(This article was published in the local daily of Odisha-Sambad English)
There was a time when the Mongols were known for feigned retreat warfare, but it would be a surprise for someone on hearing that a battle with such a well-planned retreat strategy took place in Eastern India, and it was carried out by the forces of a king from present day Odisha. This, is the battle of Katasin.
Narasimhadeva-I or Langula Narasinghadeva is one of the famous Indian kings and a popular name from modern state of Odisha, better known as the builder of the famous Konark Sun temple. He belonged to the Eastern Ganga dynasty which is known for its heroic resistance against Islamic armies from the north of Odisha along with military activities against other neighbouring kingdoms, and more importantly for construction of beautiful temples of Kalingan School of architecture. Narasimhadeva ancestor Anantavarman Chodaganga started the construction of the Jagannath Temple of Puri. Narasimhadeva’s father Anangabhima-III and grandfather Rajaraja-III had successfully defended their kingdom from the onslaught of the Khaljis of Bengal.
The year was 1244 AD-roughly 6 years after the ascension of Narasimhadeva. The Delhi Sultanate under Mamluks, which started ruling and expanding post second Battle of Tarrain, was gradually weakening at the centre. The Mamluk Governor at Bengal, of Turkic descent- Tughril Tughan Khan had become quite powerful and dreamt of establishing an independent East Indian Sultanate and had plans of expanding south into Utkala, which came under the rule of Eastern Ganga territory. But Narasimhadeva seemed to have read the opponent’s mind and had good understanding of the situation. He decided what a few Indian kings had dared of doing i.e. going for an aggressive move before the opponent has time to attack.
Most of the evidence of Narasimhadeva-Tughan conflict comes from the literary work Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Persian chronicler Minhaj-ud-Siraj Juzjani who was accompanying the Mamluk forces in Bengal and other places. From Minhaj’s account, it seems Eastern Ganga army had captured southern Bengal and by November 1243 AD had reached near Lakhnauti territory of Bengal (in Malda district) which shocked Tughan Khan. Tughan raised an army and seems to have given a clarion call of revenge against Narasimhadeva. Tughan’s forces started pushing the Ganga army to South and were successful in driving them out of Lakhnauti. The Ganga army retreated till Katasin fort, which seems to be located somewhere in southern Bengal or northern Odisha scholars opine that the place Katasin is the Kantei region of Purba Medinpur district.
Katasin was more of a cane jungle and seems to be well known to the Narasimhadeva forces. The Eastern Ganga army dug three ditches on the road to the fort in order to stop the advance of Tughan’s army. Tughan crossed the ditches and had a small engagement with Ganga army, who seemed to gradually retreat to the cane groves. According to Minhaj’s account, the Odishan soldiers hadn’t left anything behind the fort except for five elephants with their fodder. Tughan was quite happy seeing the elephants-the prized war animals in India-and decided to rest his army in the fort for food.
But the elephants were a trap set up by the Odishan soldiers to allure the Mamluk force and stop their advance. Tughan fell for it.
From the cane groves, two hundred infantry men and fifty cavalry men roared with the flag of Bull & Moon insignia (insignia of Eastern Gangas) at the front and pounced upon the unprepared soldiers of Tughan Khan from behind. The Mamluk forces were thrown into confusion and started retreating north. However, their retreat proved disastrous with loss of men on the way. The Ganga cavalry seems to have chased Tughan’s forces for about 70 miles till Lakhnor.
Narasimhadeva has been eulogized in the works of his court poet Vidyadhara, who in his treatise of Sanskrit poetics Ekavali described him as Yavanavanivallaba, Hammiramanamardana (Conqueror of Yavana forces and Destroyer of the pride of Hammrias).
The date of the battle falls on 16th April, 1244 AD as calculated by historians from the Islamic sources.
Battle of Katasin is perhaps one of the fine examples of feigned retreat warfare among Hindu kingdoms in early medieval India. An army smartly retreated to the area of its convenience and reworked on its strategy. One can find Mongols using a similar strategy with their mounted archers, however in this case i.e. in Katasin, the dense topography was an important factor in the victory. Historians RP Mohapatra and J N Sarkar opine, after having studied the sculptures of Konark temple, that there is good enough reason to believe that Eastern Ganga army had a mounted archer unit. Horse archery wasn’t new to India in medieval times and existed since long time. It was quite well known during the Gupta age.
Battle of Katasin has been long forgotten and ignored in the chapters of history. But the horse sculpture of Konark, which also happens to be the State emblem of Odisha, is a constant reminder of the heroics of Odia cavalry at Katasin.