Malaysia and many Southeast Asian places notably Java, Bali, Thailand and Cambodia owe a lot of their culture and language to an obscure historical region in India called Kalinga.
It is a fertile, fabled and forested land located a quarter way down the eastern side of the Indian Peninsula between the Bay of Bengal and an eroded broken range of mountains known as the Eastern Ghats.
The people of Kalinga were a peaceful, open-minded and artistic lot. They were also skillful with their sail boats and had good knowledge of the sea. When the wind was right they would set out south-easterly to fish for food and pearls and trade with people from distant lands.
Due to the region’s relative isolation away from the population centers of India’s Aryan north and Dravidian south, Kalinga developed its own distinct identity and an economy based on both its overland connections and maritime links.
Kalinga’s success soon attracted the attention and envy of its powerful neighbour.
Around 260 BC a king named Ashoka from the Mauryan Empire sent his armies to attack and conquer Kalinga.
The people of Kalinga fought back bravely but they were no match for Ashoka’s mighty army. The scale of death and destruction occasioned by the Kalinga War at 100,000 dead and 100,000 enslaved was epic and appalling.
Just like Hiroshima two milleniums later the effect of the war caused an unprecedented show of remorse and repentance by its victor and chief perpetrator, Ashoka the emperor himself.
Ashoka turned Buddhist and proclaimed that so long as he was king he would never let such barbarity and carnage happen again. He promised to rule justly and ordered his new pacifist policy to be carved onto stone pillars near the battle sites for all to know and to guide future rulers.
After the Mauryas, Kalinga was ruled most of the time more or less as an independent country by a succession of kings and dynasties including the famous Kharavela of the Chedis, the Guptas and the Eastern Ganga.
It was during this period that Kalinga exported its custom, religion, architecture to Southeast Asia, the region the ancient Indians called Suvarnabhumi or the Golden Lands.
By the 16 th century and with the muslim invasion in 1568 and its later absorption into the Mughal Empire, Kalinga had all but disappered as a geo-political entity.
The territory of ancient Kalinga coresponds to roughly today’s Odisha, a state with a population of 42 million famous for its entrancing Odissi dance, monumental temples and indigenous tribal people.
Under British rule most of the area that was once the Kingdom of Kalinga became part of Bengal. In 1936 a separate province of Orissa was created on linguistic ground.
In 2011 Orissa became Odisha and its ancient Sanskrit-based language Oriya was renamed Odia by an Act of Parliament.
All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2018