‘Salutations to the Arhats (Jinas)… by illustrious Kharavela, the Aira, the great, the descendent of Mahameghavahana, increasing the glory of the Chedi Dynasty, endowed with excellent and auspicious marks and features, possessed of virtues that have reached the four corners, overlord of Kalinga.’
Thus starts one of the most talked-about inscriptions, high up on Hathigumpha (Elephant Cave), one of the caves in Udayagiri, a complex of largely Jain rock-cut temples and viharas near Bhubaneswar, the capital of present-day Odisha.
The ‘illustrious’ Kharavela, who talks to us through this long and flattering inscription, is one of the most interesting characters from ancient Indian history. He bursts upon the scene some time in the 2nd BCE -1st BCE, leading expeditions and battles, thwarting Greek invaders, fixing irrigation systems, restoring the ‘pride’ of Kalinga, patronising Jain monks and building great temple complexes and viharas. The fact that he did all this in a matter of a few years – historians believe he died when he was 38 years old – makes him enigmatic, as does the fact that he is fondly remembered in Odisha even today, even though he was the only significant ruler of his line.
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