sultanate controlled both the Sindhu and the Ganga Valleys- the most fertile, richest lands in the World. Their soldiers were now rich from loot and slaves, and every day thousands of Turks, Arabs, and other savage tribesmen poured over the passes to destroy what remained of Bharata’s cities. The mountain kings of the Vindhyas were well-entrenched but, except for the Yadava Kings of Devagiri, were few. And the east was one straight road from Gauda, the capital of Islamic Bengal, to Kanyakumari. The Dabhoi Inscription of 1200 CE communicates this terror well. “So many god-like kings are there on this Earth, but they all become uneasy at heart at the mention of the Turuska king.”
And yet, the inexorable march was stopped.
In 1206 CE, Bengal fell to 18 horsemen- and the lakhs of troops marching behind these.
In 1207 CE, Gajapati Anangabhimadeva III Chodaganga came to the throne of Orissa. And renounced it at once.
Anangabhimadeva knew exactly why the Arya kingdoms of Bharata had collapsed despite lacking neither valour nor ability. The kings of Bharata were not only disunited amongst themselves, even their very states lacked singularity of purpose. Bharatas, being tolerant of all forms of thought, did not understand the single-minded desire of Ghori or Ghazni to massacre all Kaffir men and enslave all Kaffir women. At Tarain, Minhaju-s Sirj writes that Ghori had over 12000 heavy cavalry and over 40000 light cavalry merely in the Vanguard, with even more divisions of Infantry, Cavalry, and Elephants as reserve. The Turkish hordes were at least more than 120,000 strong, possibly even more. It is debatable, despite exaggerations by Turkish historians, the Chauhans- ruling a mere two cities- could’ve brought more than 50,000 troops to the field. The Hindu kings and nobles stood divided against each other- and one by one, were cut down.
Anangabhimadeva knew this. He also knew that only a true Chakravartin could unite the warring nations of the Bharatas against invaders. He also knew the last Chakravartin had been Emperor Samudra of the Gupta Empire, and in the centuries since, none had equalled him. But the young Ganga prince also knew that there was one Chakravartin who still stood vigil over Bharata. He was Shri Rama, and against him, no true Arya would ever rebel.
The throne of Orissa was thus given to the Lord of the Universe who was Jagannath, Lord of the Blue Mountain, in his great temple at Puri.
All Oriya nobles accepted the rule of Jagannath as ruler of Orissa and rightful ruler of the World. The dethroned King Anangabhimadeva was re-instated, this time as a first servant of Jagannath, first general of the armies of Jagannath, Regent to the throne of Puri, and King of all Servitors of Jagannath. Since the holy city of Varanasi was lost, Anangabhimadeva rebuilt the old Keshari fortress as a Fortress-City, Abhinab Bidanasi Kataka- ‘The New Fortress of Varanasi’, and dedicated to the Chandi of the temple.
The northern reaches of Orissa around the river Subarnarekha that had been lost in 1206 were recovered. When the armies of Islamic Bengal invaded Orissa in 1215 CE, they were defeated.
According to the 16th Century poet Arjundeva, Anangabhimadeva marched up to the river Damodara, slaying the ‘Mlecchas’ at will and succoring the beleaguered Sena kings. Wars at the borders never ended as the Delhi Sultanate threw army after army at the Oriya fortresses along the Subarnarekha- and thus, in the early 1230s CE, Gajapati Narasimhadeva I decided to go on the offensive- not only to put an end to the Bengal governors but also to ‘restore Dharma over Mathura and Kashi’, according to Mukund Rai.
The Ganga-Tughlaq Wars lasted almost thirty years. Again and again, Oriya forces smashed Tughlaq defences and conquered the Province. Again and again fresh hordes of men would be brought from all over North India to push the Oriya forces out. The scale of these counter-assaults can be judged by the fact that when Sultan Balban attacked a rebellious Bengali Governor, he had done so with a force of three hundred thousand men. And yet for thirty years, Oriya troops not only defeated such attacks but also held on. Gauda- the old Capital was sacked. Lakhnauti- the new- was razed to the ground. Five Governors were appointed one after another by Delhi to reconquer Bengal, but to no avail. It was during this time that the Konark Temple- at one point, the largest in India- was constructed by the Ganga Emperors to honour Surya for the Victories.
Until the coming of the Marathas, no Hindu overlord would hold the lands Gajapati Narasimhadeva I & Gajapati Bhanudeva I conquered in West Bengal. Except for the short reign of Raja Ganesha, no Hindu overlord would ever hold the lands the two took in East Bengal.
But there was one enemy the Oriya Emperors could not defeat. Around 1280 CE, the worst drought in recorded history devastated the country. Orissa was far worse off than most of India since- unlike the large rivers of the South or the perennial Himalayan rivers, the Mahanadi basin was extremely vulnerable to famine. There was no way the Ganga kings could hold on in the face of the Sultanate hordes. The orders were given and the Oriya forces retreated back to the old fortified banks of the Subarnarekha.
Their troubles weren’t over yet.
Around the mid 14th Century, the popularization of gunpowder had revolutionized Siege warfare. It had also rendered superior Indian engineering pointless in the face of the Sultanate cannons. Gunpowder suited Massed tactics- which the united hordes of Delhi had access to- but not the divided Hindu kingdoms. Once it took years of Siege to take down Fortresses and Fort Complexes such the massive Raibania were all but impregnable. But now a few weeks of cannon bombardment- and all would be open to the hordes of the Delhi.
Unlike the previous raids by the Khaljis into the Peninsula, the Tughlaqs invaded and meant to stay. For a time, the capital of the Delhi Sultanate was deep in the Deccan at Daulatabad.
Even when Hindu kings were disunited, there remained an ideal of chivalry and honour. PC Chakravarti describes how Hindu kings would not raid each other’s peasants nor would they slaughter fleeing enemies. Even the Wars between the Gangas and the Kalachuris and Chalukyas were fairly civilized- leaving the Gangas free to concentrate on the North border with Bengal.
The fall of the Deccan changed that. By the 1300s, Orissa was surrounded on all sides with no ally anywhere. The only other significant Hindu state in the Continent left standing was that of the Ahoms in distant Assam.
For forty years, a succession of Oriya Emperors fought a succession of ever-desperate battles against the forces of all the Continent and even the numberless hordes of the Middle East. From the Padma in the North to the Krishna in the South and from Amarkanthak to the Mahodadhi Sea, Oriya troops clashed again and again with the limitless armies issuing from Delhi.
The defence finally collapsed in 1340 CE. Illias Shah of Bengal successfully bribed the commanders of the Raibania Fort Complex- the five massive forts that guarded the Subarnarekha valley and divided the Islamic North from Hindu Orissa- and marched his limitless armies into an unprepared Empire. Abhimanyu Dash writes: – “(Illias Shah) made havoc among the religious-minded people of Puri… (who)… ran in a panic. The soldiers of Illias Shah killed… mercilessly and looted the wealth of the temple.”
The invaders were repealed at great cost but the damage was done. The very heart of Orissa had almost been torn out. Puri had been sacked earlier- but that had been over five hundred years ago, in an age when the might of the invincible Gupta Emperors had still been within the memory of Men, an age as remote as the tales of Asuras who could turn the skies into fire and rain blood from the clouds.
And the forces of the Sultanate were as barbarous and merciless as any Asura. As bad as Illias’ invasion had been, it was nothing compared to what was to come. A mere 20 years later- in 1360 CE, the Delhi Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq himself invaded with any army five times larger than any force the Oriya Emperor Bhanudeva III could muster. The Delhi army easily took Puri- but were repelled from Cuttack, the great Keshari river fortress. During monsoons and winter, no army could cross the river Mahanadi unopposed and during summer, there was no water for the Sultanate army. Firoz burnt Puri and flung stone moortis of Jagannath into the Mahodadhi Sea- but had to return when the Monsoons returned and with them, reinforcements from the Southern Oriya armies.
The Kingdom of Orissa was dying. For nearly a hundred and fifty years, Oriyas had stood almost alone against the numberless hordes of the Delhi Sultanate- but sheer attrition was taking its toll. The Bengal Sultans were pressing onto the Subarnarekha. The ever-rebellious tribal lords of the Mahanadi basin were chaffing under weak Imperial rule. The rising Vijayanagara Empire had taken most of Orissa’s territories in the Godavari-Krishna valley. The Deccan Sultanates raided and pillaged at will, carrying away Hindus to be sold at great slave markets in Cairo and Istanbul. And there was, as always, the threat of the Delhi Sultanate.
It was at this point that the Realm of Jagannath was restored. For the reign of Bhanudeva IV saw the rise of one of the most remarkable men of Indian history, Kapilendradeva Routray.
As a young general Kapilendradeva crushed the Sultan of Jaunpur and defeated the armies of Bengal, making North Orissa safe for decades. He then marched against the rebellious Oriya kings of the West, forcing them to submit one after another. Thus confident in his abilities, Kapilendradeva and his able minister, Gopinath Mahapatra, deposed the old Chodaganga Gajapati Bhanudeva IV, and crowned himself, as Gajapati Anangabhima III had once done, the first servant of Jagannath, and regent of the Lord of the Blue Mountain. Then started one of the single greatest periods of Empire-building in history.
The Bengal Sultans were crushed and for the first time in decades, the land was free of the scourge of Slavery. As far as the borders of Bihar and Malwa, Oriya troops defeated Islamic garrisons, and restored temples. At the high point of Gajapati Kapilendradeva’s campaigns, Bidar- capital of the Bahmani Sultanate and greatest stronghold of Islam in the South- was stormed. From Devkot in the North to Tiruchhipalli in the South, the Oriya Empire extended- the single largest Hindu Empire the Continent had seen since the rule of the Pratiharas, over even hundred years ago, and until the coming of Akbar, the single largest Indian Empire since the Tughlaqs.
Yet, it can be argued that somewhere within their triumphs, the all-conquering Oriya Emperors sowed the seeds of their own weakness. Within their numberless victories, the great generals of the Oriya State- be it Narasimhadeva I or Bhanudeva I or Kapilendradeva or Hamviradeva or Purushottamdeva forgot one thing.
That they weren’t the rulers of Orissa.
When Gajapati Anangabhimadeva II Chodaganga first led his armies against the limitless Sultanate hordes almost three hundred years before Gajapati Kapilendradeva, he had done so not under his own name- but that of Jagannath himself. The first Oriya victories were not accomplished for the glory of mortal men, but for the Lord of the Universe himself. Oriya victories came not because of the valour and might of the Oriya peoples but because Jagannath, in his endless generosity and love for his children, allowed those who restored Dharma to the shattered lands of Bharatavarsha to grow and prosper.
The Oriya generals- the regents for the Kingdom of Jagannath- ignored the promises made by their ancestors when the fortress-city of Cuttack was raised. That they fought not for themselves or even Orissa, but for the restoration of Dharma to the peoples of all Bharatavarsha. That their Empires were built not as new prizes to be cherished- but as the defiant reply to the desecration of old glories.
Even the Oriya Capital of Cuttack was but a pledge to serve as vengeance for Varanasi.
The great Empire built by Gajapati Kapilendradeva lasted but a mere seventy years. By 1500 CE, it was crumbling. The Oriya Emperors had alienated too many potential Hindu allies, they had over-stretched and were losing ground by the day. Even today with modern nutrition and irrigation, Oriyas number less than a fifth of Uttar Pradesh alone. Back then, Oriyas were even fewer. And daily, new enemies poured into Bharata from as far as Ethiopia and Mongolia.
In 1509 CE, an army of over 120,000 men under Ismail Ghazi broke the gauntlet at the Raibania forts and marched south as far as Bhadrak, murdering and raping at will while Gajapati Prataprudradeva campaigned against Vijayanagara. By the time the Emperor marched back to Puri, the city had been sacked. The Gajapati caught the savage and massacred his army while they tried to cross the Hooghly- but this merely set the trend. The Empire fell to pinpricks and cuts; a great old Elephant lying wounded, worried to death by a million vicious little mouths.
By 1540 CE, the Empire was all but gone- and the hordes freely poured over the borders of Orissa. The last who could truly be called an Emperor of Orissa- Gajapati Kakhuaradeva- fell battling an Afghan army somewhere in modern South West Bengal in 1541 CE.
When the true end of the Oriya State arrived in 1568 CE, there was little enough to feel any pride for among Oriyas. And thus after more three centuries of constant warfare in defence of Dharma and the Earthly Realm of Jagannath within whom the memory of a better World still dwells, Oriyas and Orissa fell.
The wars would not end; even after accepting Mughal supremacy to fend off the Afghans, Oriya Gajapatis kept on battling their oppressors. When Gajapatis fell, the kings fought on. And when kings fell, it were Zamindars. And once even they went, it were Oriya peasants and tribals who battled. The names of Mukundadeva, the last king of a united Orissa- betrayed and assassinated by those he trusted, the long and tragic reign of Purushottamdeva of Khurda, the valiant Narasinghadeva murdered by the swine Shah Jehan, the loyal Jagannath Harichandan Jagadeva, the doomed Govindadeva, the devout Ramachandradeva- will live on, as long as one true Oriya still lives to weep over once was. But once those who strived with gods were now no more than worms to be crushed underfoot. The Oriya race, of whom it was once said that the least counted as high as the lords of other peoples, is degenerate and failing. Once the borders of the three Odra Kingdoms stretched from the Ganga to the Godavari to the Narmada; now the rump state left is wracked with verminous secessionists and godless communists. The old no longer pass on their histories, the young do not even wish to be Oriya.
The foul hankering behind faux-reason and the illusion of ‘modernity’ threatens to end not only Oriyas, but the gods themselves.
Today those heady days- the legendary battles as Gajapati Anangabhimadeva III faced off against an Islamic leviathan that had marched uncontested from Spain to Bengal and ground it to a halt, the decades-long wars as Narasimhadeva I and Bhanudeva I faced off against the entire Continent and finally fell not to mortal arms but the designs of Asuras, the desperate stands as Gajapati Bhanudeva II led his troops against armies five times larger, the genius of Gajapati Kapilendradeva, the tragedy of Hamviradeva, the valour of Gajapati Purushottamdeva- are but like scenes from the dream of another Race.
Those days are gone, never to return. Oriyas crawl like maggots within the rotting carcass of what was once- and the bones of the Glory that was once ours, mocks us.
What a waste it all has been.
I am indebted to the work of my friends, Manjit Keshari Nayak and Bibek Pradhan who have laboured to make the history of the Imperial Oriyas accessible to all. I am also grateful to Rohit Patnaik and Chittaranjan Nayak for their inputs on the history of the Imperial Oriyas and aid in writing this Essay. This was a difficult piece to write in many ways- and more than once before the end, an excruciating trial to even pen the words down. But as different as it has turned out from what it had started as, I cannot honestly say that I would gainsay or change any of it. As far as my friends or I am aware, this is the first time the doomed resistance of the Oriya peoples has been mapped out even in brief- and for that, at the very least, I cannot hate what I have created, no matter how much pain it has given me.
There lies a blue mountain in the distance where he dwells and in its shade, lies the World.
16th June, 2017 CE (Julio-Gregorian Calendar)
Somewhere on the Western Marches of what once was an Oriya Frontier