For far too long, the history of Bharat after the second battle of Tarain has been seen from the Delhi-centric perspective. Even today, Islamists dream of their “1000 year rule” and lost glory of the Sultanate. However, the perception is only due to suppression of the tales of Hindu resistance. It is a small mercy that we know something about the great Kingdom of Chittor, that fought with the jihadi hordes almost continuously for a 1000 years and yet maintained its independence for most of the period. We also read a few pages about the mighty Vijayanagar Empire, which do gross injustice to the great kingdom.
However, many great Kingdoms, nay empires, are not even mentioned in our school history books. The Gajapati Empire is one such. In NCERT books, in a book of medieval Bharatiya history for Class 12, the word Gajapati is mentioned exactly 3 times and gets exactly 6 sentences, if you stretch it. Yet, for more than a hundred years, this empire ruled over a large portion of the eastern coast and at its height was the most powerful Kingdom in all of Bharat.
Destined to be an emperor
For all its glory, the empire was started by a nobody. Kapila Routa was born to born to Jageswara Routa and Bellama sometime in early 1400s. The story goes that once while he was sleeping, a cobra was sheltering his head from the sun, a classic sign of Kingship. The Madala Panjis of Jagannath Temple, Puri record that as a child, he was known to beg outside the temple. At that time, the ruler of Kalinga was Bhanudeva IV and due to a surprising turn of events, he somehow adopted Kapila. Bhanudeva was the last ruler of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty, which had ruled Odisha since the middle of 11th century. The dynasty had continuously repelled Muslim invasions and defeated the Muslim attacks from Bengal.
In the Bharat of mid 14th century, the political situation was quite fluid. Delhi throne was under a weak dynasty known as Sayyids. Bengal was under the powerful Ilyas Shahi sultans. In the western Bharat, Gujarat and Malwa were also under Muslims. In the eastern UP and surrounding areas, Jaunpur or Sharqi Sultans were ruling. To the south of Odisha, the Bahamani Sultans had been expanding their influence.
At this challenging time, Kapilendradev came to the throne on June 29, 1435 when Bhanudeva died while suppressing a rebellion down south. He immediately started to set his house in order and suppressed the rebel Matsyas of Oddadi, Salivamsi chiefs of Nandapura, the Vishnuvardhana Chakravartins of Panchadharala and the Gangas of Khimindi. Thus he laid the foundations of Suryavamshi Gajapati dynasty of Odisha. Curiously enough, his period almost completely coincides with that of Rana Kumbha, who resurrect the power of Mewar and defeated the Sultans of Malwa and Gujarat, apart from multiple other powers.
Defeating three Muslim Sultanates
The three neighbouring Muslim Sultans of Jaunpur, Bengal and Bahamanis were always preparing to invade Odisha. Apart from that the Reddys of Rajahmundry and Vijaynagar Empire were also nibbling at territories of Odishan empire. Kapilendradev was a military genius and one by one he defeated all his enemies to become the most powerful ruler of Bharat at that time.
First, he concentrated on the southern territories. He was there in 1447 when he got news of attack from the Sultan of Bengal. He immediately rushed back and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Sultan of Bengal. He not only repelled the invasion, but also captured a lot of territory and extended his frontier upto Ganga river. As the country was called Gauda, he took the title of Gaudeshwar(Lord of Gauda).
Before that, he had repelled the invasion of Jaunpur in 1444. In any case, after crushing Sultan of Bengal, Kapilendradev’s army, under his able son Hamvira Deva defeated the Reddys and captured Rajahmundry, with Kondavidu fort, by 1454.
At that time, the Bahamanis were oppressing the Hindu population of Kalaburgi, also known as Gulberga, a district in Karnataka. After a political dispute between Bahamanis and Velama Rajas of Kalaburgi, Bahmani commander Sanjar Khan attacked them and barbarically punished the common people. Thousands of Hindu men and children were either killed or sold as slaves, while Hindu women were raped. In 1456 A.D. Humayun Shah ascended to the throne of the Bahmanis and his general Sikander Khan again attacked the Velama Chiefs occupying Devarakonda. The Hindus of the area asked for help from Kapilendradeva.
In the battle of Davarakonda(1458), the Odia forces under Prince Hamvira crushed the Bahmanis with able support of Velamas. Kapilendradeva’s army then went and took Warrangal from Bahamanis. After this victory, he assumed the title of Kalabargeswara(Lord of Kalaburgi). However, the humiliation of Bahamanis was yet to come. In 1462, he started a campaign to punish the Bahamanis and was on the verge of capturing their capital, Bidar. He got news that the Sharqi Sultan of Jaunpur had attacked with a huge army.
Fighting on two fronts, he first decisively crushed the Sharqis and then returned to smash Bahmani empire and capture its capital, Bidar. Within a few years, the Bahamanis collapsed, in large part due to crushing defeats inflicted by the Odia army. The Jaunpur Sultan never again dared move against Odisha and was finally defeated and ousted by Lodis of Delhi.
Lord of Karnataka
Kapilendradeva did not stop his imperial chariot and attacked Vijayanagar Kingdom In the 1460s, he first captured Udayagiri in Nellore, Munnur, the capital of Vijayanagar Hampi and in deep south reached Thiruchirapalli and Tanjore. The inscriptions in the temple of Srirangam attest to his victories in the South. In fact, recently a Telugu inscription was found in Vijayawada, that describes the victory of Kumara Hamviradeva upto Rameshwaram! Thus, Vijayanagar Kings were compelled to pay tribute to Kapilendradeva.
After this victory, Kapilendradeva Rautrey assumed the the lordship of Karnata empire. His empire now stretched from the banks of Ganga to the banks of Kaveri and his full title read Gajapati Gauḍeśvara Navakoṭi Karṇāṭa Kalavargeśvara i.e Lord of Elephants, Lord of Gauda country, of Karnataka and of Kalaburga with nine crore subjects! At this time, there was no King in Bharat, Hindu or Muslim, who could equal his might.
Patron of Culture and Dharma
Yet for all these achievements, Kapilendradeva Routray was not a King! He declared that the ruler of his Kingdom was God Jagannath and he was a servant of God. Here too, the similarity with Mewar is uncanny, where th Ranas have always been the Diwan(assistants) of God Eklingji. Gajapati Kapilendradeva substantially extended the Jagannath Temple complex and donated a lot of money for maintenance of old temples and also for construction of new temples, tanks and other buildings.
Under his patronage, Puri Jagannatha temple became the centre of performing arts like drama and Odishi dance. Kapilendra Deva was a great patron of Vedic culture and had written a Sanskrit play called Parashuram Bijaya. This play has some part written in Odia and some in Sanskrit. He patronised Odia language, which became the official language of administration and produced many classic works of literature.
The ruler, who should be Hindu icon, was the most powerful warrior of his time and established a dynasty that ruled more than a hundred years in a period when Hindu Kingdoms were in retreat all over the country. Yet, his name is not even mentioned in our history books. He is hardly known outside Odisha, and far lesser men than him are declared great rulers. If this is not an indictment of our historians, what is?
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