King empire

The land that transformed King Ashoka

By Eiko M. Tagore*

The land that transformed King Ashoka

Orissa – now known as Odisha – is a large state located on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, southwest of the state of West Bengal. The ancient Kalinga empire flourished along the many waterways of Odisha starting from its central region where the Mahanadi River begins and eventually empties into the Bay of Bengal.

While studying history as a student, although lacking in detail, I remember becoming interested in references to the ancient Indian Maurya dynasty, King Chandragupta, King Ashoka and the conquests of Alexander the Great from Macedonia to India. The Odisha region and its ancient Kalinga empire were intimately linked to these historical events.

Alexander the Great led a conquering army through Asia Minor and Central Asia, Persia and traveled through Kabul and Samarkand, and further into the upper Indus Valley where he sought to conquer the sub -Indian continent. He continued over the northwest pass of Khyber, traveling through Rawalpindi and Taxila to present-day India. Here he met great resistance from the ruling powers and had to retreat. His dream of conquering India did not materialize and he died in 323 BC in Babylon due to lack of supplies.

The Maurya Empire was soon established in this region under King Chandragupta. He married one of Alexander’s commanders, the daughter of Seleucus. Their grandson Ashoka later became king in 268 BC. King Ashoka planned to conquer the southeast of the Kalinga Empire. He encountered fierce resistance from the Kalinga army, which claimed 100,000 casualties and 150,000 prisoners. King Ashoka was devastated by the violence and death this battle entailed and suffered greatly from a sense of guilt. He proclaimed the end of war and violence. After the Battle of Kalinga, King Ashoka became a devout Buddhist and worked to promote the Dharma of Buddhism throughout his empire.

When I think of Odisha, it reminds me of its connection to Buddhism and its connection to my own destiny. I traveled to Odisha (formerly Kalinga) in 1970 and later in 1990. India is often referred to by expressions such as “Eternal India”, but in the 20 years since my first visit , even “eternal India” had evolved a lot. The decades of the 1970s and 1980s saw rapid industrialization across India, and this national reality could also be seen in Odisha. In the northern region of Odisha, there had been significant industrial development and many large projects such as Rourkela Steel Mill, Hindustan Iron Ore Mine, Hirakud Dam and several hydroelectric power stations had seen the day. I heard that the export of these resources to countries like Japan, Europe, USA and Russia is considered huge. In fact, I learned that even the Adivasi people who maintained the region’s agrarian way of life for three thousand years were absorbed into industrial labor, changing the basic fabric of the region’s population. As tourists staying in a hotel and 2 visiting famous sites, it may not be possible to easily recognize these great changes taking place in the region. However, twenty years later, when I arrived in Bhubaneswar, I immediately felt the changes that those years had brought.

The capital of Odisha was moved from Kalinga-era Cuttack to Bhubaneswar in 1956. Bhubaneswar refers to the Lord of the Universe (Shiva). The journey from Howrah railway station in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Bhubaneswar took ten hours by the South Indian Railway (SIR). But now it takes less than an hour by jet to travel that same distance. During my first visit to the city, at the airport and in the train stations surrounded by tall buildings, you could see many rikshawalas and cyclo-rikshaws jostling for customers. In 1990, at these locations, while black and yellow national Ambassador taxis whisked away wealthy passengers, lines of clean tour buses awaited tour groups.

These taxis and buses usually go to the western style Kalinga Ashok or Prachi Hotel where tourists can enjoy air-conditioned rooms, well appointed with comfortable beds, bath and shower, providing a comfortable stay. Elegant-looking British Raj-style white-jacketed porters stand ready to serve Chota Hazri (morning tea) on a tray brought straight to the room. Their polite greetings of “Bonjour, Monsieur, Bonjour, Madame” testified to their good training in the manners of the hospitality industry and this made the guests very satisfied.

The dining halls are crowded with foreign tourists. With limited time, it’s hard to take advantage of breakfast portions that start with juice, cereal, toast, and eggs. The tight tour schedule requires an early start where buses are waiting to take us to various destinations guided by a knowledgeable local guide. Visitors to Kolkata are generally interested in seeing Konarak, located 80 kilometers from Bhubaneswar along the Bay of Bengal, and Puri, 60 kilometers away. Luxury buses can make this trip comfortably in a day.

Even though one can visit important historical sites through these well-organized tours, one may not experience the local culture, customs of the people and interact with the local people in a meaningful way. It can feel like an empty trip when pressed for limited time. However, it is clearly discernible that the twenty years have not only changed the landscape and people’s lives in Odisha, but they have also changed the way we travel and experience the journey itself. This may be due to the accessibility of foreign travel, which was the dream of most Japanese in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s a blessing, of course. If I hadn’t married an Indian and traveled to India to see family, I might not have had the chance to travel to India at all. With limited resources, our trip to India was seen as an important opportunity in life. I felt compelled to live fully and remember every moment as precious during these visits. First impressions were deeply felt and valued more meaningfully. In this sense, the second visit to Odisha in 1990 seems more vague compared to my first visit in 1970. Could it be because in 20 years so much had changed? Or was it because, unlike my first visit, I was in a hurry and didn’t feel as compelled to enjoy every moment as precious?

[This is the first of a multi-part series of a chapter from the famous Japanese book Indo Tambou (My Indian Journey) by Eiko M. Tagore, published in 2011. The author is the spouse of late Prof. Sandip Tagore, a 2017 recipient of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in the field of arts & culture. The English translation is done by her daughter Maya Tagore-Erwin. Eiko M. Tagore currently lives in Osaka, Japan]