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Rajatarangini and the Study of Kalhana’s History of Kashmir: Part II


Raja Lalitaditya and Kashmir under the Karkotas of Parihaspura

It was a cold evening in Parihaspura. Lalitaditya ambled in the Martand Mandir complex, as his retinue quietly trailed behind him. The water ponds adjacent to the temple pathway reflected the pale white sky above him. His wife Kamala and her retinue were a few steps ahead. Kamala grasped her grandson, Jayapida’s arm tightly while instructing the priests about the maintenance of temple staff. Jayapida tugged hard on his grandmother’s arm in an attempt to free himself so he could slip away to the pond and see his reflection in the water. Lalitaditya could overhear Kamala’s adenoidal voice ending the conversation as they approached the temple gateway. The ginormous gateway was richly carved in statues and creepers and was lit by lamps on either side. Lalitaditya and Kamaladevi, along with their retinues, climbed the steps leading to the entrance. As they approached the garbhagriha, two ceremonial drummers announced their arrival to the temple attendants.

The third book of Rajatarangini embarks upon a journey of Kashmiri history that can be corroborated with parallels in architecture, relics and other historical sources, both within and outside the subcontinent (as often argued by historians). Apart from a few glitches in dating (as a result of the recurring translation of calendars) and the mixing of fanciful legends associated with certain kings and queens, we find that the waves of Rajatarangini flow within sharper banks.

The third book of Rajatarangini opens with the return of Gonada dynasty to power in Kashmir. It was ousted for almost two centuries and is detailed in the second book that oversees the rule of six, non-Gonada kings. The return of the Gonadas was ensured by King Meghvahana, who according to Kalhana, was living in exile in Gandhara and was offered the throne by Kashmiri Ministers, unhappy with the inadequacy of the existing monk-turned-king Sandhimati-Aryaraja.  King Meghavahana is described as a strong and pious ruler. He is especially celebrated for prohibiting the killing of animals, (even for sacrifice) and building several Buddhist viharas in Kashmir. It is probable that his previous stay in Gandhara would have inspired his patronage for Buddhism. We do find some proofs for Meghvahana’s historicity. Chinese traveller Ou k’ong mentions Amratabhavana Vihara which was sponsored by Meghvahana’s queen, Amarataprabha. Their son, Sresthasena is credited with the construction of the old Kashmiri capital, Puranadhisthana. Copper coins of this period, associated with Meghvahana’s grandson, Toramana are found in abundance in Kashmir.

Coins under King Meghavahana, who reinstated the Karkota Dynasty

An interesting incident in the third book is the accession of Matrugupta on the Gonada throne following a succession vacuum. Kalhana mentions that King Vikramaditya of Ujjayini then sent Matrugupta, a poet of humble origins, with a letter instructing the Kashmiri Ministers to exalt him on the throne for the time being. While the story seems romanticized to certain extent, it does allow us to match the chronology of Rajatarangini. Raja Siladitya of Malwa, son of Vikramaditya of Ujjayini is placed by Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang in 6th century CE, giving us a probable 6th century dating for the Gonada succession crisis. Matrugupta historicity is also found in the works of Kashmiri poet Kshemendra, (who was mentioned in Part I of the blog), and another poet Mentha, compiled his work Kavya Hayagrivadha under the patronage of Matrugupta. Kalhana also mentions Matrugupta as the patron of Matruguptaswamin Mandir.

Sculpture depicting a Kashmiri Woman, Gonada Dynasty, c. 6th Century

Gonada dynasty was reinstated, with the return of Pravarasena II to the throne. He is credited with the construction of the new capital of Pravarapura (Pravarasenapura, the site of present-day Srinagar). His historicity is verifiable as he led an expedition against the Saurashtra rulers (Gujarat) and reinstated King Siladitya of Malwa on the Ujjayini throne. This allows us to place Pravarasena II at 580 CE. Gold and silver coins from his time are extant and he is also mentioned in the chronicle of Tang Dynasty of China as the builder of the ‘new city (capital)’. The temple of Siva Pravaresvara in Srinagar was sponsored by him.

Pravarasena II is followed by several kings with smaller reigns. Yudhishthira II, Pravarasena’s son is credited with several viharas, followed by Narendraditya and Lahkhana. We find mention of a miraculous ruler Ranaditya, who ruled with his queen Ranarambha. The only verifiable details from them are the construction of buildings. The Gonada dynasty comes to an end with the last Gonada ruler, Baladitya.

Extent of Karkota Dynasty, 8th Century CE

The Gonada Dynasty was followed by one of the most important dynasties of ancient India, the Karkota Dynasty. Following Baladitya’s death, his son-in-law, Durlabhvardhana was crowned as the king. Hiuen Tsiang detailed this period of Kashmir and mentioned a ruler, but didn’t offer a specific name. However, judging by his non-political account of life in the valley, one can assume that the kingdom was stable. King Durlabhvardhana is mentioned in his Chinese annals as ‘Tu-lo-pa’ and is credited to control the pass to Gandhara (Afghanistan). Tsiang mentions that ‘the king’ (i.e. Durlabhvardhana) personally came to visit him when he was with the King of Kapisa (Kabul). Kalhana mentions the extent of Durlabhvardhana’s reign. He writes that the lands of Urasa (Simhapura salt ranges), Rajapura, Pranotsa and Takshashila (Taxila) were the tributary of his kingdom, thus giving us a picture of the Karkota Empire. It must be mentioned that the name Karkota can be traced to a naga cult that existed within Kashmir, but cannot be said for sure.

Coins under King Durlabhvardhana, founder of Karkota Dynasty

Karkota Dynasty was further strengthened under the rule of Durlabhvardhana’s son, Pratapaditya II. He is credited with the foundation of the city of Pratapapura (present-day Tapar). Coinage from his period exists too. Kalhana mentions that he was married to ‘the wife of a foreign merchant’, named Narendraprabha. Although mentioned as a random fact, it can be seen as an example of marital flexibility from a sociological perspective. Pratapaditya and Narendraprabha had three sons, Chandrapida, Tarapida and Muktapida. Chandrapida and Tarapida ascended the throne for a brief period of seven and four years with the title of Vajraditya and Udayaditya respectively. Vjaraditya (713-720 AD) is described as an able ruler and is mentioned in Chinese annals as King Tehen-to-lo-pi-li. His successor Udayaditya on the contrary was recorded to be a cruel and incapable one and ruled for four years (720-724 AD).

Ruins of Parihaspura, the city of the Karkotas

Here, we have to make a special mention to the subject of title hood within the Karkota clan. Kashmir under Karkotas (and even before and after them) was a teeming point of Surya worship. The cold climatic conditions gave the power of Sun a special status and prolonged the trend of Surya worship in Kashmir. This was unlike the rest of Indian subcontinent which had moved on from Vedic deities like Surya, with the rise of Puranic Hinduism. Several exceptions occur as we clearly see Surya worship in Odisha and elsewhere. However, this pushed the royalty to associate themselves with the status that was accorded with Surya which explains the suffix ‘Aditya’ or ‘Prabha’ in royal titles. Tarapida who was crowned as ‘Udayaditya’ needs a special mention to this association since it is odd to find alienation to both Surya and Chandra identities.

Vaikuntha Vishnu, Karkota Dynasty Sculpture, Met Museum

Tarapida was succeeded by Muktapida, who is arguably the most powerful Karkota ruler and set a precedent for his empire’s power, architecture and administration for the late ancient period in Indian history. The youngest sun of Durlabhvardhana and Narendraprabha, Muktapida was crowned as ‘Raja Lalitaditya’ in 724 AD.  We find detailed account of his rule in Rajatarangini and elsewhere, and relics associated with him exist even today. However, Kalahana’s chronology needs a minor adjustment of 25 years for the period of Lalitaditya. It can be assumed that this was an error of translating calendars. Lalitaditya sent an embassy to the Tang Dynasty in China after his accession. He is mentioned as ‘Mu-to-pi’ in their annals, possibly as an apbhransh of his birth name ‘Muktapida’.

Shiva Parvati Sculpture from Karkota Dynasty, Met Museum

Kalhana mentions that Lalitaditya spent most of his reign in expeditions. His first expedition was against the Antarvedi Kingdom under King Yashovarman of Kanyakubja (present-day Kannauj) in 736 AD. Yashovarman submitted to Lalitaditya by offering a peace treaty; however following issues in the peace treaty, Lalitaditya defeated him and brought Kanyakubja under his control. The Karkota Empire now extended till the Ganga and Kali River. Yashovarman’s court poets Vakpatiraja and Bhavabhuti were assimilated in Lalitaditya’s court. The story is verifiable even from Chinese annals as they mention an embassy from a central Indian king ‘I-cha-fan-mo’ (Yashovarman) in 721 AD, however a later embassy by Lalitaditya lists Yashovarman as a subsidiary, therefore suggesting the completion of conquest.

Sculptures from the ruins of the Martand Surya Mandir, constructed by Lalitaditya

Records after Kannauj conquest accord Lalitaditya with the title of ‘Digvijaya’. Kalhana mentions that Lalitaditya controlled Lohavara, Jalamdhara, Kangra, Punch, Kathiawar and Gandhara. Even the courts of Shahi Princes (Persian ruling dynasty) were under him. One of the most interesting details of Lalitaditya’s rule comes from the accounts of his minister Cancuna. Cancuna mentions Lalitaditya’s victory over the Tuhkaras of Tokharistan (that reached till Badakhshan and upper Oxus).Lalitaditya’s minister Cancuna too, personally built two viharas and a stupas in Kashmir. The Chinese Pilgrim Ou-k’ong records that he saw these structures himself too. Ou-k’ong presents us with a surprising detail that some Buddhist structures in Kashmir under Lalitaditya had Turkish patrons too, probably the Shahi dynasty. Lalitaditya’s victory over the Turkish rulers is also celebrated as a festival named ‘Muttai’ which was later mentioned by traveller Al Beruni as having witnessed personally.

Surya Mandir Ruins in a Kashmiri Winter

Lalitaditya’s campaign also reached the Bhattua tribes of present-day Tibet that lived in the Himalayan extension towards the north and the west. According to Rajatarangini, Lalitaditya’s further campaigns lead to territories that are purely mythical in nature. It is possible that these were part of local legends or later extrapolations to the original Rajatarangini.

However, Lalitaditya’s legacy was not limited to military campaigns alone. He is described as a prolific builder and the vastness of his empire suggests that he certainly had the resources at his disposition to carry out architectural advacements. Kalhana mentions that Lalitaditya built several cities to mark important events of his life. Some of them are Sunishchitpura, Dharpitapura, Pahalapura, Prantosa, Lokapunya and some settlements in wetlands. Besides the city of Parihaspura, he maintained the traditional Kashmiri capital too. Several chains of temples and Buddhist stupas and viharas were built by him that unfortunately lie in ruins today. The most prolific creation of Lalitaditya is definitely the Martanda Surya Mandir. This extensive temple complex was dedicated to Surya (as the name suggests) and was an architectural marvel in its heyday. It was an amalgamation of Gandhara, Gupta and Tibetan style of architecture. According to Hindu Shilpashastra, the main gateway to the temple is situated on the western side of the complex and is of the same width as the temple itself. The temple has a pyramidical shikhara as seen in many Kashmiri temples. Various wall carvings in the garbhagriha of the temple depict other gods, such as Vishnu, Ganga, Yamuna, in addition to Surya. It was later sacked and destroyed by Sikander Shah Miri in the 15th century.

Waghnath Corridor, associated with Rani Kamaladevi

Apart from numerous Shaiva shrines (some that even contained statues suspended by magnetic ores), Lalitaditya and the rest of Karkota rulers installed several Vishnu and Buddha Shrines too. Buddhist stupas at Huskapura (near present-day Baramulla), a Rajavihara chaitya and a huge copper statue of Buddha known as Brahdbuddha are recorded in Rajatarangini. The great Vihara at Parihaspura had a colossal Buddha image too which was personally seen by Kalhana himself. Apart from religious architecture, Kalhana mentions Lalitaditya for pioneering a system of water distribution of Vitasta (Jhelum) and his wife Kamaladevi established a market-town known as ‘Kamalahatta’.

Vajrasattva Buddhist Sculpture, Karkota Dynasty

Lalitaditya’s demise is shrouded in several mythical and legendary tales. The Rajatarangini records that he passed away ‘in a snow-laden country to the north’ while on an expedition. Lalitaditya was followed by several short-lived reigns of incapable Karkota kings. The next important ruler worth mentioning is Jayapida, who was a grandson of Lalitaditya. Jayapida was known by his regnal title, Vinayaditya. Vinayaditya’s story too is shrouded in fanciful legends, though it cannot be ruled out as ahistorical. Vinayaditya went on an expedition of the Ganga basin and is recorded to have married the daughter of a Bengali king, Kalyanadevi. Relics from Vinayaditya’s rule include abundant semi-coloured mixed metal coinage found in Kashmir and works of poets named Kshira, Bhatta and Udbhata who claim Vinayaditya as their patron. The city of Jayapura is also associated with his rule.

British Archival Picture of a Martand Mandir

Vinayaditya’s regime was followed by two short lived reigns of Lalitpida and Samagrapida II, after which the throne went to Raja Brahaspati. Brahaspati was the son of Lalitpida and Jayadevi, who is described as a concubine who had no access to social privilege. However, since the King was minor, effective control shifted to Jayadevi’s brothers. They managed the affairs of the throne with Brahaspati acting as the nominal ruler. As expected, this power contestation soon turned into a civil war, from which Jaya’s brother Utpala emerged victorious. The effective control now passed to a non-Karkota lineage of Utpala’s successors, thereby ending the Karkota dynasty in Kashmir in 870 AD. The end of the Karkota Dynasty also coincides with the completion of the fourth Taranga (book) of Rajatarangini.

Coins of Jayapida, Lalitaditya’s grandson and Karkota ruler

The Karkota dynasty is important for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of the few continuous dynasties that existed in the latter part of ancient India and are our source of knowledge and contact with civilizations beyond the subcontinent like the Shahi Persians, Bhattua Tibetians and Tang China. Karkotas were also the overseers of the amalgamation of Buddhist, Shaiva, Sharda, Surya and Vaishnava cultures in Kashmir in the first millennium of the Common Era. Their architectural and political contributions shaped Kashmiri society for the next few centuries. The contribution of Karakota Dynasty is eerily absent from mainstream history, so much so that textbooks fail to even mention a single ruler of the Karkota Dynasty. The Rajatarangini flows further through three Tarangas to offer us a deep look into the Lohara dynasty that came to power and shows the rise of matriarch rulers like Rani Sugandha and Rani Didda.

Stay tuned for part three of the Rajatarangini analysis.

Rajatarangini series

Featured Image: Vishvarupa Vishnu, Sixth Century sculpture from Kashmir


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