The Kalinga War (ending circa 261 BCE) was fought in ancient India between the Maurya Empire under Ashoka and the Kalinga empire, located on the east coast, in what is now Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh. Presumably, the battle took place on the Dhauli hills in Dhauli, which is located on the banks of the Daya River. The Kalinga War was one of India’s largest and bloodiest conflicts.

This is the only significant battle Ashoka engaged in after ascending to the throne. In actuality, this conflict marks the end of ancient India’s empire-building and military conquests, which began with the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta Maurya. The conflict claimed over 250,000 lives.


  1. Causes of Kalinga War
  2. Course of Kalinga War
  3. Consequences of Kalinga War
  4. Nature of Kalinga State at the Time of Kalinga War

The Kalinga War of 261 B.C. is widely regarded as the pivotal event in Odisha’s history. Thus begins Orissa’s dated history. The Mauryan conquest of Kalinga not only added another feather to the already crowned Magadhan imperialism, but also wrought a sea change in the land’s existing polity. While the Nandas established their authority over Kalinga, they almost certainly altered the state’s existing administrative structure. Ashoka established an elaborate system of administration for this newly conquered province following the Kalinga war.

A detailed account of this war can be found in Rock Edict XIII, which was discovered in Pakistan’s Shahbazgarh. Kainga was ruled by Magadha until Dhana Nanda. Kalinga most likely broke away from Magadhan imperialism during the revolt of Kautilya and Chandragupta Maurya against the Nandas in 322-321 B.C. Chandragupta Maurya made no attempt during his lifetime to annex Kalinga. Bindusara had also avoided conflict with the Kalinga people. Thus, Asoka’s conquest of Kalinga was a historical necessity.

Causes of Kalinga War

In 261 B.C., the following factors contributed to the outbreak of the Kalinga war.

A formidable neighbour

During Asoka’s reign, the Magadhan Empire encircled Kalinga on three sides. The existence of Kalinga as a powerful neighbour on the Magadha border was undoubtedly a threat to the latter’s power and potential. As a result, Kalinga posed a threat to the magnanimous Magadhan empire. Asoka desired to defeat and capture Kalinga prior to its ascension to that level.

Ashoka’s imperialistic design

In 261 B.C., Asoka’s invasion of Kalinga appears to have been motivated by imperialistic ambitions. By the time Asoka came to power, the Magadhan Empire had conquered the majority of India. Ashoka ruled the entire territory, from the Himalayas in the north to Mysore in the south, and from the Kabul valley in the north west to Bengal in the east. A separate kingdom of Kalinga, not far from the Magadhan empire’s centre of gravity, was intolerable for a warlike king like Chandasoka or Black Asoka.

Kalinga’s economic prosperity

Certain economic factors had contributed to the rivalry between Kalinga and Magadha. Kalinga monopolised the Indian ocean’s oversea trade and amassed vast wealth. Additionally, her wealth increased as a result of inland trade. While the Mauryas maintained foreign relations with the Hellenistic powers of the time, they did not maintain commercial relations with them. Additionally, the Mauryas had not developed a naval power by that time, and the Navadhyaksha (Superintendent of Shipbuilding) mentioned by Kautilya in his Arthasastra was in charge of policing rivers, lakes, and seashores, rather than building ships for maritime trade. Thus, Kalinga’s economic prosperity became an eyesore for Magadha.

Commercial component

Kalinga was a formidable competitor of Magadha in trade and commerce. Kalinga’s trade and commerce were facilitated by important trade routes connecting the Gangetic valley to the Deccan and further south. While Magadha possessed extensive foreign relations and internal resources, it faced a commercial crisis due to a lack of trade routes. The existence of a flourishing Kalinga with its trade and commerce had a detrimental effect on the Mauryan empire’s economy.

Stealing of Asoka’s jewels by the Nagas

According to Lama Taranath, a Tibetan author, the Nagas stole Asoka’s jewels. As a result, the emperor became enraged and invaded their territory. These Nagas were identified as Kalinga’s seafaring people. To exact vengeance, Asoka invaded Kalinga.

Karuvaki’s Legend

The fisherman community on Odisha’s eastern coast has a strange storey about the cause of the Kalinga war. According to legend, Asoka invaded Kalinga after falling in love with Karuvaki, the daughter of a fisherman and fiancee of Kalinga’s crown prince. Though this appears absurd, it cannot be rejected outright because Asoka had a queen named Karuvaki who was the mother of Tivara, Ashoka’s son.

Religious component

Religion could have played a role in Asoka’s invasion of Kalinga. Asoka was a devout Saiva prior to the Kalinga War. Though determining the predominant religion in Kalinga is difficult, with a reasonable degree of certainty, it can be stated that Buddhism, not Brahminism (Saivism), was the dominant religion in Kalinga. Asoka may have chosen to wage a holy war against Kalinga in order to educate the Buddhists. Though historians have no concrete information about the nature of the polity in Kalinga during Asoka’s invasion or the state of religion in this land, it appears that Brahmanism did not prevail as a state religion here. However, this is a contentious subject.

The Course of Kalinga War

The much anticipated Kalinga War occurred in 261 B.C. According to Meghasthenes, the Magadhan army under Chandragupta Maurya comprised of six lakhs troops. Certainly, it would have expanded throughout the reign of Asoka. Therefore, Asoka invaded Kalinga from the north, west, and south with his vast force. However, the Kalingans opposed the assault with great ferocity. The conflict occurred near Dhauli on the banks of the river Daya. The misery of the Kalinga war is mentioned in Rock Edict XIII.

Kalinga War

There are few records detailing the specific nature and events of the Kalinga War. It may be determined that both the degree of violence and the number of casualties were disproportionately high. According to the 13th major Rock Edicts of Ashoka, in this war one lakh people were slaughtered, several lakhs perished, and one and a half lakh were taken prisoner.

Despite the apparent exaggeration of the figures, it is clear that the battle had a lasting influence on Kalinga. It is unknown precisely when the conflict began, but it ended in the eighth year of Ashoka’s reign, in 261 BC.

No war in the history of India is as important either for its intensity or for its results as the Kalinga war of Ashoka. No wars in the annals of human history have changed the heart of the victor from one of wanton cruelty to that of exemplary piety as this one. From its fathomless womb, the history of the world may find out only a few wars to its credit which may be equal to this war and not a single one that would be greater than this. The political history of mankind is really a history of wars and no war has ended with so successful a mission of peace for the entire war-torn humanity as the war of Kalinga.

— Ramesh Prasad Mohapatra, Military History of Orissa

Megasthenes, a Greek historian in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, asserts that the monarch of Kalinga commanded a formidable force consisting of infantry, cavalry, and elephants.

Consequences of Kalinga War

The Kalinga war had far-reaching consequences that impacted humanity for generations. The following conclusions can be drawn from the findings:

Manpower and material losses

Each and every war throughout history has almost always resulted in the loss of life and property. The Kalinga war resulted in a massive loss of life and property. During this war, Asoka captured 150,000 soldiers from the Kalinga side, killed 100,000, and many others died of injuries and epidemics following the war. Not only did the war cause misery for those who fought, but also for a sizable portion of the civilian population.

Kalinga’s annexation

After Asoka’s victory in the Kalinga war, Kalinga was annexed by the Magadhan empire and became its fifth province. Prachya, Uttarapatha, Avanti, and Dakshinapatha were the empire’s other four provinces, with capitals at Magadha, Takshasila, Ujjaini, and Suvarnagiri, respectively. Tosali was Kalinga’s capital and the epicentre of the Mauryan administration’s political activities in Kalinga. Two distinct Asoka Kalinga edicts discovered at Dhauli and Jaugarh detail the Mauryan administration pattern for the province of Kalinga.

Dhauli Shanti Stupa

Chandasoka to Dharmasoka

Asoka’s mind was altered by the horrors of the Kalinga war. Asoka expresses the following in Rock Edict XIII: “In conquering an unconquered country (Kalinga), the slaying, death, and deportation that occur there are regarded as extremely painful and serious by the Devanampiya.” This war wrought profound changes in Asoka’s heart. He was renamed Dharmasoka from Chandasoka with a vow to conquer mankind through the people’s hearts, rather than through war.

Buddhism’s acceptance following the Kalinga war

Asoka’s mind was filled with deep emotion or remorse following the Kalinga War. It drew closer to Buddhism. He was converted to Buddhism following the Kalinga War by Upagupta, a Buddhist monk, or Nigrodha, the seven-year-old son of Asoka’s elder brother Sumana, whom he had murdered, or Mogaliputtatissa, the president of the Third Buddhist Council. Whatever the truth, Asoka converted to Buddhism following the Kalinga war.

Buddhism’s spread in India and other countries

Asoka’s transformation aided in the spread of Buddhism. Within a decade of his conversion, Buddhism, which had been confined to the middle of the Gangetic Valley during the Pre-Asokan period, became an all-India religion. Not only in India, Buddhism spread throughout the world. He sent his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra to Ceylon, and Sana and Uttara to Suvarnabhumi (Burma), and he maintained friendly relations with the kings of Greece, Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, and Cryne through peace missions. Thus, after converting to Buddhism following the Kalinga War, Asoka played a critical role in the spread of Buddhism from Greece to Burma and from the Himalayas to Ceylon.

Possessing a paternal attitude toward his charges

Following the Kalinga War, Asoka adopted a paternalistic attitude toward his subjects. Asoka expresses himself as such in two separate Kalinga Edicts (Dhauli and Jaugad). “All men are my children, and just as I desire welfare and happiness for my children in this world and the next, I desire the same for all men…” This attitude elevated him to the level of a completely benevolent ruler.

The advancement of art, architecture, and literature

A significant aspect of the Kalinga War was that it resulted in unprecedented growth of art, architecture, and literature in the land. The engraving of edicts and the construction of stupas, among other things, established the Mauryan art as unique in the annals of ancient Indian history. Asoka’s use of the Pali language in his edicts made cultural unification of India popular among his subjects.

Nomination of the Viceroy and Ministers

As the Kalingans had demonstrated their violent opposition to the Mouryan authority during the Kalinga war, Asoka desired to heal them by appointing a merciful and liberal administrator. Although he appointed a prince of royal blood as Viceroy to oversee Kalinga’s administration, he also devoted his heart and soul to ensuring the administration’s smooth operation. According to the administration gleaned from a separate RE I discovered in Dhauli, Asoka appointed a council of ministers to assist and advise the Kumara Viceroy of Kalinga and to balance his administrative powers.

Dharma Mahamatras are appointed

In other parts of his empire, Asoka empowered Viceroys to appoint Dharma Mahamatras to make triennial tours throughout the empire imparting religious instruction to the populace. However, in the case of Kalinga, the Viceroy lacked such authority. Asoka was particularly interested in appointing the Dharma Mahamatras for Kalinga. This demonstrates that Emperor Asoka was personally involved in the administration of Kalinga, despite the fact that he had appointed Viceroy to oversee the administration.

A well-structured bureaucracy

Asoka established a well-organized bureaucracy to assist the Kalinga viceroy. The Mahamatras, Rajukas, Yuktas, Vachabhumikas, Antamahamatras, Ithijakamahamatras, and Dharma Mahamatras were all important officers during Asoka’s reign. Antamahamatras were the border provinces’ ministers, and the Mahamatras of Tosali and Samapa most likely fell into this category. Asoka personally appointed Dhamma Mahamatras for Kalinga. They were tasked with the responsibility of overseeing the spiritual and moral development of the people of this land. As the Rajukas were in charge of the Janapadas’ welfare and possessed absolute power over reward and punishment, they may have played a dominant role in Kalinga’s administration.

To Conclude

The Kalinga war was a watershed moment in ancient Odisha’s history. It left a number of enduring legacies. The war endowed this land with a predominately aboriginal and primitive population with a civilised administration capable of moral and social advancement through constant concern for and work for the welfare of the populace. Following the war, Buddhism developed into a global religion. Ashoka’s rule also brought Mauryan art and architecture to Odisha.

Sources and References

1. History of Odisha Vol-I by Dr Manas Kumar Das
2. History of Odisha Vol-II by Dr Manas Kumar Das
3. History of Odisha Vol-III by Dr Manas Kumar Das
4. History of Odisha Sahu, Sahu, Mishra
5. History of Odisha Vol-I by Y.K. Sahu
6. History of Odisha Vol-II by Y.K. Sahu
7. History of Odisha by RD Banerjee
8. Odishara Itihasa by Satyanarayan Rajguru