Maharani Didda And The Utpala Dynasty In Kashmir
Minister Bhuyya trembled as he stood outside the gates of Queen Didda’s chambers, faced with the task of getting the grief stricken Queen up-to-date with the state affairs. It had been a week since the Queen had lost her beloved son, Abhimanyu and Bhuyya could hear her muffled sobbing from the corridor. He recalled the fate of the last Prime Minister, Naravahana, who felt suicide was an easier option than the constant bashing, berating and questioning of Didda. Bhuyya was armed with a way to pull Didda out of her grief but still unsure whether it would work. He cleared his throat and entered her chambers, making ample noises to make his presence apparent to the Queen. Didda lay sprawled on the floor, her face buried in the folds of her silk shawl as her body trembled with every sniff. She raised her disheveled head to see the new arrival and could barely make out Bhuyya’s tall frame through her teary eyes. She wiped her puffy face and slowly sat up. Bhuyya walked towards her and handed her large manuscript. Didda took it and looked at the page. It had a plan elevation of a heavily ornamental Vishnu Temple. The bottom of the manuscript read, “Abhimanyuswamin Temple, dedicated to the late King Abhimanyu, beloved of Didda”. She looked up to see Bhuyya smiling, aware that his plan had worked. Didda whispered, “This is perfect…let’s do it”. Within minutes she had stormed towards the Court, ready to meet the architects she summoned.
(Figure 1 -: Ruins of the Avanti Swamin Temple, built in the Kashmiri Nagara style)
Kalhana’s Rajatarangini follows a trend of increasing accuracy from the first to the last Taranga, so naturally the fifth and Sixth Taranga of Rajatarangini offer ample historically viable information as the account of Kashmiri history becomes very precise. One of the reasons behind it was increased access to contemporary data for the past dynasties. The previous Tarangas were drafted with information sourced from past compilations or heresy statements, thus leading to some discrepancies in dating, mix ups in dynastic chronology and the retelling of fanciful legends involving mythical creatures as facts.
The fifth book opens with the successful placement of King Avantivarman (A.D. 855 -883) on Kashmir’s throne by his more-than-capable minister Shura and the beginning of the Utpala dynasty in Kashmir. It ended the last few decades of political turmoil under the Karkotas in Kashmir. Avantivarman’s regin is characterized by a stark period of economic revival and social stability based on the description of the activities undertaken by his court. For instance, we find a significant amount of temple and building endowments in his name and state-led infrastructural reforms. Construction under Avantivarman gives us a proper glimpse into the uppermost versions of Nagara Temples and the variations in the style to adjust with Kashmir’s topography. Avantivarman is recorded to be a Vaishnava and thus has several prolific Vaishnava Temples credited with his patronage.
(Figure 2 -: Row of Gana relief, Avantipur Temple, Anantanaga)
The political stability is also seen in large projects that Avantivarman undertook, like draining of flood plains and the tying and regulating the banks of Vitasta River to prevent seasonal flooding. The Vitasta project was undertaken under Avantivarman’s architect named Suyya. Inundation due to floods in Vitasta was responsible for famines in the past. Suyya deepened Vitasta’s river beds and removed the obstacles in attaining agricultural surplus. Kalhana records that Avantivarman’s projects were so fruitful that the cost of one Khari of rice (1 Khari = 80 kg) fell from 200 to 36 Dinnaras. Avantivarman’s court also gave patronage to several great Kashmiri poets. Ratnakar Swami who authored the famous Sanskrit epic ‘Harivijay’, ‘Vakraktipanjashika’ and ‘Dhwani Gatha Panjika’ mentions Avantivarman as his patron. Other famous poets under Avantivarman include Anandavardhan, Muktakarana and Shivaswami.
(Figure 3 -: Ruins of the Avantishwara Temple dedicated to Shiva, with Jhelum River in the background)
The description of Avantivarman’s minister Shura by Kalhana is an interesting case as it defies the norm of pyramidical royal hierarchy. Shura is described as a powerful minister holding significant sway over the king, yet never undermining Avantivarman’s jurisdiction. Shura is credited with the establishment of the city of Shurapur (present day Hurapura) and strongly dominating over the powerful landowning Damara class.
Following Avantivarman’s death (A.D. 855 -883), a brief succession struggle followed in which his son Shankarvarman (A.D. 833-902) emerged victorious. Shankarvarman embarked on a conquest to recapture the southern territories like Darvabhisara and the upper parts of Punjab plains. Shankarvarman’s military conquest are said to have generated a frantic response from kings of Kangra (Prithvichandra) and Gujara (Alakhana. By Shankarvarman’s time Kalhana’s text provides proof of a planned and functioning taxation system and labour management practices (including forced labour) for state-sponsored construction and allied activities. Kalhana critiques him for his patchy policy making and failure to develop his city ‘Shankarpura’. Shankarvarman died in one of his military conquests in present day Hazara, Pakistan.
(Figure 4 -: Shankaragaurishvara temple built by Shankarvarman at Varahmula (Baramulla))
Following his death, Shankarvarman’s son Gopalavarman was placed on the throne for a short period (902-904 AD) under the overlordship of his mother Queen Sugandha (A.D. 885-902), who later completely took over and ruled herself till Gopalvarman’s son came of age. She was declared Sri Sugandha Deva, Queen of Kashmir. Sugandha’s rule and choice of heir was opposed by the military-cum-ministerial class of Tantrins. She was deposed by the Tantrins and later killed in Nispalak Vihara, a Buddhist monastery. The event was followed by a quick succession of insignificant and Tantrin assisted rulers. They ruled as puppet-monarchs that were put on the throne in return of large bribes and deposed in case of non-payment. It is interesting to see monetary support demanded directly and not via royal practices like hirings, endowments or patronage.
(Figure 5 -: A coin of Sugandha’s reign, ‘Sri Sugandha Deva’ is written in Sharda script.)
Sugandha was followed by Partha (A.D. 906-921), Nirjitvarman (A.D. 921-923) and Chakravarman (A.D. 923-933) who was then deposed by Shuravarman I (A.D. 933-934). King Chakravarman returned to power in A.D. 936 and his second rule is recorded in great detail by Kalhana. Chakravarman was eventually murdered by unsatisfied Damaras.
The narrative of quick succession provides a foray into the social life as we see the rise and fall of social classes striving for power. We find Damaras (the landowning classes), Tantrins (the military power bearing ministers), Kayasthas (the educated class that provided paid clerical support) and other such social groups that assisted the rise of candidates to the throne. While discussing Queen Sugandha, Kalhana mentions ‘Ekang’ which was a military organization that acted as rivals to the Tantrins, almost like a parallel armed force that occasionally intervened in Kashmiri politics. Kalhana mentions the ‘Dombas’ that were a lower social group that rose to power due to royal appointments by King Chakravarman (936-937 AD) who married a Domba woman. Kalhana mentions the two daughters of Ranga, the Domba musician, Hansa and Nagalata that were part of his court despite their otherwise lower social status. Hansa in fact ended up rising to the position of the chief queen. Ranga, the Domba musician got an agrahara (land grant) as gift from the King himself. However, Kalhan mentions that the popular perception of Dombas as belonging to low caste persevered amongst the Tantrins and Damaras.
(Figure 6 -: Remains of Sughandesha Temple, endowed by Sugandha at Pattan, Kashmir)
The Buddhist Sanghas of various cities also make occasional appearances. Rajtarangini mentions a fully-functioning Jayendra-Vihara in Shrinagar that offered recluse to overthrown monarchs. Apart from the Buddhist Sangha, we also find reference of monarchs like Kamalavardhana, who sought help from Brahmans for formalizing his coronation. The Brahmans gathered into an assembly and discussed and debated for several days, ultimately choosing a Brahmana, Yakshara (AD 939-948) to rule as King. Kalhana mentions that Yashakara who ‘roamed the Earth as a pauper’ was ‘suddenly raised to the position of the King’. Instances of such kind offer a more liberal approach to acquiring power, as opposed to the strict lineage-based successions that we usually see in Indic monarchies. The fifth Taranga ends with the accession of Yashakara to the throne of Kashmir.
Excerpt from Rajatarangini describing Yashakara’s accession:
“Yashakara commanded the doorkeepers to hold aloof the Brahmanas, as he desired to be unapproachable. But when the doorkeepers were scaring them away, he spoke to them with folded hands, “You have given me the throne and you are to be worshipped by me alike to the gods. (However,) as you will become full of arrogance from pride as having been the bestowers of royal dignity, you are not to come into my presence, except at the time of business.”
(Figure 7 -: Four-Armed Goddess, possibly Sarada, at the time of the Utpala dynasty, late 9th century CE, Kashmir)
The sixth Taranga describes the new-found stability that arrived with Yashakara after political instability in Kashmir. He is described as an independent minded and to some extent, an eccentric monarch. He is credited with building of a matha for ‘students of Aryadesha’, a term which loosely covers the entire south-Asian territory. Amid ill health, Yashakara passed the throne to his son, Samgramadeva (A.D. 948-949) who reigned for just three months and was then treacherously killed by the minister Parvagupta (A.D. 949-950) who like his predecessor lasted for a very short rule. Pravagupta was succeeded by his severely inept son Kshemagupta (A.D. 950-958). Kalhana describes Kshemagupta as morally corrupt, addict and adulterer with no rational experience as a monarch. He also destroyed the Jayendra vihara during his tussle with a Damara named Sangram and is heavily criticized by Kalhana for it.
Excerpt from Rajatarangini describing Kshemagupta’s rule:
“The King (Kshemagupta) wholly bent on mischief, was sharp in laughing at others, fond of the love of others’ wives, and subject to the will of others….Women gained his attachment by joining their hips, hunters by roaming with him in forest and parasites (yes men) by applauding his indecencies. The Royal assembly filled with whores, villains, idiots and corrupters of boys was unfit to be visited by the wise.”
Regardless of his gross incapacity as a monarch, Kshemagupta did play an important role in Kashmiri history by introducing us to one of the most powerful rulers in Kashmir, Queen Didda. Didda was the daughter of a Lohara chief, Simharaja (from which the forthcoming Lohara Dynasty derives its name) and was married to Kshemagupta. She was the granddaughter of King Bhima Shahi, who was one of the most illustrious Hindu Shahi rulers that ruled over Udabhanda and her marriage to Kshemagupta was an arrangement between the Hindu Shahis and the Kashmiri Kingdom to find an ally in one another.
(Figure 8 -: Coinage under Queen Didda, even the coins of her husband Kshemagupta carried the prefix ‘Di-“)
Kalhana records that a grand Vishnu temple ‘Bhimakeshava’ was erected at present day Bumzu near Lidder River, to commemorate the marriage. The Bhimakeshava temple is described to be richly endowed with gold and treasures by Kalhana. It was later converted into a Ziarat (a Muhammadan pilgrimage site) of Baba Bamdin Sahib by covering the sculpted exterior in thick plaster. It is interesting to see that the Bhimakeshava temple carries the name of Didda’s grandfather, Bhima Shahi and not of Kshema, Didda’s father or Didda herself. It is clear that Bhima, the Hindu Shahi ruler had the upper hand over the geo-political relations.
(Figure 9 -: The Bhimakeshava temple now seen as Baba Bamdin Sahib’s “Ziarat” with Bumzu, Kashmir)
Didda herself wielded great power from her maternal side. With Kshemagupta’s erroneous ways, she had her path towards becoming the power holder of Kashmir wide open. Kshemagupta died in A.D. 958 after succumbing to fever. The throne was passed to their minor son Abhimanyu (A.D. 958- 972) with Didda as the regent. Didda set to work by first eliminating the self serving ‘yes-men’ Kshemagupta had surrounded himself with, beginning with Kshema’s Dwarpati, Prime Minsiter Phalguna, who was pushed into exile.
Didda’s regency was marked by repeated coups by her rivals. The first major challenge to her power came from the two sons of an older King Pravagupta, named Mahiman and Patala who were put down by Didda after buying out all of their supporters including their army chief, Yashodhar. Even Yashodhar was put on the Queen’s radar when he attacked a Shahi chief with no prior warning. Didda and her minister Narvahana then captured and mercilessly executed all the rebel chiefs that had shown even the slightest hints of unfaithfulness to her regency. Kalhana records that Didda’s constant mistrust and questioning (after being misguided by her treasurer Sindhu) even drove her one faithful minister, Naravahana to suicide.
(Figure 10 -: Monarchs during the regency of Queen Didda)
Amid all this political chaos, Didda also faced the opposition of the landowning Damaras who preferred the exiled minister Phalguna and demanded his return. The queen did in fact welcome Phalguna back amid constant fear of coups. Phalguna started discharging his duties as Prime Minister immediately. Didda’s son Abhimanyu died in A.D. 972 and was succeeded by his son Nandigupta (A.D. 972-973). Kalhana notes that Abhimanyu’s death softened her and she began to heavily spend on royal endowments and other such works of piety, encouraged by the chief city officer, Bhuyya. She constructed a temple named after her son, Abhimanyusvamin at Abhimanyupura (present day Bemina) and two other Vishnu temples, both called Diddaswamin. She also eulogized her father Simharaja by constructing a matha and a temple, Simhaswamin. She also successfully undertook restoration and renovation of all temples that had fallen into a state of ruination by reconstructing their walls.
(Figure 11 -: Buddhist Deity Chakrasamvara; Kashmir, c. 9th-10th century; Leaded brass inlaid with copper, The Rubin Museum)
Kalhana’s description of Didda oscillates from one extreme to another based on her actions. While describing her previous insecurities with the throne, she is frequently noted to be deluded, easily influenced and mistrustful. Kalhana hints towards her personal promiscuity and her shrewd nature in dealing with her enemies. However, while describing her grants and endowments, he calls Didda as the one with ‘charming beauty’ that did acts of piety.
Didda’s softened nature didn’t last long as Kalhana mentions that just within the next few years she had her two grandsons, Nandigupta, and Tribhuvan ‘destroyed’ (killed) by ‘witchcraft’ and put her last grandson Bhimagupta on the throne. It is unclear whether the death of her grandsons was a case of infant mortality being seen as an act of ‘evil eye’ or if she actually had her grandsons killed. Even Bhimagupta’s accession is described by Kalhana as ‘the path to death’. Kalhana mentions that she maintained ‘multiple paramours’ and engaged in an affair with a ‘lowly’ letter bearer named Tunga who had grown up herding cattle. Tunga was raised to the position of Prime Minister and together with Didda, put down every attempted coup by the Damaras, Tantrins and other contenders. Tunga even successfully led an expedition against Prithvipala of Rajapuri (present-day Rajauri). Didda remained on the throne till the end of her age and before passing away, had successfully placed her brother Udayaraja’s son, Samgramaraja on the throne, who properly initiated the ‘First Lohara Dynasty’. Didda died in 1003 AD.
(Figure 12 -: The Main power centre of the Loharas that followed Didda and parallel kingdoms)
Didda’s rule shifted the royal lineage to the Loharas that will continue to rule over Kashmir for a significant amount of time. The fifth and sixth Taranga describe powerful monarchs with animated personalities. Kalhana’s role as an independent chronicler, free from the limitations of state sponsorship becomes quite apparent as he freely discusses the exploits of every King and Queen, critically describing their deeds and rule. The certainty of dating, geographical places and endowments makes Rajatarangini an incredible source of medieval Kashmiri history. Details of the Kashmiri-Shahi relationships can also be compared to the parallel records of the Hindu Shahi rulers. In the next part, we will see the rule of the Loharas as the past merges with Kalhana’s present and he records events in real time.
Feature Image Credit: wikipedia.org
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