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HomePageTurnerBook ExcerptsHow Odisha resisted Muslim onslaught for centuries—give credit to monarch Jagannath

How Odisha resisted Muslim onslaught for centuries—give credit to monarch Jagannath

In 'Gajapati: A King Without a Kingdom', Ashok Kumar Bal mentions how Odisha kept its head high in the face of Muslim invasions.

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Lord Jagannath was a humanised deity, personified and treated like a royal. As per the tradition in royal households, the menu of offerings to Lord Jagannath consisted of rich food, pleasant drinks, flavoured pithas (cakes) and sweet delicacies. The menu was a lavish spread consisting of dishes of 56 varieties (popularly known as Chhappan Bhog), which increased over time. Attire, ornaments, cosmetics, articles of use, furniture and the bed of the deity were designed to suit a king. Jagannath’s daily routine from waking up early in the morning till going to bed late at night is associated with detailed paraphernalia involving rituals befitting a king. The midday nap and courtesan’s singing and dancing before going to bed at night were part of royal tradition.

Quite a few specific annual functions of Lord Jagannath were observed by the kings. On certain occasions, the rituals such as ekadasi (11th lunar day), rajaniti (a ritual performed by the Gajapati), etc. were observed. On specific occasions, Lord Jagannath was dressed in special garments called besa. Jagannath puts on rajabesa or royal dress on five occasions: on full moon days of Kartika, Pousa, Phalguna (months of the Hindu calendar) and on Vijayadasami (10th day of the Navaratri festival) and on the 11th day of the bright fortnight of Asadh. These besas are called Suna besas (attires of gold).

Some words and expressions that are exclusively used in relation to kings have been adopted for Lord Jagannath. Some notable examples in the native dialects are abakasa, anabasara, beharana, chamu, cula, ekanta, mailama, mukhapakhala, pahuda, singara, ulagi, srianga, etc. These words are used in relation to kings and royal personages, but are always used in relation to Jagannath too.

These rituals and practices followed are specific to Lord Jagannath. The tradition an practice of Rajbhoga identifies the deity with the king, but the ideology of subordination reinforces it by promoting and propagating the deity as very special and unique, being the supreme monarch of the state. This is a unique phenomenon where an idol is assigned the status of the sovereign of a state.

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Far-Reaching Consequences of Anangabhimadeva III’s Ideology

Anangabhima’s professed ideology of surrender and subordination to Lord Jagannath had far-reaching consequences. It helped Anangabhimadeva III in achieving the task of complete formation of the Ganga Empire. He faced three powerful political forces, namely the Kalachuris of Ratnapur (ruled parts of present-day Chhattisgarh), the Muslims of Bengal, and the Kakatiyas of Andhra. He defeated the Kalachuri king and occupied the Sonepur tract (western Odisha). He took effective steps to check the two important forces in the northern and southern frontiers—the Muslims in Bengal and the Kakatiyas in Andhra. Although he defeated the Muslims, Anangabhima became conscious of the political implications of the rise of Muslim power in the border of his kingdom. So, he unified the local Hindu chiefs under his imperial control and strengthened the integrity of the gigantic kingdom to safeguard it from foreign invasion.

He used his professed ideology of being the rauta of Lord Jagannath, which helped him in this endeavour. The political situation prevailing in India on the eve of his coming to power impelled him to bring about a coordination between polity and religion, a novel experiment in statecraft. Muhammad Ghori conquered the powerful kingdom of Delhi and Ajmer of Prithviraj Chauhan in AD 1192. Within a couple of years the Muslims conquered Kanauj (in Uttar Pradesh) and continued their triumphant march eastward, and by AD 1197 the whole of Bihar was under their control. Then they moved southwards. In the beginning of the 13th century, Hindu India received great blows from Muslim invaders: they destroyed temples, stupas, monasteries and pillars, and on those sites mosques were erected. The lack of unity among the Hindu kingdoms facilitated the ingress of Islamic invaders. The result was that one by one all succumbed to the onslaught, though Odisha could raise her head against it for four centuries more.

There was disarray and disunity among the Hindu kingdoms, namely the Chedis of the west, the Chalukyas of the south and the Senas of Bengal. Such discord resulted in fighting among the Hindu kingdoms and posed a possible threat to the neighbouring coastal tract of Odisha. The dedication of the throne to Lord Jagannath by Anangabhimadeva was a great political experiment and it helped in curbing the ambition of other Hindu kings of the bordering states to acquire the property of a renowned deity, which was devasva (belonging to God), at the risk of popular disapproval as also for fear of inviting divine displeasure. On the other hand, Anangabhima’s ideology was based on the belief that any move to acquire the territory which belonged to Lord would lead to religious inspiration among the people of Odisha to protect the integrity of the kingdom.

Devasva property is considered to be immune to outside interference. In that sense Anangabhima’s tactical strategy of dedicating the kingdom to Jagannath and declaring the entire territory as Lord’s territory or devasva was a novel experiment. Declaring Jagannath as the supreme monarch provided protection and shelter to the king.

The idea of monarchy of Jagannath achieved its purpose. Odisha was the only region that was able to withstand repeated Islamic onslaughts for several centuries. During the 13th century, when the whole of north India was under Muslim rule, Odisha under an illustrious ruler like Anangabhima III was able to ward off the Muslims. The Khiljis reached as far south as Rameswaram by AD 1310; soon the Tughluqs succeeded the Khiljis and their ambition to effectively subjugate the Deccan became clear from the transfer of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in south India. It is significant to note that of all the Hindu kingdoms of India, Odisha could retain its independence against frequent Muslim attacks from all quarters till AD 1568 while the entire north India and practically the whole of Deccan was under the sway of Muslims.

This excerpt from ‘Gajapati: A King Without a Kingdom’ by Ashok Kumar Bal has been published with permission from Konark Publishers.

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