Post 32 – Day 17 ‘The Realm of Orissa’ (Pt 1)

Post 32a Post 32b

The hotel meal that preceded that of this morning’s breakfast was notable for three things, apart from the obvious fact that it was the evening meal of the sixteenth day. First, and I do not mean to complain, for I am merely observing, was that the price of the evening meal at the hotel bore little relationship to that which was quoted on the menu. I paid significantly more, no prizes for guessing, but I excuse it all on the presumption that the price quoted on the menu or listed on the bill was a typographical error. Second, my entry into the dining room, otherwise largely devoid of patrons, was accompanied by a man dressed in saffron coloured robes who liberally sprinkled the floor, and me, with water. It was a nice gesture, though embarrassed by such personalised attention as I was, but I am probably remiss in not telling the staff that I had actually washed for dinner. I had scrubbed up well for the occasion and there was no need for a further pre-meal ‘rinse off’. Neither was I a member of Australia’s royal family, not even of its lowest ranks.

Possibly, way back, I could claim ancestry from a regional Celtic chieftain but successive waves of Saxon and Norman invaders had erased any evidence of that. Lastly, for my theatrical predilection, was a re-enactment of the hovering technique so proficiently practiced by all the dining room staff at each of the hotels at which I had stayed. A fairer, more accommodating, person would remind me that in Hometown it is not uncommon to get nothing resembling service at all. You often have to hail a waiter, so be thankful for the ‘hovering’. But its just not relaxing, what with all those plates coming and going before you have finished one course and barely thought about what to order as a second. More importantly, from the waiter’s concern, is that ‘hovering’ demands a high energy budget. You burn a lot of energy up when you hover, just look at the food intake required by hummingbirds, and long-tongued bees such as the various species of Amegilla and Xylocopa. One wrong move in their choice of food resources and their calorie reserves are in the red. Two or three wrong moves and they risk being belly up on the pavement. Waiters that hover need high food intakes and they are going to burn off calories like there’s no end to the food on offer in the trough. You require much more food than if you just slouch about inactive. I didn’t see a fat waiter once in India. Those of my experience were all verging to the thin end of the body spectrum. They need to wind it back a little, be more relaxed and put their feet up. Spend a little more time out the back with the kitchen maids. The customers will let you know soon enough when they want their bowls refilled or the cutlery changed.

These little gripes aside I return to the issue of the name of the town I find myself in. I suspect, through a process of the elimination of possibilities and cross-referencing of my diverse assortment of maps, that I am in Kendujhargarh, also called Kendujhar. Keonjhar turns out to be a district, and one-time princely state before its political merger in 1948 with Orissa. Of course my confusion would have been less dramatic if commonsense had reigned in the choosing of Orissan place names. You’ve got to admit that names like Kendujhargarh, Kendujhar and Keonjhar, don’t fall off the tongue with independent distinction. They blur together. When you have a specific purpose in a specific location the ‘one for all and all for one’ theme doesn’t work. When choosing names of geographic import I’d probably look to the wisdom of Australian geographers for guidance; fine exemplars of an appropriate nomenclature being Cockerawambeeba, Cooplacurripa and Coolongolook. Makes the case, don’t you think?

Whilst on the subject of geography, I found time before breakfast to research a little of Orissa. The state holds significant coal, iron ore, bauxite and chromite resources, and scheduled tribes represent more than 22 percent of its population, some of the important tribes being the Bonda, Kora, Munda, Oraon and Mahali. In 1999-2000 47 percent of Orissa’s population was below the poverty line, this being twice the national average. So I could only assume that all that wealth generated from the state’s copious mineral deposits wasn’t doing too well at filtering down to the lower rungs of society.

Orissa is the modern name of the ancient kingdom of Kalinga which was invaded by the Mauryan emperor Asoka in about 261 BCE, Kalinga then becoming a core area of the Mauryan imperial administrative system. However, the modern state was not established as a province of British India until 1936. The city of Cuttack remained Orissa’s capital for eight centuries until 1948 when Bhubaneswar was officially declared the new capital. Both cities have now coalesced, more or less, into the same identity. Oriya is the official and most widely spoken language, by about three quarters of the population as it turns out. The early inhabitants of Orissa, called Odras amongst other names, were mentioned in the 1st Century CE by the Roman, Pliny the Elder, and earlier in the 4th Century BCE by the Greek ethnographer Megasthenes, in his ‘Indica’. The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-tsang visited Orissa in 636 CE referring to the region or people as Wu-Che. Gajapati Kapileswaradeva, 1435 – 1467 CE, calls the territory Orissa Rajya or Orissa Rastra, thus from the 15th Century onwards the land of the Oriya people was called Orissa.

In the 3rd Century BCE the eastern part of Orissa, Kalinga, flourished as an independent kingdom. Though falling to Asoka, a re-established Kalinga later flourished as a powerful empire under the Jaina emperor Kharavela, 193-170 BCE. Kharavela patronised the establishment of Jain monasteries, and under his reign Kalingan military strength was re-instated and was to acquire a powerful maritime reach, its ships projecting Kalingan influence as far afield as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Java and Bali. Kharavela’s continental empire was to reach into southern India, extended along the middle and north-western reaches of the Ganges, and occupied most of India’s east coast. Orissa resisted several Muslim attacks until the 16th Century when it was finally conquered by the Sultanate of Bengal, the coastal plain falling to the Mughals in 1576. However, the central, northern, western and southern hill districts were ruled by independent Hindu kings. The last Hindu emperor of Orissa was Gajapati Mukunda Deva, who was defeated and killed in the battle of Gohiratikiri. In the late 18th Century the southern coast of Orissa was incorporated by the British East India Company in the Madras Presidency. Additional areas were annexed by the British in 1803 after the Second Anglo-Maratha War.

But the major turning point in the history of Orissa was the Kalinga War of 261 BCE, in which the Kalingans were routed, and the whole of Kalinga was plundered and destroyed. The campaign may have been undertaken to obtain resources from Kalinga, to safeguard Mauryan trade routes along the east coast, or to subjugate the Kalingans for breaking away from Mauryan rule. Asoka’s grandfather Chandragupta Maurya had previously failed to conquer Kalinga, however, the terrible slaughter and destruction caused by the war filled Asoka with remorse, and it proved to be the only major war that Asoka fought after his succession to the throne. Following the conquering of Kalinga Asoka ended his military expansion. He had earlier demonstrated a perfunctory interest in Buddhism but experiencing the horror of the battle and the aftermath of suffering, Buddhism became his principal and guiding pursuit. His conversion did not take place overnight. Inscriptions attributed to Asoka state that it was over a period of two and a half years that his zealous devotion to Buddhism evolved. This devotion led him to a strong belief and endorsement of non-violence, including non-violence to animals, and a denial of war as a means of political and territorial subjugation. His Major Rock Edict XIII, conveying as it does his attitude to the Kalinga war, marks him as an extraordinary ruler and individual, even if his sorrow and guilt post-dated the act:

“When he had been consecrated eight years the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi [Asoka], conquered Kalinga. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many more times that number perished. Afterwards, now that Kalinga was annexed, the Beloved of the Gods very earnestly practised Dhamma, desired Dhamma and taught Dhamma. On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for when an independent country is conquered the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind. What is even more deplorable to the Beloved of the Gods, is that those who dwell there, whether brahmans, shramans, or those of other sects, or householders who show obedience to their superiors, obedience to mother and father, obedience to their teachers and behave well and devoutly to towards their friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, slaves and servants – all suffer violence, murder and separation from their loved ones. Even those who are fortunate to have escaped and whose love is undiminished suffer from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives. This participation of all men in suffering weighs heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods.”

The number of dead that Asoka enumerates includes that of both the Kalingan opponents and his own soldiers. Some historians give the count at 150,000 Kalingan dead and 100,000 Mauryans killed. Obviously there is room for controversy as to the actual number, but regardless, it was slaughter that was sufficient, and slaughter that was needless.

How might I build a bridge of understanding between that pivotal moment in the life of Asoka, and that of my own? What common currency of experience offers some level of insight? I have not experienced the wars of mankind, and I have no sensory grasp of what it is like to walk amongst dismembered dead on such a scale. The butchered that I have tallied are those of other animals, not ‘Homo sapiens’. Two things only, provide a level of understanding. Both are inadequate. There is a documentary film, ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’. It is about the genocide that took place over 100 days during 1994 in Rwanda, an African country of little or no consequence, as the First World deems most sub-Saharan African countries to be. One man, the Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, was charged to head the United Nations peace keeping presence there. He was given a handful of troops, far too inadequate for the task, and the United Nations gave him no other support. His experience there still haunts him, and it has destroyed part of his soul. 800,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s were massacred. The film portrays graphic account of roads and landscapes choked with the slaughtered dead, of bloated naked bodies washing back and forth along riverbanks, of Hutu militia and Rwandan government soldiers hacking defenceless civilians to death. They shot or beheaded the living, and the living knelt alongside the dead waiting to be dispatched in similar fashion. Machetes are not swift agents of extermination, a single blow does not suffice, and so the ‘still not dead’, but dying nevertheless, lay by the roadside in the remorseless heat of the day, beyond knowing or understanding, their hollow eyes wide open and rolling in recognition of the camera. Maybe this is what Asoka saw? Maybe this is what we all needed to see?

As I write these words the publicly owned Crown forest beside where I live is being logged by a method best described as clear-cutting. It is the destruction of a whole ecosystem, a surrogate Kalinga if you will. The clear-cutting will continue, unceasing, for two months and there will be little but bare ground and mangled vegetation when the destruction is complete. It will be a wasteland of what once was. Its purpose is to provide the packaging, advertising brochures and tabloids that you will discard, the furniture you will tire of, the mansions you do not need. There is an incessant howl of chainsaws as massive eucalypt trees are cut down, crash and shatter, and the cacophony of heavy machinery as their corpses are crushed or loaded onto waiting trucks. I hear each one, I anticipate each one. The carnage is beyond count, plants and animals, surrogate Kalingans and Mauryans all. Those life forms that are able to escape flee towards the uncertainty of predation, starvation and temporary refuge. Is this a valid experience by which I can attempt to comprehend the mind of Asoka? Does what I hear and see hint at the two and a half years that Asoka, self-styled ‘Beloved of the Gods’, pondered Buddhism, a length of time enough to drive deep the pangs of his conscience?

But enough of this.

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