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Medieval Odisha: A Hindu state that resisted Islamic onslaught for centuries

We have references of rulers like Raja Raja III, Ananga Bhima III, Bhanu II, Narasimha I, Kapilendra, Purusottama etc defeating Islamic rulers in pitched battles. Some even extended their kingdoms at expense of their enemies.

Odisha is usually one of the least talked about states in India. Not surprisingly, when the general history of India is discussed, it usually struggles to get a mention. However, a close study of its history gives us some interesting details in the context of independent Hindu political and military achievements, specifically in the medieval period. It was a proud and powerful Hindu kingdom till the third quarter of the 16th Century, at a time when a great chunk of the rest of India had succumbed to Islamic invaders. This is a humble attempt to depict a general picture of Odisha or Kalinga in the medieval period.

After the fall of Prithviraj Chouhan, the Turks ravaged kingdoms of northern India, swiftly captured the plains of the Ganga basin and reached near the borders of Odisha by around 1200AD. Since then, till 1568, for nearly 360 years the Hindu rulers of Odisha and its people maintained their independence through continuous struggle. There were 2 glorious dynasties that ruled in this period, namely the Eastern Gangas and the Suryavamsi Gajapatis. While discussing Eastern Gangas, famous historian RC Majumdar says,

The [Eastern] Gangas thus achieved the unique distinction of being the only Indian royal dynasty that successfully resisted the Muslim onslaught for more than two centuries and maintained their independence to the very end after the Muslims had conquered the rest of India, literally from Himalayas to Cape Comorin.

Ancient India, P 393, By R C Majumdar

This was a time when dharmic consciousness reached its zenith due to continuous Hindu rule and military success against the Islamic invaders. The Jagannath culture flourished in Kalinga. The Eastern Ganga king Ananga Bhima Deva III declared Jagannath to be the ultimate sovereign of his kingdom and claimed to be his deputy (Routa) ruling under his banner (A history of India, 4th edition, P 186, Hermann Kulke & Dietmar Rothermund).

This had a tremendous impact on the people of the kingdom. Psychologically, the Hindus got spiritual backing to defend their kingdom for the cause of Jagannath without fear of death. Odia folklore and literary works tell the tales of valour and devotion from this era. Later Gajapati Kapilendra Deva called himself the first Servitor of Jagannath and equated any resistance to his royal orders with treason (Droha) committed against Jagannath. As a result, Odisha became a Hindu military state. Referring to that, Herman Kulke the German Indologist and historian says,

There was also another new feature of administration under Ganga rule: the rise of military officers as local magnates. This in a way anticipated the later development in the Vijayanagar empire. An inscription from south Orissa of 1230 contains a long list of such military officers (nayaka), who seem also to have had some administrative functions….The title nayaka was not unknown in earlier periods, but the sudden increase in the number and their importance in several parts of Orissa in the early thirteenth century, and even more so in the fourteenth century, seems to be a clear indication of the militarisation of Hindu states in the late Middle Ages…We may attribute this to the impact of the Delhi sultanate which had been founded only a few decades earlier. If this is correct, it would show that Hindu realms were able to respond very quickly to such new challenges.

A history of India, 4th edition

Similarly, while discussing territorial limit & Hinduness of Odisha, famous historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar notes:

Up to the middle of the 16th century, Orissa had been a purely Hindu country, both in royal house and in its population. A clear light is thrown on the territorial demarcation between the two creeds by the life of Chaitanya, where we read that at the time of that saint’s journey to Jagannath-Puri the last outpost of Muslim rule was Pichaldah on the Mantreswar river, while south of which began Hindu Orissa without a single permanent Muslim settler.

History of Bengal, P 188, Sir Jadunath Sarkar

The said place Pichaldah is presently in the Howrah district of West Bengal south of which was the Gajapati kingdom.

This was a period when temples were being destroyed everywhere, but in Odisha Gajapati Narasimha Deva I (Langula Narasimha Deva) built one of the finest specimens of Hindu artisanship, the Konark Sun Temple which at that time was one of the largest temples in India (225+ feet) high. Other than that, several prominent temples like Ananta Vasudeva, Dhabaleswara, part of Simachalam temple etc were being built throughout the kingdom. This was not happening without any military success.

We have references of rulers like Raja Raja III, Ananga Bhima III, Bhanu II, Narasimha I, Kapilendra, Purusottama etc defeating Islamic rulers in pitched battles. Some even extended their kingdoms at expense of their enemies. In fact, Narasimha Deva I was one of the earliest Hindu rulers to lead an offensive attack against the Islamic invaders marching up to their provincial capital Lakhnauti in Bengal.

Similarly, Gajapati Kapilendra Deva, the greatest Hindu ruler of 15th century India defeated Bengal, Bahamani, Vijayanagar, and Malwa rulers. His empire stretched from Ganga in the north to Kaveri in the south. He held the epithet “Gajapati Goudeswara Navakoti Karnata Kalabargeswara” which means ‘The lord of elephants, lord of Gouda (Bengal), lord of nine crore subjects of Karnata (Vijayanagar) and the lord of Bahamani Kingdom (Gulbarga/Kalaburgi)’. His empire at its peak was the largest Hindu empire of that time.

Herman Kulke while referring to Suryavamsi Emperor Gajapati Kapilendra Deva who ruled in the 15th century said, “Kapilendra deva became the greatest Hindu ruler of his day.”

During this period, Hindus persecuted in neighbouring regions used to take refuge in Hindu Odisha. In his book ‘Four hundred years of Orissa, a glorious Epoch’, AK Panda writes that Gajapati Narasimha Deva I built a Mutt named Sadasiva Mutt in Bhubaneswar where refugees specifically from Bengal stayed. We find another instance during the rule of Gajapati Prataprudra Deva when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu moved to Odisha and many other learned Brahmins (who were persecuted by the Sultan of Bengal) fled to Odisha.

Kosalananda Kavya by Pandit Gangadhar Mishra states one of the Rajput dynasties of north India fled from Islamic persecution and took shelter in the western part of Odisha. Pandit Ramakrishna Bhatta, a learned man from distant Malwa migrated to Cuttack and settled there during the period of Prataprudra Deva. In another instance, when Hindus of Telangana (during the rule of the Bahamani sultanate) were being sold as slaves by a tyrant called Sanjar Khan, Kalinga’s Hindu army marched there and crushed his forces. Similarly, to save the Hindu ruler of Devarkonda (Velamas) Gajapati sent his forces who succeeded in doing so. Muslim Historian Tabataba notes,

The Raya of Odisha from the greed of gain and for the defence of Paganism thought himself bound to help Hindus of Devarkonda

The History and culture of the Indian people, The Delhi Sultanate, P366, RC Majumdar

We even have some references where some Buddhists of the Bardhhaman area of Bengal are said to have fled to Odisha to save themselves from persecution, mentioned in the ‘History of Medieval Vaishnavism in Orissa’ by Prabhat Mukherjee.

Cuttack, the then capital of Odisha around 1500AD became the third-largest city in India and the 12th largest in the world due to the material prosperity and the flow of Hindus from all over India. This political independence due to the military success of the rulers was the reason behind the popularity of the Jagannatha tradition all over India. That is the reason many Hindu temples are still intact in Odisha. Odia language has the least influence of Persian and Arabic among languages of northern India. The Hindu population in Odisha is still around 94%. In fact, the adjoining districts of the neighbouring states where the Gajapati rulers ruled for a longer period still have a good Hindu majority. The long Hindu rule, which was based on the ancient wisdom of Vedanta and Shastras, nourished the arts, and culture of the region could only be maintained by the military success of the Hindu rulers of Odisha, which remained a Hindu state long after neighbouring regions had fallen to Islamic rule.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Nihar Ranjan Nanda
Nihar Ranjan Nanda
Author of the book: Gajapati Kapilendra Deva, The history of the greatest Hindu conqueror of 15th century India

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