Bhubaneswar, India (261 BC)
The Kalinga War was the last major effort of expansion of the Maurya Empire in India, and the final military campaign of Ashoka the Great. The battle, which was actually a series of engagements in the Dhauli Hills, is believed to have been the bloodiest campaign in history until World War I nearly twenty-two centuries later. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed during the fighting, and perhaps over a million civilians were subsequently killed. Although the war ended in a victory for Ashoka, so horrific was the bloodshed that the emperor was prompted to devote the rest of his life to non-violence. The site of the battle is marked by a great outcropping of rock carved with a number of Edicts of Ashoka, and the area is now a place of pilgrimage.
The Maurya Empire was one of the oldest and largest realms ever carved out of the Indian subcontinent. Established in the wake of Alexander the Great’s withdrawal in the 4th century, it grew to its greatest height under Ashoka, one of the greatest and most beloved emperors in Indian history. By the 3rd century BC it incorporated almost all of what is now India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Outside of the southern tip of India, only the eastern realm of Kalinga held out.
Under the rulership of dynamic and capable kings, Kalinga managed to survive several attempts at conquest by the Mauryas, most notably by Chandragupta, Ashoka’s grandfather. This independence lasted through the reign of the next emperor, Bindusara. However, after Bindusara’s death, his sons fought a war over the succession. During this war, Ashoka assembled an army hundreds of thousands strong. After defeating his brother and securing the throne, he turned his attention to conquest and expansion of the empire.
In 262 BC the Mauryan Empire invaded the Kingdom of Kalinga. Although the army of Kalinga was capably led, probably by Rani Padmavati, they were simply hopelessly outnumbered. According to historical accounts, including one written by Ashoka himself, the Mauryas fielded an army of four hundred thousand, against perhaps sixty thousand soldiers for Kalinga. While the exact details of the battle are not known, it is believed that Kalinga put up a long fight in the Dhauli Hills, holding off the Maurya’s for perhaps as long as several months.
In the end Kalinga was overwhelmed and its army annihilated. In the aftermath hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed (some estimates place this number at over a million). According to legend, the mass killings which he himself had ordered rendered Ashoka so remorseful that he completely embraced Buddhism and foreswore any further conquest or violence. His reign, which lasted for more than thirty years after the battle, was one of the greatest ages of peace and prosperity in India’s history.
Although details of the Battle of Kalinga are few, it is generally accepted that the fighting took place in the Dhauli Hills along the shore of the Daya River. At one time a number of shrines built by Ashoka stood on the site. Today only Ashoka’s Rock remains. This rock, carved to resemble an elephant, is engraved with some of the emperor’s edicts. Also nearby is a modern Shiva Temple which some believe was built over a burial site related to the battle.
The Kalinga Battlefield is located five miles south of the modern-day city of Bhubaneswar approximately 450 miles southeast of New Delhi. The battlefield is an open site. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.orissatourism.gov.in (official tourism website of Orissa province).