Part 29 B DESCEND INTO ANARCHY: NEPAL, BENGAL AND KAMARUPA

Canberra, 25 May 2014

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

Nepal

In medieval India, the kingdom of Nepal was not considered a separate entity and extended from Sikkim in the east to the Kumaon hills in the west, much as it does today. Since it rests in the Himalayas, the country consists mainly of mountains and lush valleys. Kathmandu, the capital lies within a valley that is 20 miles long and 15 miles across—Nepal is essentially this valley. The first mention of the kingdom is in Asoka Maurya’s chronicles, which state that in 3rd century B.C., he controlled Nepal. This is attested by the monuments that he raised in the town of Patan, still surviving today. There are also inscriptions in the lowlands that mention that under the Mauryas, Nepal was an integral part of the Empire ruled directly by the Emperor. This is not surprising considering the proximity of Pataliputra, the Maurya capital, to the kingdom of Nepal.

There is no further information regarding the developments that took place in this inaccessible mountain kingdom, till it is mentioned in Samudra Gupta’s Allahabad pillar. The records of the Gupta Empire, in 4th century A.D., mentions Nepal as an autonomous frontier state and in a broader sense a tributary. Nepal was ruled by a Kshatriya Buddhist family, the Lichchavis. Their connection to the famous Lichchavis of Vaisali is uncertain, but it is likely that the Nepal Lichchavis were an off-shoot of the primary family. During Harsha’s reign in the 7th century, Nepal essentially played the role of a buffer state between the Vardhana kingdom and Tibet, which was a great power at that time. There is considerable debate regarding which of the two kingdoms exerted more influence on Nepal. Events that happened during this period could perhaps provide an indication regarding the inclination of the Nepal rulers. The king of Nepal, Amsuvarman gave his daughter in marriage to Srong-tsan-Gampo, the monarch of Tibet; and on Harsha’s death, Nepalese troops supported the Chinese envoy Wang-Hiuen-Tse against the usurper in Kanauj. The debate is unnecessary, there is no doubts where the loyalty of the king of Nepal lay.

The Chandel Kingdom of Jejakabhukti

The Chandels ruled Jejakabhukti (colloquially called Jijhoti), or Bundelkhand, and have a long history. They played an important role in the events that took place in medieval India for the larger part of three centuries. The Chandels were originally Gond chieftains of the Chhatarpur province who overthrew the overarching Pratihara control in the 9th century and gradually expanded their kingdom to the River Jamuna. At this stage their kingdom came to be called Jejakabhukti. The important towns of the kingdom were Khajuraho in Chhatarpur, Mahoba in Hamirpur, and Kalanjar in Banda. The Kalanjar Fort was essentially the well-spring of the military power of the dynasty. The Chandels have an ‘illustrious’ history of having unsuccessfully opposed the Muslim invasion into the sub-continent. The most famous king of the dynasty, Dhanga, joined the Hindu Confederacy created to oppose the Muslim invasion led by Amir Subkutgin, and shared the ignominy of the disastrous defeat suffered at the Afghan border. Ganda, a later raja of the dynasty opposed Sultan Mahmud and was also defeated. 

In the second half of the 11th century, Raja Kirtivarman restored the former glory of the kingdom; defeated Karnadeva, the king of Chedi (ruling the equivalent of contemporary Madhya Pradesh); and extended the boundaries of the kingdom. Kirtivarman was also a patron of art and literature, a tradition that all successful kings followed. Around 1065, he sponsored the allegorical play Prabodha-Chandrodaya that translates to the ‘Rise of the Moon of Intellect’, which is a dramatised, and perhaps dramatic, explanation of the Vedanta system of philosophy. The last Chandel king of importance, purely because he suffered defeats that brought down the dynasty, is Paramardi or Parmal. He was defeated by Prithviraj Chauhan in 1182, and subsequently by Kutb-uddin-Ibak in 1203. Thereafter the Chandels, once king-makers in North India, retreated to become local chieftains ruling in the jungles of Bundelkhand till around the 16th century.

Chandel Architecture. At the height of their power, the Chandel kings created picturesque lakes by damming the valleys, embellishing the embankments with gigantic stone structures. They also built some magnificent temples, the most famous being the group of temples in Khajuraho. King Dhanga is considered to be the main supporter of this architectural development. There are numerous Jain temples still to be seen in the villages of the Chandel region. This makes it obvious that Jainism as a religion was prevalent in the Chandel kingdom, although it is completely extinct in the region today.

Bengal

From the time of Harsha’s death till the beginning of the 8th century, the history of Bengal is uncertain, although it is likely that they were under the overlordship of the later Guptas of Magadha. Around 700, a king named Adisura ruled from Gaur, or Lakshmanavati, and attempted to revive the flagging status of Brahminical Hinduism. Towards this end, he imported five high-caste Brahmins from Kanauj, to teach orthodox Hinduism to the people. These were the ancestors of the current day Radhiya and Varendra Brahmins of Bengal.

The Pala Kings

Soon after this Brahminical revival, Bengal lapsed into anarchy. It is reported and also told in folklore that the people being fed up of the prevailing lawlessness elected as king one Gopala of the ‘race of the sea’ with the remit that he would bring law and order to the land. There are no further details available regarding Gopala’s rule, but he must have been successful in pacifying the state, since his son inherited the throne. Gopala also extended the power of Bengal westwards to Magadha, reigning for 45 years. He was a practising Buddhist and founded the great monastery at Uddandapura (Otantapuri). 

The son who inherited the throne was Dharmapala who had a long and successful reign of 64 years and is considered the founder of the dynasty of the Pala Kings. Dharmapala was a great warrior and went on a conquering expedition to the West. It is during this expedition that he deposed the king of Kanauj and replaced him with another on the throne. Only a very powerful king could accomplish such a feat far away from his own country. It is possible that his influence spread as far away as Gandhara in the North-West frontier. Taranath, a Tibetan historian of note, expressly mentions that the Pala kingdom under Dharmapala extended from the Bay of Bengal to Jalandhar in the north, and to the Vindhya ranges in the south. Dharmapala was a keen follower of Buddhism, as were all the Pala kings to follow, and founded the monastery and college of Vikramasila (consisting of 107 temples and six colleges) at Patthargatta in Bhagalpur district. The Pala strain of Buddhism however followed a different philosophy to that advocated by Gautama the Buddha and was a corrupted version of the Mahayana doctrine.

Dharmapala was succeeded to the throne by his son Devapala who is considered the most illustrious of the Pala lineage and ruled for 48 years. In combination with Dharmapala’s rule, the father-son duo ruled Bengal for the whole of the 9th century. There is a grant dated to the 33rd year of Devapala’s reign that is issued from his court at Mudgagiri (modern day Monghyr). Devapala’s senior general, Lavanasena, defeated and annexed the kingdoms of Kamarupa and Kalinga to the Bengal kingdom. Devapala established and maintained diplomatic contact with the King of Srivijaya (the Indonesian kingdom), King Balaputradeva of the famous Sailendra dynasty. It is certain that there was thriving trade and cultural exchanges between the kingdoms. Balaputradeva built a monastery in Nalanda, perhaps at the insistence of Devapala. Unfortunately no buildings of the 9th century survive to testify to the prosperous rule of the two great Pala kings. However, many great tanks, excavated on their orders survive to this day, particularly in the Dinajpur district. The famous painters and sculptors Dhiman and his son Vitapala lived during this period and a number of their creations in metal and stone survive to this day as reminders of a golden past.

In late 10th century the kingdom was invaded by a hill tribe called Kambojas who set up one of their chiefs as king. This event in commemorated in a pillar in Dinajpur dated 966. The Pala king who was defeated is not known. However, the throne was won back around 978-980, by Mahipala I, the next king of the dynasty of any importance. (This Mahipala is not to be confused with the Mahipala of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty) He was the ninth king in the line and there is epigraphic evidence that he ruled for 48 years. In 1023 he was attacked by the powerful Tamil Chola king, Rajendra Chola who is reported to have advanced as far as the River Ganges, although there was no decisive defeat or victory on either side. Mahipala I is one of the more remembered kings of the dynasty and many songs are still sung in Bengal in praise of his rule. During this time Buddhism had been weakened in Tibet because of the religious persecution practised by Langdarma a century earlier. Mahipala I endeavoured to restore Buddhism to its earlier glory in Tibet by sending monks and teachers to that country. 

Mahipala was succeeded by Nayapala who is reported to have send an embassy to Tibet under the leadership of the Atisa a monk from the Vikramsila monastery. Nayapala’s son Vigrahapala III defeated Karna, the king of Chedi, in 1080 and left three sons to succeed him. The elder son Mahipala II imprisoned both his brothers—Surapala II, and Ramapala—when he came to the throne. Mahipala II was an inept king and misruled the country to an extent that there was a popular revolt led by Divyoka the chief of the Chasi-Kaivarta tribe of North Bengal. Mahipala II was killed in the rebellion and Divyoka’s nephew Bhim was declared king of Varendra. During this revolt Ramapala, the youngest brother escaped from prison and travelled widely to obtain help to restore the Pala dynasty to power. He managed to collect a strong force that also included some forces from the Rashtrakuta dynasty to whom he was related by marriage. In the ensuing encounter, Bhima was defeated and killed and Ramapala ascended the throne. The book Ramacharita by Sandyakara Nandi commemorates this victory.

Ramapala was a vigorous and powerful king, as reported by Taranath, the Tibetan historian. He conquered Mithila (North Bihar), modern Champaran and Darbanga districts and dominated Kamarupa (Assam). Ramapala is treated in some texts as the last of the Pala kings, although five more kings ruled after him. Certainly he was the last powerful king of the Pala line. With his death the fortunes of the Pala kings waxed and waned till they were conclusively defeated by Muslim invaders in 1199 and ceased to exist as a recognisable dynasty of kings.

The Pala dynasty is one of the most remarkable in Indian history, having ruled for nearly 450 years, a length of rule rivalled only by the Satavahana (Andhra) dynasty. During this period they built Bengal into one of the most powerful kingdoms in India, their territorial holdings being large even during the rule of the lesser kings and even when the dynasty was supposed to be in decline. Buddhism flourished in Bengal during the Pala reign and was at the height of its glory, although it was in fatal decline in most other places in the sub-continent. The stability brought about in the 9th century during the combined rule of Dharmapala and Devapala also facilitated it being a century of marked intellectual and artistic achievements in Bengal.         

The Sena Dynasty

Around 1080, and at the time of the Kaivarta rebellion in Bengal, Choraganga, the king of Kalinga conquered the extreme northern part of Orissa. A Brahmin officer of Choraganga from the Deccan, Samantadeva or his son Hemantasena, founded a principality in Kasipur in Mayurabhanja although with limited control of the lands. Hemantasena’s son Vijayasena captured large parts of Bengal and around 1119 established the Sena dynasty ruling an independent kingdom. He ruled for over 40 years and was frequently at war with other power of the region, although he maintained cordial relationship with Choraganga of Kalinga who enjoyed and extraordinarily long reign of 71 years. 

Around 1158, Vijayasena’s son Vallalasena (or Ballal Sen in the Bengal tradition) who ruled till 1169, came to power. The length of his rule could be more since the dates of his rule are approximate, with the possibility that it could have started earlier than stated. The lasting legacy that Vallalasena left behind is the reorganisation of the existing caste system, by introducing the concept of ‘Kulinism’. Essentially, Kulinism meant that the three major castes—Brahman, Vaidya, and Kayasth—were further divided into sub-castes and each sub-caste given an order of precedence. He further instituted hypergamy—the practice of men of a higher sub-caste being able to marry women of a lower status, while the women could not exercise this liberty in a reciprocal manner. The entrenchment of this system led to an excess of unmarried girls in the upper sub-castes, called Kulin, and hence the term ‘Kulinism’. This had unforeseen consequences. Since dying a spinster was itself considered a sin, large number of Kulin men married women and even young girls who they could not or did not support. [For centuries after this process was instituted, the Brahmins of Bengal continued to accept this subsystem leading to even very old, but Kulin men, marrying young girls to sanctify the girls’ status in society and leading to the issues associated with girl-widows. This is another social aspect that will be discussed at a later stage in the Trek through the History of the sub-continent.]

It is possible that Vallalasena came to power when he was already in his forties and therefore, his son and successor Lakshmanasena also ascended the throne at a late age, giving rise to the folklore in the Muslim chronicles that the Sena ruler who was overthrown during their invasion was very old. He is referred to as Rai Lakshmaniya in the Muslim chronicles and was overthrown in 1199 by Muhammad son of Baktyar who captured his capital Nudiah. Lakshmansena escaped to the eastern part of Bengal and died soon after, with the Sena dynasty becoming local chieftains and ruling some minor parts of East Bengal for the next four centuries.

Lakshmanasena was a monarch of exceptional personal qualities and respected by all other kings of the time. The Sena kings as a rule were anti-Buddhists and were keen to maintain the caste system, practising an eclectic version of Tantric Hinduism. It is reported that Lakshmanasena was acknowledged as the spiritual leader of the Hindus across a broad spread of the country. His generosity was legendary and it is claimed that not even a single person suffered injustice during his reign.  

Kamarupa (Assam)

Kamarupa is the ancient name for the area to the east of Bengal and is roughly the same as today’s Assam along with the other smaller states of the region. Kamarupa is first mentioned in Samudra Gupta’s Allahabad Pillar, described as a frontier kingdom outside the limit of the Gupta Empire that however paid nominal tribute to the Guptas.

Hiuen Tsang in Kamarupa

In 643, Hiuen Tsang was visiting the monastery-university in Nalanda when the king of Kamarupa compelled him to visit the kingdom. Since Hiuen Tsang had been reluctant to proceed to Kamarupa, Harsha directed the king to send the monk back his court. The Kamarupa king replied haughtily that Harsha could have his head, but that Hiuen Tsang would not be returned. Harsha is reported to have send a message back for the king to send his head. The king thought better of crossing swords with the mighty Harsha and personally escorted Hiuen Tsang to Harsha’s court. While Kamarupa was not directly administered by Harsha, this episode demonstrates the absolute power that he wielded at the height of his reign.

Fundamentally the ruling dynasty of Kamarupa were Kuch aborigines who had been Hinduised and were acknowledged to be Kshatriyas. Although these kings claimed 1000 generations of kings, the only name that is known is of Bhaskaravarman, also called Kumara, who extended his kingdom westward and also captured parts of Magadha. After this there are centuries that go by without any information regarding the happenings in Kamarupa and with no details of the ruling dynasty or individual kings becoming available. Around the 10th century Kamarupa again appears as part of the greater dominion of the Pala kings of Bengal. It is recorded that in the 12th century, Kumarapala appointed his minister Vaidyadeva as ruler of the province of Kamarupa with royal powers.

Early in the 13th century, around 1228, Kamarupa was invaded by a Shan tribe called Ahom, from upper Burma. They took over the country and ruled until the British intervention in 1825. The importance of Kamarupa has been its role as the gateway for Mongolian immigration from Western China into the Indian plains. The religion of Kamarupa in the medieval times indicates the emergence of a strange combination of Hinduism and Buddhism along with some Tantric developments. Kamarupa was renowned for the practice of magic and witchcraft, and Assam today continues to be (in)famous for the same practices. Kamarupa was one of the few states to beat back the Muslim invaders and maintain their independence. The Muslim invasions of this region during 1204-1206 were resounding and disastrous failures.

Conclusion

After the rule of Harsha, North India did not produce a dynasty or king with the overriding ambition matched with the necessary ability required to consolidate the disparate kingdoms under the control of one sovereign lord. Therefore, the entire region continually broke into small and unviable states, vying with each other for importance and in the bargain weakening each other. There was a general decline in the polity of the sub-continent. The conquest of the ancient kingdom of Sind by the Arabs under the Umayyad Caliphate should have been a warning blast for all the petty kings of India, but they scarcely noticed it, dismissing the portent of things to come as a mere disturbance. Interior India remained cocooned from foreign invasion, from the defeat of Mihiragula the Hun in 528 till the invasion by Mahmud of Ghazni in the early 11th century, a span of nearly 500 years. India was left to its own devises.

It was also during this period that Buddhism became extinct in the land of its birth. It was gradually absorbed into the various Hindu sects, surviving as a minor sect focused around Magadha. This extinction of Buddhism in India is a subject of great discussion as well as of some far-fetched fallacies. There is a prevalent belief that Brahminical persecution was a fundamental reason for the decline in the popularity of Buddhism. This is incorrect. Such persecutions were very rare and the worst case scenario was of a studied indifference to the religion. In fact the massacre by the Muslim invaders of the monks and their destruction of the monasteries were greater causes for the decline of Buddhism. However, the main cause was the gradual assimilation of the Buddhist beliefs into Hinduism and the merging of the mythology of both the religions into one, making it difficult for the smaller religion to remain independent. This process is clearly visible in the Nepal of the 1800s where the larger Hindu ethos gradually made Buddhism a sub-part of itself. 

During this vacant period, India did not develop any political institutions and the myriad Hindu kingdoms and principalities, individually and collectively, failed to understand the menace that was gathering at their gates—the mighty warriors of Islam. Even the Muslim invasion, when it eventually came, failed to unite and create any kind of cohesion in these self-indulgent kings and chieftains. This was indeed a period of mediocrity—there were no great literary works produced that stand out as works of merit; if at all any worthwhile paintings were made, they have not survived to make a mark for the period; and the coins of the era are uniformly of sub-standard quality. Although mostly destroyed during the Muslim invasions that came later, the surviving buildings provide the only redeeming factor of the period. The buildings and structures that still stand indicates that Hindu architecture had reached a sublime quality in its aesthetic development and that the architects had indeed become adept at detailed and grand planning of massive buildings.

The behemoth that was the Indian sub-continent marched on, oblivious of the dangers lurking in its path, to the calling of a bugle that only it could hear.     

 

© [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 http://www.sanukay.com/. For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (sanukay@hotmail.com)

 

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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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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