Dissemination of Culture and Overseas Trade: Kalinga’s Maritime Past

Prof. Udayanath Sahoo
June 2, 2019


Image Courtesy: seanews.co.uk

Kalinga, one of the ancient names of modern Odisha, had occupied a respectable position in Indian history and literature for centuries. Sarala Das, in his Mohabharata and Chandi Purana, refers to it as ‘Oda rastra’. It also finds mention in Ramayana, Skanda Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Markandeya Purana, Kapila Samhita, Artha Sastra of Kautilya, etc. The Buddhist literature identifies it as an independent country with Dantapura as its capital and Brahmadutta as its king at the time of Buddha’s passing (487BC). Mahavir Jain had chosen this land to propagate the 5th rule of Jainism, known as ‘Brahmacharya’. The Kalinga War of 261 BC was a turning point in its history when emperor Ashoka invaded it.

With a coastline of above five hundred kilometers, Kalinga was a seafaring nation that had developed trade and commerce with far-off places such as Africa, Asia, Rome, Burma, Ceylon, Indo-China, China, etc. In Raghuvansa, Kalidas labels the king of Kalinga ‘the Lord of the Sea’ (Mahodadhipati). The Bay of Bengal was then known as Kalinga Sagara. Ho-ling, a part of Java island is named after Kalinga. The merchandise exported to those places included, besides other things, the precious stones collected from the western part of Odisha.

According to available archaeological evidence, Shipping activities of Kalinga prospered enormously. The stone sculptures in Brahmeswar temple and Konark temple show ships carrying elephants in them. One of the sculptures in Lingaraj temple, Bhubaneswar, shows a boat steered by a woman with a giraffe in it. The temple to the west of Bindusagar tank is built in the shape of an inverted boat. The archaeological excavations at Sisupalgarh, Jaugada, Tamralipti, Palur, Manikapatna, and Kalingapatnam, testify that Kalinga had contacts with foreign countries in the ancient times. It is revealed that Kalinga had a major share in the overseas expansion and colonization. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a book written by an unknown author, has referred to the trade relations between Kalinga and the Roman world. Ptolemy, the Greek geographer, of 2nd Century A.D. refers to the famous port of Kalinga named Palur. From here ships disembarked directly across the Bay of Bengal to the Southeast Asian countries. Another important part of Kalinga was Che-li-ta-lo, which was referred by Hiuen Tsang. It is also mentioned in Sarala Das’s Mahabharata. Pithunda was a flourishing seaport of Kalinga which is reflected in the Hatigumpha inscriptions. Kalingapatnam was an important port of Kalinga in the mouth of river Nagavali. From these ports of Kalinga, ships used to go to Eastern and Western countries for trading.

Because maritime activities were mainly concerned with trade, it is presumed that articles like spices, Betel-Nuts, Perfumes, Aloes, Silk Fabrics, Peper, Salt, Jewels, Ivory, Cotton, Oil Seeds, Diamond, other agricultural products and even elephants were exported to foreign countries from Kalinga. Kalinga had overseas trade links with Africa, Burma, Java, Bali, Malay Peninsula, Cambodia, China, Sri Lanka, etc. Kalinga (Odisha) had active trade contact with the western world, especially with the Roman Empire. Overseas trade was profitable, and the Kalingan economy was prosperous only because of this trade.

The merchants (Sadhavas) of Kalinga, who were engaged in overseas trade, had been glorified by the Indonesians as ‘Kalinga Sahasika’, the Brave Kalingas. Maritime trade has been a part of the socio-cultural and religious life of Odisha for centuries. The festivals like Kartika Purnima, Baliyatra, Khudurukuni Osha are clear testimony of Odisha’s glorious maritime heritage. Interaction of Kalinga with the islands of Java, Bali, Sumatra, Borneo began with trade and slowly expanded to cultural, political, and religious activities. The transmission of Kalingan Culture to distant parts of Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and other places is a testimony to the great achievements of the people of Kalinga.

*** The author is a Professor at the Centre of Indian Languages, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***