Canberra, 25 May 2014

Harsha-Vardhana’s death removed the last vestiges of restraint that had held back the disruptive forces that were knocking on the walls of the Empire. In an amazingly short span of time numerous petty states with volatile and flexible borders, ruled by ambitious and ruthless kings or chiefs were created—the entire region of North India descended into a morass of internecine wars. [Here North India is meant to encompass the entire area from Afghanistan to the Burma border north of The Deccan Plateau and the Western regions of Sind, Gujarat and Saurashtra.] It is noteworthy that this was the normal state of affairs in the Indian sub-continent from around 4 century B.C., with holistic stability being brought about by capable kings and great emperors who created large and centrally governed kingdoms and empires, and at times also crested lasting dynasties on a regular basis. These empires lasted for limited periods of time and then vanished as the power of the dynastic descendants started to wane and kings of other emerging and more powerful dynasties embarked on conquest and control.

There is no doubt that Harsha was a despot, for it was impossible to carve out an empire of the size that he did without being savagely ambitious and coldblooded in his dealings and decisions. However, he was a benign despot—if such a kind of person can indeed be considered to have existed—and was accepted by the people as a sort of anti-dote to the savagery unleashed by the Hun rule few decades back, which was fairly fresh in the memory. However, by the time of Harsha’s death, the savagery of the foreign tyrant had been largely forgotten and India had reverted to its classic stance of internal squabbles and constant bickering that had in the first instance facilitated the success of foreign invaders. [The public memory of politics was fairly short even in the medieval times, as it is so evident today.] At this stage in Indian history, this attitude was to have much more far-reaching consequences than ever before. In the final analysis it is clear that Harsha, while being a worthy ruler of the immense empire that he had crafted, failed to impose the kind of paramount control over the empire similar to that the Mauryas and the Guptas had been able to enforce. Even at the height of its glory, his empire remained a fragile and fleeting confederacy at best. This is confirmed by the peripheral and feudatory kingdoms of his domain—the Valabhi kingdom of Gujarat, the Gauda and Vanga states of Bengal, and the kingdom of Kamarupa (Assam)—breaking free and becoming autonomous almost immediately on Harsha’s death.

“When he died, the wounds inflicted by the fierce foreign savages had long been healed, while the freedom of the country from external attack relieved men’s minds from feeling the necessity for a deliverer; and so India instantly reverted to her normal condition of anarchical autonomy.”

Vincent A. Smith,

The Early History of India, p.357.

For nearly five centuries after the collapse of the Harsha-Vardhana Empire on his death, for it cannot by any stretch of imaginations be called a Vardhana Empire, there was no permanent occupation of India by foreign invaders. However, North India remained fractured and in incessant conflict. At the same time, the powerful Muslim Caliphate to the West was gathering power and momentum to create one of the fiercest conquering marches in the medieval world, but India remained indifferent to the increasing might of the Arab kingdom. This calculated indifference, born of an innate sense of superiority, was to cost the sub-continent dearly in the centuries to come.

Although the petty kingdoms were at war with each other almost constantly, cultural developments and that of art and architecture continued although at a slower pace than under the guidance and patronage of the great emperors. During this period a great number of magnificent sculptures were created and architecture was also in the ascendancy with the creation of some great buildings and palaces. Sanskrit writing flourished and Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati became dignified and accepted regional languages, thereby laying the foundation for the development of vernacular literature.  

These five centuries of rather unclear and hazy history also saw the distinct separation of the Peninsular India from the Northern kingdoms. Harsha’s own efforts at venturing into the Peninsula had been thwarted by the illustrious Chalukyas of Badami and thereafter no invasion of the Deccan and South India was attempted for a long time, till the arrival of the Muslim invaders. A few Deccan rulers did venture north and made inroads into the rich Gangetic plains, but all these invasions were temporary in nature. In fact the Tamil realms to the extreme South existed as a separate world by themselves.

The flow of events and the changes that took place during this indistinct period in Indian history cannot be enumerated in a continuous narrative or in any semblance of even a loose chronology. Political changes were indeed gathering pace in North India and they also influenced the development of social ethics, religious bias and the basic lives of the people in a host of other intangible ways. Even in these areas no linear narrative is possible. The attempt in this chapter is therefore to capture the essence of the developments that were taking place and trace the rise, maturation, and fall of the more prominent amongst the large number of kingdoms that erupted into existence in North India at Harsha’s death.

The Rulers of Kanauj

After the death of Harsha and the Chinese defeat of Arunasva, the Brahmin minister who had usurped the throne, the earliest known king of Kanauj is Yasovarman who is known to have send an embassy to China in 731. About ten years later he was dethroned by Lalitaditya Muktapida the king of Kashmir. Yasovarman is perhaps better known as the patron of two renowned authors—Bhavabhuti the author of the Sanskrit book Malati-Madhava; and Vakpatiraja a writer in Prakrit and therefore lesser known. The next ruler in Kanauj was Vajrayudha who was also defeated in battle and dethroned by Jayapida, the grandson of Lalitaditya and then the king of Kashmir. His successor, Indrayudha was defeated by Dharmapala, the king of the Bengal-Bihar region, in 800. Dharmapala placed Chakrayudha, who was related to Indryudha, on the throne. However, Chakrayudha also did not reign for long, being defeated and the kingdom conquered by Nagabhata, the ambitious king of the Gurjara-Pratihara kingdom of Rajputana with his capital in Bhilmal, north-west of Mount Abu. As id obvious, the kings of Kanauj after Harsha had lost their power and regularly succumbed to the invasions of neighbouring kingdoms.

The Gurjara-Pratihara Dynasty

Nagabhata or his immediate successor transferred the capital of their kingdom from Bhilmal to Kanauj, after the annexation of the erstwhile Harsha-Vardhana kingdom. During this time there was continuous internecine war between the Gurjaras, the descendants of foreign invaders, and the Rashtrakutas (sometimes equated with the later-day Rathores) of the Deccan. The foreign tribes had entered the sub-continent in early 6th century and by the middle of the 7th century were assimilated enough with the local population to be considered, accepted, and recognised as Kshatriyas. This remarkable transformation of the Gurjaras in the matter of a century is reported by Hiuen Tsang. Nagabhata was succeeded to the throne by his son Ramabhadra (also referred to as Ramadeva in some texts) who ruled from 825 to 840. There is no detailed information of this 15-year rule and it is more probable that shifting the capital of the kingdom to Kanauj was accomplished by the conquering Nagabhata rather than his son.

Ramabhadra’s son Mihira, normally known by his cognomen of Bhoja, came to the throne in 840 and had a long reign of 50 years. By this time the Gurjara-Pratihara kingdom was extensive and a veritable empire. Its core was the territories of the Punjab; Rajputana; the entire Gangetic belt comprising of UP, Agra and Oudh; and the territories of Gwalior. In the west they also controlled Gujarat and Malwa with the Hakra, or Wahinda, River forming the border of the kingdom with the territorial holdings of the Muslim Chiefs, who were by then ruling Sind. In the north-west the River Sutlej formed the border, while in the east the Pratihara kingdom shared a border with the kingdom of Bengal-Bihar being ruled by King Devapala. Towards the south, the Chandels ruling the kingdom of Jejakabhukti (modern-day Bundelkhand) also acknowledge the suzerainty of the Pratiharas under Bhoja.

Bhoja, like many other kings and emperors of the Indian milieu, was sufficiently vain to declare himself an incarnation of the god Vishnu, titling himself,’Adi Varaha’ or the Imperial Boar. [In the incarnations the God Vishnu, totalling ten in all of which only nine are supposed to have appeared so far, the intial ones have always been in the form of animals such as a fish, tortoise, wild boar etc.] The abundance and geographical spread of silver coins bearing this ‘Varaha’ title for Bhoja found across North India testifies both to the length of his reign and the extent of his empire. The Gurjara coins were called Dramma, a colloquial term for the Greek Drachma and were poor and degenerate imitations of the Sassanian and Greek coins. Although Bhoja’s empire was extensive by all measures, there is hardly any information available regarding its internal governance or the state of the society. The length of his rule only testifies to a certain, and minimal, amount of stability, without providing any indication of the socio-economic conditions of the general population. It is impossible to make any kind of comparison between Bhoja’s empire and the ones that had gone before, or were to come after.

Bhoja’s successor, his son Mahendrapala (also called Mahendrayudha) preserved the integrity of the extensive kingdom—stretching from the borders of Bihar to the Arabian Sea—that he had inherited. Inscriptions made in Gaya during the eighth year of his reign indicate that Magadha was also under the Pratihara (in certain writings they are referred to as Parihar) sway at least temporarily. The poet Rajasekhara was a teacher and advisor to Mahendrapala and is credited with having written the play Karpura Manjari, fully in Prakrit, as well as other minor works. Mahendrapala did not rule for long and was succeeded by his elder son Bhoja II who died in the third year of his reign. He was succeeded by his half-brother Mahipala (not to be confused with the Mahipala of the Pala kings of Bengal, discussed later in the chapter) who ruled from 910 to 940. His rule saw the decline in power of the Pratiharas of Kanauj. In 916 he was defeated in battle by the Rashtrakuta king Indra III and was forced to cede the province of Saurashtra. Although he managed to recapture the capital of Kanauj with the help of the Chandels, who were feudatories of the Pratiharas. However, the assistance they provided was the beginning of the emergence of the Chandels as power brokers of the region.

The Chandel ascendancy is also indicated by the next Pratihara king Devapala having to surrender a prestigious and precious family heirloom, the idol of the god Vishnu, to the Chandel king Yasovarman. The idol was enshrined by Yasovarman in a fine temple in Khajuraho. By this time, the Chandels were well established in their fortress at Kalanjar and had all but formally declared independence from the rulers of Kanauj. Yasovarman’s successor Dhanga made the River Jamuna the boundary between the two kingdoms, a substantive increase in the Chandel territory holdings. Devapala the Pratihara king was succeeded by his brother Vijayapala, inheriting a greatly diminished kingdom—in territory, power and status. Subsequently he lost the core possession of the Pratihara kingdom—Gwalior—to a Kachchhwaha chief called Vajdradaman. At this stage, as so often happens in Indian history, the Pratiharas disappear from the main line of the narrative as suddenly as they had appeared on its pages. This period also coincides with the commencement of the intrusion and intervention into local Indian politics by the Muslim invaders, by now already waiting in the flanks.     

Regions Beyond Harsha’s Empire

Even during Harsha’s reign there were a number of kingdoms outside the borders of his extensive empire that were mostly independent with some paying traditional but token obeisance to Kanauj. On his death, these kingdoms became bold enough to interfere in the central kingdom ruled from Kanauj. In the north Kashmir was the most dominant of such kingdoms.


Kashmir was predominant amongst the kingdoms of the north and had defeated and annexed Taxila by the time Kanauj power was on the decline. The Kashmir kings had also annexed a number of minor principalities, growing into a position of strength, having control of Punjab and making Multan and Jammu their dependencies. Hiuen Tsang reports this spread of the kingdom, calling Kashmir Tse-Kia and Jammu Po-fa-to.

The entire Kashmir valley was part of Asoka Maurya’s extensive empire and also formed part of the mighty Kushan Empire during Kanishka’s rule. However, Harsha was unable to conquer the mountain kingdom, although he forced the Kashmir king to relinquish a cherished relic—the tooth of the Buddha—and brought it back to Kanauj. Detailed and reliable information regarding the kings of Kashmir is available from the time of Harsha. At this stage the Karakota dynasty was founded by Durlabhavardhana. His reign along with that of his son Durlabhaka, who followed him to the throne, was long and established the kingdom on a strong footing. Durlabhaka was succeeded by his three sons in order, the first being the eldest, Chandrapida, whose investiture as king was sanctioned by the Emperor of China in 720. Similarly the third son Muktapida was also proclaimed king by the Chinese Emperor in 733. This indicates short and truncated tenures for both his elder brothers, which might also explain the lack of information regarding their rule.

Muktapida, also known as Lalitaditya, ruled or 36 years and was primarily responsible for extending the kingdom and increasing the power of the Kashmir kings. In 740, he defeated the ruler of Kanauj and imposed the influence of Kashmir over the north western Gangetic plains. He built the famous Martanda temple of the sun that still exists. The details of his activities and achievements are given in the Kalhana Chronicles. His grandson Jayapida, also called Vinayaditya, also defeated the king of Kanauj, Vajrayudha, ruling that kingdom for some time till he was forced to retreat by a combined Kanauj-Chandel army. He also led an expedition against the king of Nepal who was imprisoned but managed to escape. There was no real gain for the Kashmir kingdom from this expedition, but it was a display of their increasing power. There is also a romantic tale that Jayapida visited the capital of Bengal, then an adversary kingdom, incognito to carry out a surveillance to judge whether or not to attack the country. This episode is not confirmed by any reliable source of information and in all likelihood just a tale. By nature Jayapida was a cruel and oppressive ruler, even to his own people, and obviously ruthless in the administration of conquered lands. This low moral standards and cruelty of the extreme kind is a recurring character trait of Kashmiri rulers, irrespective of the dynasty to which they belonged. 

In the second half of the 9th century, Avantivarman, one of the few enlightened rulers of Kashmir and a patron of arts and literature came to power. It is highly likely that the modern day Awantipura, about 20 kilometres from Srinagar was the capital of this king. However, this beneficent rule did not last long in Kashmir. The next king was Sankaravarman a great warlord and also a ruthless economic oppressor of his people. He epitomised all the preconceived negative notions of an ‘Oriental Despot’. During his rule his Brahmin general called Lalliya defeated the Turki Shahiya kings. The Shahiyas, who were the descendants of the mighty Kushans, had ruled from Kabul till 870, when they were pushed out by the Arab general Yakub-i-Lais and forced to move east, establishing their new capital at Ohind. The victory of the Brahmin general helped establish the Hindu Shahiya dynasty that ruled the Kashmir valley till 1021 when they were deposed by the Islamic invasion.

In 917-918 Kashmir suffered a great famine while being ruled by the child king Partha with his father Pangu as the regent. Their antecedents are unknown, but since the father was only a regent, it can be safely assumed that the child was adopted into the royal family which may not have had a direct heir to the throne. [This was a common practice in India and would have disastrous consequences in the 19th century when the ruling British refused to accept the legitimacy of such adoptions and the right of the adopted prince to succeed to the throne.] Partha when he came of age, and his son when he inherited the throne, are credited with complete misrule and overwhelming oppression of the people. The son’s rule ended in 939. The next oppressive regime was headed by Queen Didda of the Shahiya dynasty who was initially queen-consort, then the regent, and finally the sovereign ruler, her overall rule lasting from 950 to 1003. She was followed by her nephew Sangrama who was defeated by Mahmud of Ghazni, but managed to retain the independence of the kingdom. The second half of the 11th century saw Kashmir being ruled by tyrants like Kalas and the insane Harsha. The distinction that medieval Kashmir carries is that it had the misfortune of being ruled by a long list of kings and queens who were completely detached from the people and ruthless in their enforcement of economic oppression on the state.

“Few countries can rival the long Kashmir list of kings and queens who gloried in shameless lust, fiendish cruelty, and pitiless misrule.”

Vincent A. Smith

The Early History of India, p. 375.


Medieval Sind is reported to have been rich and powerful, ruled by a Buddhist Rai kings of the Sudra caste. It is said to have housed more than 10,000 Buddhist monks. However, it is also reported that these monks were self-indulgent, idle and of no great merit. [This situation could probably be a further confirmation of the richness of Sind as a kingdom since the state could support such indolence.] The kingdom covered the entire Indus valley, and Baluchistan has been confirmed as having been a dependency. The capital was Aror (also spelt Alor) on the banks of the River Hakra, known as the ‘Lost River’. The ruins of the city can still be traced about eight kilometres south-east of Rohri, a small town in Sakhar district. However, around 800, the capital was abandoned. Unconfirmed legend has it that the River Hakra was diverted by the Arab chief Saif-ul-Muluk, drying up the water system of the capital and forcing the population to abandon the city.

There are three known kings of the Buddhist Rai dynasty who ruled Sind—Diwaji, his son Sihras Rai and grandson Sahasi. During the reign of Sihras Rai, Arabs invaded the Makran coast. Sihras was defeated and killed in the encounter with the Arabs occupying Makran in 644. In 646, Sihras Rai’s son Sahasi who had inherited the throne was also defeated and killed. These incursions were only the precursor for the concerted invasion that was soon to come. On the death of Sahasi, the Brahmin minister of the Rais, called Chach, claimed the throne and with obvious Arab support ruled Sind for the next 40 years. Chach’s 40-year rule was tyrannical and he alienated the Jats, Meds, and the Buddhists—the three ethnic and religious groups that formed the bulk of the population—in equal measure.

The major Arab invasion of Sind started in 710-711. At this time, from a military perspective, the invasion of India was considered a difficult task and unlikely to succeed. However, conquest was the geo-political aim of the Muslim rulers of the vast kingdom to the west—the Umayyad Caliphate. By 644, the Arabs had already established a foothold in Makran in the Baluchi coast. When the Umayyad Caliphate established itself in a powerful position under Muawiya in 661, extensive survey and reconnaissance of Sind was already well underway. It is an interesting fact that the Umayyad Caliphs, vested and centred in Damascus, appointed governors to control all Arab held lands as well for areas that they wished to conquer and hold. In accordance with this tradition, Al-Hajjaj who was the governor based in Baghdad from 694-714 was titled ‘Governor of Iraq, Hind and Sind’. This is perhaps the earliest indication of the long-term goal of the Arab kingdom to conquer India.

Around 710 some piracy took place against Arab traders in waters that were supposed to be under the control of the Sind Brahminical kings. The Arab Governor in Baghdad asked King Dahir, son of Chach then ruling in Sind, to respond to the acts of piracy. Dahir decided to ignore the request and did not initiate any remedial measures. [It could well be that the piracy was conducted under the patronage of the king himself, since there was no love lost between the Arabs and the kings of Sind.] Since the refusal to take action was considered an affront to the power of the Governor particularly and the Caliphate in general, an invasion of Sind was ordered. [The other side of the story could be that this affront taken to some minor act of piracy was just an excuse to mount an expedition, primarily to test the waters in terms of military preparations of the ‘Indian’ kingdom.] The invasion force was led by Muhammad al-Quasim (Muhammad, son of Kasim), the nephew of the Governor Al-Hajjaj, and consisted of a naval task force with siege artillery.

The Arab task force initially captured Debal on the coast and then crossed the Indus to engage in a major battle with the king of Sind at Brahmanabad. In the battle, which took place in 712, Dahir was defeated and killed. Muhammad married the widow, Rani Ladi, and moved into upper Sind, capturing Multan. An ancient Hindu kingdom had been brought to its knees and extinguished. Sind became part of the Umayyad controlled Islamic empire, passing to Muslim rule permanently. This was the first Muslim bridgehead to be established in the Indian sub-continent.

[Part 29 A is the first half of the Chapter ‘Descend into Anarchy’. The second half is also posted along with this as Part 29 B]  

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (




About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: