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 shrine known as the Shanti Stupa, as well as a number of Edicts of Ashoka carved into stone more than two thousand years ago. It is one of the most important historic Buddhist sites in the world.
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.
Kalinga’s independence lasted until the reign of Ashoka. 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.
Ashoka spent the better part of the rest of his life making good his pledge. He worked diligently to promote the principles of Buddhism, supporting the establishment of temples, and famously erecting stones with his edicts (which often espoused Buddhist teachings) around the country. In Dhauli, where he won his great and terrible victory, he made a great effort to sanctify the ground. It has been a hallowed place in India ever since. In the 1970s, Japanese Buddhists sponsored the construction of the Shanti Stupa here, a Buddhist temple commemorating Ashoka’s efforts.
At one time a number of shrines constructed by Ashoka stood in the region of Dhauli, but none have survived to the present. However, the Shanti Stupa is a pretty worthy substitute. This glittering white-domed edifice, while exhibiting traditional Buddhist artwork, also reflects modern elements (some say the temple is more impressive from a distance). A pair of golden lion statues guard the approach and watch over the field where the great battle took place.
Of greater historical interest perhaps are the rock monuments carved with Ashoka’s edicts. He erected a number of these around India, but the carvings here are perhaps the most famous and espouse, among other things, Buddhist ideas about the world.
The Kalinga Battlefield and its monuments are located five miles south of the modern-day city of Bhubaneswar approximately 450 miles southeast of New Delhi. The rock carvings are an open site. As of this writing there is no visitor information available for the Shanti Stupa. Web: www.orissatourism.gov.in (official tourism website of Orissa province).
Not too far away from Dhauli is the city of Bhubaneswar, which was once capital of Kalinga (and which presumably suffered terribly following during the Kalinga War). There are several very old temples and sites here, including one of the best preserved Rock Edicts of Ashoka anywhere.