Book Review: A Search For Identity Of A Sub-Nation

A King Without A Kingdom By Ashok Bal; Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2021; Pp: 496; Price: Rs 895

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Odisha’s history is very much under-researched and largely unexplored by scholars and popular writers alike. Authors have restricted themselves to recreating the past glory of the state during the reign of Kharavela and the period of great Odia seafarers, making considerable wealth from trade with South Eastern and Far Eastern regions of Asia. For outsiders, Odisha’s history has been an addendum to the legend of Ashoka and his conversion to and proselytising of Buddhism. Little is chronicled of the glory years of Odisha in later periods, its vast 15th/16th century empire, its prolonged resistance to Islamic rulers and its dominance of large parts of the eastern coast. For elite historians, Odisha is a largely forgotten part of our nation.

The story of Odisha has not been told to the outer world, probably because Odisha has somehow always remained a route between the North and the South, never a destination. Further, its systematic fragmentation from 17th century made it very difficult to construct and narrate a coherent history for Odisha to attract sufficient attention. Into this void in academia and popular consciousness, author Ashok Bal steps in quietly with his meticulously researched and expertly crafted publication, A King Without A Kingdom.

This is a unique work that traces the history of Odisha for over four centuries around a central concept of sovereignty shared between God and a live dynasty that binds the community into a sub nation. In 19 crisp chapters, Bal establishes the credentials of Gajapati as Odisha’s historical and cultural icon. In sequence of well-coordinated steps he traces the roots of dynasties, developing and ultimately donning the title, analyses its socio-political significance, examines the nature of statecraft used by successive Gajapatis to first legitimise and then preserve their rule, develops the unique use of a concept of diarchy where the State is ruled jointly by God and King. He also narrates the decline and fall of the Kingdom and its subjugation by successive conquerors, and, finally, establishes the theory of King without kingdom that characterises the continuing legacy of Gajapatis.

Gajapati is one of the four principal titles conferred on Hindu Kings who ruled India, the others being Narapati, Aswapati and Chhatrapati. All four titles were in use by Hindu kings in different regions of India. Odisha had been the land of magnificent elephants for ages as recorded in history. Elephants (Gaja),  an acknowledged concept of State power in the annals of Hindu culture, denote majesty, strength, authority, wisdom, dignity, wealth, abundance and prosperity, all essential attributes of royalty. Odisha’s elephants used to be the most sought after as evidenced from the posse at the disposal of Bin Tughlaq and the Mughals, especially Shah Jahan. Even the elephant that Robert Clive rode to victory at Plassey was from Odisha. So the title of Gajapati came naturally to its Kings, with the imperial Gangas contributing to it. The greatest ruler of the Gangas, Chodagangadeva (1078-1150 ACE), first conceived this title, but it really came into its own with Kapilendra Deb (1435-1467), the founder of the Suryavansha dynasty, which continues the lineage of Gajapatis to this date, the present Gajapati, Divyasingha Deb IV (since 1970), being the 23rd incumbent.

The concept was cleverly devised by the Gangas, who declared the presiding deity, Lord Jagannath, as the rightful ruler of Odisha while actual governance was conducted by the dynasty as His Raut (deputy). That made it obligatory on part of all feudatories to abide by the ruling dynasty as he represented the Lord’s will. This concept of legitimacy was carried a notch further when the last of the Ganga ruler Bramhadeva IV, who was without an heir and was believed, according to legend, as directed by the Lord to adopt a boy to be found at a designated place. This boy grew up to be the new King Kapilendra Deb (1437-1467), who founded the Suryavansha. However, his ascent was opposed by too many feudatories and rulers of neighbouring kingdoms wanted to take advantage of his lack of legitimacy, which led Kapilendra Deb to develop the concept of rule by the servant as ruler elect by the Lord himself. His reign and the reigns of his successors Purushottama Deb (1467-1497) and Prataprudra Deb (1497-1538) represented the high point of Odisha’s glory as the empire extended from Ganges to Cauvery and Kalburghi in the South West. We all grew up in schools reading his long winding titles out of which the most easily remembered and often used even today is Gajapati, Goudeswara, Navakodi Karnataka, Kalabargeswar Trikallingadhipati Maharajadhiraja….. The title indicates the extent of the spread of Odishan empire to parts of Bengal, Andhra and Karnataka.

Then half way through the reign of Prataprudra Deb (1497-1538) Odisha was visited by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, whose pacifist Bhakti philosophy consumed the energy of Odias, making them an easy prey to the marauding Afghans from the north and powerful kings from the south. Odisha which resisted the Islam invaders for so long became the last Hindu kingdom to fall on the main land succumbing to Akbar’s expedition through Man Singh in 1568. Later that year a Hindu convert to Islam, Kalapahada, destroyed the Imperial Barabati Fort at capital Cuttack and also desecrated the Jagannath Temple. That triggered the gradual disintegration of the imperial territory of the Gajapatis. First the Afghans reduced the Kingdom to a semi-autonomous status with much smaller territory under the suzerainty of Mughals through their Bengal feudatory. Then after nearly 200 years of subjugation, Odisha was captured by the Marahattas in the 1750s. The Marahattas were ruthless in reducing the Gajapati to the status of an insignificant local zamindar of Khurda. When the British defeated the Marahattas in 1803, they took over Odisha directly under the Company rule, heaping further ignominy on the Gajapati when the Paikas (local warriors) of Khurda raised the first ever armed uprising against the British. The King was banished from his Khurda territory and installed as Raja of Puri with a tiny bit of area around the temple to look after the Lord’s rituals. Even this was conspired to be truncated further as the Queen’s Government sought to remove the Gajapati from the Lord’s trusteeship, a move thwarted by the effort of eminent lawyer Madhusudan Das. The coup de grace came, however, under independent India when the government took over the Temple directly under its control making the Gajapati only a caretaker trustee. The Gajapati thus formally became a King without a Kingdom!

What then makes the Gajapati such a fascinating figure and an institution? This is where Bal’s well-researched history and unique cultural comprehension comes in handy. Combination of monarchical and religious powers is a lethal force in history, the example of which is the Holy Roman Empire constructed to drive out Muslim invaders from mainland Europe. It also served as a bulwark against the feudal forces in the Middle Ages by allowing the Monarch to legitimise his powers through divine sanction. Though the concept Gangas introduced was along similar lines, it endured far longer as the King went down from Deputy to Servant of God, leaving sovereignty to reside with the Deity whereas in Europe it led to absolute monarchy, the supreme example of which was Henry VIII’s ownership of the English Church. In contrast, Gajapati still endures in popular imagination and culture in taking exactly the opposite road to absolute monarchy destroyed later by French Revolution. The nationalisation of the Lord’s temple has not dented the popular acceptance of Gajapati the King as the institution has taken deep roots in the lives of Odias, some of which are listed by Bal’s introduction to the book.

Bal builds Gajapati as an Odia cultural icon, a symbol of Odia nationalism with all trappings to function as repository of collective cultural values as every Odia born is intrinsically connected to the Gajapati by horoscope on traditional palm leaf, recording time and planetary positions of the day as per the ‘anka’ (date) of Gajapati’s calendar. Thereafter all important aspects of life including birth, marriage, important journey, employment, investment, construction of house, digging of well or pond, grihapravesh, death rituals and what have you are astrologically computed, invoking the reign of the Gajapati. There is simply no getting away from the timeline of Gajapati leitmotifs, that’s how important the Gajapati is for all Odias! In public space Gajapati’s actions like sweeping the chariot are visual shortcuts for complex ideas of politics and sociology whose meanings are to be assumed rather than defined in bland language. There were so many Rajas and Maharajahs in pre-Independent India, many having expansive territory, fabulous wealth and exulted status sanctified by the crooked gun salute system of the English. Many were recipients of handsome privy purse. Compared to them the Gajapati has been totally nondescript, perhaps no gun or privy purse. But history has consigned those mighty to the dustbin while Gajapati continues to remain the icon he has been, influencing the daily lives of so many. It’s all because they surrendered sovereignty to the Lord unlike in the case of the Tamils (Kartikeya), Telugus (Balaji) and North Indians (Kashi Vishwanath) where the rulers never let go of sovereignty. That’s what makes the Gajapati tick while his Kingdom is long gone.

Bal has remarkably crafted his book in composite narrative where each of the 19 chapters can stand alone to be enjoyed. Others may discern a single thread weaving its way inside the tapestry of Odisha history. Woven into the concept of Gajapati are the socio-political development of the subject, tales of individual Gajapatis with their triumph and tribulations, telling their own tales.  There is the story of Mukunda Deb suffering the ignominy of defeat to the Afghans; Purushottam Deb, the King once entertained by Akbar, but humiliated by Jahangir; the extraordinary fate of Ramachandra Deb II who got repeatedly imprisoned by the Muslim regents from Bengal and was the only Gajapati to marry a Muslim beauty converting (some say forcibly) to Islam; of Birakeshari Deb who, having lost to Marahattas, went mad and killed his own sons; Mukunda Deb II who lost to East India Company like his namesake losing Odisha to Afghans; history of  Barabati Fort that served as prison to many Gajapatis; the singular tale of Rani Suryamani Patamahadei, commanding her own place in the Gajapati pantheon; and, the curious case of Mukunda Deb III (all Mukunda Debs were big losers among Gajapatis!) who got convicted in a case of disputed adoption of heir.

Pertinently, chapter 17 highlights the circular nature of Odisha’s history, recounting the prolonged dispute in Gajapati lineage, thus bringing out the larger panorama of fate and irony to the very essence of King Without Kingdom narrative. Kapilendra Deb, founder of the dynasty, also sowed seeds of its eventual rout and downfall. While eldest son Hamvira, born of Patarani, was true heir to his throne, the King was too besotted with a secondary Queen to make her son Purushottama Deb king in place of Hamvira, invoking the doctrine of divine elect. Subsequently Hamvira was made to rule a portion of the south territory Khimundi (present-day Paralakhemundi, a territory hotly contested by Andhraites as belonging to Odisha province). The Khimundi rulers always held that they were the legitimate claimants to title and carried on calling them Gajapati too. Long afterwards when Odisha became the first province created under British Raj, largely on linguistic principle in 1936, fate played its part. The then Khimundi King Maharaja Krishnachandra Gajapati was a prominent leader in separate Odisha movement and got elected to its first legislature. Though Congress under Harekrushna Mahatab won 36 out of the 50 seats, he refused to be part of the government owing to Congress’s opposition to Governor’s role in the 1935 Act. As irony would have it, Khimundi Gajapati became the first Prime Minister (as it was known then) of the newly-formed province of Odisha. In an incident of supreme irony of history a Gajapati King got back his kingdom finally!

Bal reconstructs Odisha’s history of the period to build up the concept of the Gajapati, while supplying socio-historical reasons for the triumphant survival of the institution to the present times of extreme chaos and negativity. The book is highly recommended for all those who seek understanding of Odisha and answers to quintessential historical questions.

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1 Comment
  1. Pritish acharya says

    Very well written review of Mr ashok bal’s Gajapati: A king without a Kingdom. Mr Jena has done a great job. Congrats to him for this write up. He has touched all aspects of the book.

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