Indian History Part 30 Section III: THE GAHADAVALAS OF KANAUJ

Canberra, 3 July 2014

Kanauj, Harsha-Vardhana’s famous capital, was also known as Gadhipur and there are disparate evidences that indicate Rashtrakuta rule of Kanauj and surrounding areas around the 10th/11th century. An inscription found in Badaun that is attributed to the Rashtrakuta king Lakhanapala who ruled around 1201, states in part, ‘…the city of Badaun, which is protected by the famous Rashtrakuta kings, is an ornament to the kingdom of Kanauj.’ A copper grant of 1091 by Gahadavala Chandradeva, found in Chandravati in Benares district states, ‘Chandradeva, the son of Yashovigraha, became a very powerful king in this dynasty. Having defeated his enemies by force of arms, he took the kingdom of Kanauj.’ Both these provide evidence to confirm that Chandradeva first conquered Badaun around 1054 and then captured Kanauj. Further, the tome Rashtraudha Vansha Mahakavya elaborates on the Rashtrakuta rule over Kanauj. Therefore, there is no doubt that the kingdom of Kanauj was ruled by the Rashtrakutas from early in the 11th century.

The kingdom of Dhruvaraja, ruling the Rashtrakuta kingdom of the Deccan around 800, is confirmed as having extended in the north to Ayodhya. Between 875 and 914, Krishnaraja II of the same Deccan dynasty had as the northern frontiers of his kingdom the banks of the River Ganges and subsequently, between 940 and 966, Krishnaraja III extended the kingdom further north beyond the Ganges. At this stage a distant member of the same dynasty was given a province in the north as a jagir (a holding fiefdom). The Chandradeva mentioned in the copper grant found in Chandravati was the third generation of this family, the first being Yashovigraha, and second Mahichandra. This genealogy is at odds with the translation of the copper grant that mentions Chandradeva as the son of Yashovigraha (quoted above). This anomaly has to be understood within the broader view that traditionally the Hindus consider a grandson also as a ‘son’ to the patriarch of the family, especially so when royal lineages are being written down. Although no inscriptions or copper plates that mention Mahichandra have so far been discovered, the genealogy in which Chandradeva is mentioned as the third generation can be considered correct.

While the Deccan branch of the Rashtrakutas and the Kanauj line would, at some earlier time, have ben related, it is clear that over a period of time they had developed as distinctly separate entities. It is difficult to consider them as the same family as such, as some historians have done. There are clear reasons to consider them as independent dynasties.  Over 70 copper grants that have been discovered confirm that the Rashtrakutas of Kanauj were ‘Suryavanshis’ or belonging to the Solar line, whereas, the Deccan branch were distinctly Chandravanshis (of the lunar line). Secondly, the families also belonged to two different gotras (loosely translatable as caste-based clans)—the Deccan dynasty being Gautama and the Kanauj dynasty being Kashyapa. There is a viewpoint that this difference in gotras happened only because different priests administered the spiritual and religious aspects of the two families who made a mistake in proclaiming the gotra during religious ceremonies. Since the priests were seldom questioned, even by kings, and had the last say in all matters related to the ancestry of the family, the mistake could have become perpetuated over time. This is a tenuous argument and does not stand up to scrutiny. Even if the priests had the final say in such matters, it is highly unlikely that they would take liberties (or make mistakes) and change the gotra of the ruling royal family. Thirdly, copper plates that have been discovered refer to this royal family purely as Gahadavalas and do not even mention their connection (if any) to the famous Yadava dynasty. It is apparent that they did not consider themselves anything but Gahadavala rulers of Kanauj.

The Beginning

A copper grant dated to 914 provides the first indication of a Rashtrakuta expedition to Kanauj where it states that king Indraraja III laid waste Meru (Kanauj) then being ruled by the Pratihara king Mahipala. At this stage the Pratihara power was on the wane, which probably prompted Indraraja III to take advantage of their weakness and attack the kingdom. However, there are no other corroborating evidences to authenticate this event. Analysing the available information to create a tangible timeline, it seems more probable that it was Chandradeva—from whom the Badaun line also emerged—who conquered Kanauj around 1054. The kingdom of Malwa ruled by the Parmara dynasty was in a state of unrest after the death of the Parmara Raja Bhoja, while simultaneously the death of king Karna of the Kalachuris of Chedi had created turmoil to his kingdom also. Chandradeva intervened and pacified both the kingdoms and then went on to seize Kanauj from the Pratiharas. The two conflicting stories are difficult to reconcile, although most of the evidence points to the second version being the more authentic.

Chandradeva’s intervention and conquest brought the districts of Kashi, Kushika (Kanauj), North Koshala (Oudh) and Indrasthana (Delhi) under his control. Around 1097, he handed over Kanauj and the area surrounding it to his elder son Madanapala, making him king of Kanauj while the province of Baduan was given to the younger son, Vigrahapala. There is a remarkable difference in the attitude displayed by the brothers—Madanapala almost immediately struck out on his own and developed an independent identity over a period of time, while Vigrahapala continued to be attached to the Rashtrakuta dynasty. [This could be because of the lesser area granted to him.] Both Vigrahapala and his son Bhuvanapala, who succeeded to the throne, predeceased the still ruling Chandradeva. Almost immediately after these tragic deaths, Chandradeva retired from active life, handing over the reins of the kingdom completely to Madanapala. [It is speculated in some writings that Chandradeva was affected by the deaths of his son and grandson and gave up the throne to concentrate on spiritual matters.]  Madanapala was in control of the large kingdom for a number of years, although his official reign as king of Kanauj lasted only a few years, till 1104, when he handed over the kingdom to his son Govindachandra.

The Coins of Madanapala

Both silver and copper coins issued by Madanapala have been discovered in numbers. The silver coins are of base silver and around half an inch in diameter. The obverse of the coin carries the image of a horseman and some illegible writing, while the reverse has the image of a bull and the writing ‘Madhava Shri Samanta’ around the border closer to the edge. The copper coins are of the same dimensions and has a crude image of a horseman and the legend ‘Madanapaladeva’ on the obverse while the reverse is the same as the silver coins.


The story of the Gahadavalas become clear with the ascension of Govindachandra to the throne, while his father was still alive. The handing over of the kingdom to the heir apparent while the reigning king was still capable of continuing his rule seems to have been a common practice with the Rashtrakuta lineage. This tradition obviously had the advantage of avoiding a succession struggle since the ruling king was still obviously able to impose his will and writ on matters of state, if he so desired. In an age when any king worth his salt was on the lookout for easy pickings to add to his own kingdom, weakening one’s own kingdom through succession struggles would have been an extremely unwise thing to do. Carefully managed smooth and uncontested successions were essential to ensure the longevity of the dynasty.

There are a total of 39 copper plates and two inscriptions that provide detailed information regarding the rule of Govindachandra. Of these, three copper plates—dated 1097, 1104 and 1105—were issued during his father’s reign and of the remaining 36, the last one was issued in 1154. These indicate a long and stable reign of nearly half a century, although officially Govindachandra is reported to have come to the throne only in 1107, ruling as Prince Regent for three years while his father was still alive. From this clarification of dates it can be deduced that Madanapala died in 1107. It was also in the copper grant of 1107 that the title Gahadavala is seen to be used for the first time.


There are two explanations to the coining of the title ‘Gahadavala’. One is that in the Dmgala language the term ‘Gahad’ meant firmness and power and therefore, the kings of the dynasty assumed the title of Gahadavala to indicate their stature and dominance. The second is that in a similar manner to the Rashtrakutas of the village Ramka (in UP) being called Ramkuals, the Rashtrakutas of Gadhipura came to be called Gahadavalas since the Prakrit name for Gadhipura was Gahada. A combination of both these factors could have been the reason for the kings to adopt this title, which was obviously distinctive from the core, and more prominent Deccan Rashtrakuta dynasty. It is also interesting to note that when later kings of the dynasty lost power and migrated to Marwar, they dropped the title Gahadavala and reverted to being called Rashtrakutas.

Govindachandra was a powerful and generous king and can be considered the greatest king of North India for the greater part of his reign. The large number of copper plates that have been discovered provide extensive information regarding his rule. It is learned that: he had an army of elephants; Benares was controlled by him as part of his kingdom; his mother was Ralhanadevi who died in 1141; and his senior queen’s name was Nayanakelidevi. There is also mention of a tax called ‘Turushkadanda’ which is said to have been levied on ‘Muhammadans’, meaning the followers of the Islamic religion. From this information three basic facts can be elicited. First, that by this time, the 10th century, there were sufficient number of Muslims residing in the country for the king to have profited from imposing a tax on them. Second, the accepted norm of religious tolerance that was the hallmark of earlier dynasties gave way to wariness at the encroachment of a religion based on completely different precepts and doctrine to that so far practised by the Vedic religions—Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Third, the tenet of the use of force to propagate the religion that was embedded in Islamic teachings was sufficiently worrying for the king to try and suppress its spread through other means, primarily financial impositions.

On the other hand, religious freedom, if not tolerance, was still part of the ruling ethos of the royal family. One of Govindachandra’s queens—Kumaradevi, the daughter of Devarakshita of the Chikkora dynasty of Pithika, whose maternal grandfather was a Rashtrakuta of the Deccan branch—was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism. The book Ashtasarika, the original manuscript of which can now be viewed in the State Library of Nepal, states that Kumaradevi built and dedicated a temple to ‘Dharmachakra Jina’, essentially to Gautama the Buddha. Govindachandra also send a delegation to a convocation called by Alankara, the Prime Minister of king Jayasimha of Kashmir, under the leadership of one Suhala. This fact is confirmed in the book Shrikanthacharitakavya by the renowned poet Mankha, by the statement ‘…he offered his respects to the great scholar Suhala, the delegate of the king Govindachandra of Kanauj.’

Govindachandra was also a warrior king, annexing the kingdoms of Gauda and Chedi and successfully thwarting repeated attempts by the Turks to encroach on his kingdom and keeping them at bay. The point to be noted is that although he has been depicted as a powerful king in all accounts, the fact that he did not venture to initiate offensive reprisal raids into the territory of the Turks provides an insight into the limit of his power and capacity to invade and annex well defended territories, even if they were troubling to the stability of the kingdom. He had a minister, Lakshmidhara, draw up a book of law on trade called Vyavaharakalpataru, which laid down all the rules and regulations for the conduct of trade and commerce in his kingdom. There is no doubt that his kingdom was administered in an enlightened and lawful manner, since laying down and enforcing trade laws are critical to the well-being of the State.

During the construction of the Bengal-Northwest Railway in 1887, around 800 gold coins and a large number of copper coins were discovered in a village called Nanpara in Bahraich in Oudh—these were minted during the reign of Govindachandra. Although the metal in the gold was debased, the abundance of these coins indicate the increased prosperity and stability of the kingdom—after all his father had only minted silver coins. The obverse of all the coins have the writing ‘Srimad Vindachandra Dev’ in three lines and the reverse depicts a picture of the goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity in the Hindu pantheon) in a sitting pose.

Vijayachandra, also called Malladeva, was Govindachandra’s son and successor. From a number of copper plates and grants that were issued during his reign it is known that he had a significant victory over the Muslim invaders, probably led by Khusro of Ghazni who was then settled in Lahore. Not surprisingly, Gahadavala army is reported as having been large and consisting of both cavalry and an elephant corps. A number of plates mention the name of his son and heir apparent Jayachchandra. Vijayachandra was a confirmed follower of Vaishnavism and built many temples to Vishnu.


Vijayachandra’s son was born on the day that his grandfather Govindachandra won a decisive victory over the Darshana country and therefore was named Jaitrachandra or Jayachchandra (Jaya in Sanskrit means victory). Jayachchandra’s coronation date has been ascertained as 21 June 1170 and there are 14 copper grants and two inscriptions dated between 1170 and 1189 that give details of his rule. One inscription is in Meohad, near Allahabad, and the other is part of a Buddhist inscription in Buddha Gaya from which the date has been obliterated. The eastern spread of the kingdom can be ascertained form these.

The famous poet Sri Harsha who wrote the Naishadhiya Charita, flourished in his court. In the concluding part  of the poem he states, ‘In the court of the king of Kanauj Shri Harsha had the privilege of being seated on an ‘Asana’ [a sort of exalted chair] and of being honoured with the offer of a betel [leaves] on attending and leaving the court.’ Jayachchandra performed the Rajasuya Yagna and is considered by historians as the last powerful Hindu king of North India. There are two versions of the events that led to Jayachchandra’s downfall at the hands of the Muslim invader Shahabuddin Ghori.

The First Version

The first version is the explanation provided in Prithviraja Raso, an embellished story of Prithviraj the Chauhana (Chauhan in folklore) king of Delhi. The story goes like this. Jayachchandra, being a very powerful king, performed the Rajasuya Yagna (there are counter claims that he did not perform the Rajasuya) and then arranged for the Swayamvara of his daughter Samyogita (Samyukta). [Swayamvara was a ritual by which the bride, normally a princess, chose her own husband from amongst invited guests. This custom, which could also involve some form of competitive qualifying test of strength for the prospective suitors, was practised by the royal families of India from time immemorial. In both the epics, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’, the heroes of the story win their bride through a contested Swayamvara ceremony.] Enamoured by Samyogita’s beauty, Prithviraja abducted and forcefully married her. The reason for Prithviraj resorting to abduction rather that contesting for the hand of the princess in a straight forward manner is not entirely clear. Some opinion is that there was an existing enmity between the two kings because of which Prithviraj was not invited for the Swayamvara and therefore could not participate. This could well be true. In any case, the abduction resulted in entrenched enmity between the two most powerful kings of North India and led to regular wars between them that gradually drained their strength and power. This provided an opportunity for Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori to invade India. [There is also a slightly nuanced version of the story that tells of Jayachchandra’s invitation to Muhammad Ghori to attack Delhi, after which Kanauj itself became prey to the Muslim invader. There is however no proof to authenticate this diplomatic manoeuvring, which was to the detriment of all the North Indian kingdoms and principalities, that is supposed to have taken place.]

Jayachchandra met Muhammad Ghori in the Battle of Chandaval (in Etawah district) in 1194 and was conclusively defeated. According to Arab chronicles Jayachchandra was killed in battle and another version reports him as drowning himself in the Ganges after the defeat. After this victory, The Ghori army went on to plunder Benares and returned with wealth reportedly carried on 1400 camels. Kanauj itself was much diminished, but not annexed and Jayachchandra’s son Harishchandra was allowed to come to the throne.

Prithviraj Chauhan

Prithviraj Chauhan was the king of Ajmer and Delhi and came to the throne in 1169, having inherited the kingdom from his maternal grandfather, Anangapal III of the Tomara dynasty. In 1191, Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori captured the fortress of Bhatinda (East Punjab), which was on the frontier of Prithviraj’s kingdom. Prithviraj marched to Bhatinda and defeated the forces of Muhammad Ghori in what came to be named the First Battle of Tarain. However, he did not pursue the retreating Ghori army into their own territory, instead electing to invest the Bhatinda fort.

In 1192, Muhmmad Ghori returned at the head of an army more than 120,000 strong and demanded that Prithviraj surrender. In reply, Prithviraj assembled a formidable army with the help of fellow Rajput chieftains and once again met the Muslim army at Tarain. In the Second Battle of Tarain Muhammad Ghori defeated the combined Rajput army and put to death the captured Prithiviraj.

[The story of his ‘elopement’ with Samyukta and his battles with the Muslim invaders have been told and retold a number of times, making him into an iconic nationalistic hero in modern India. In reality, he was a king who fought to retain control of his kingdom and was defeated, as many others had been before and after him. Perhaps the adulation heaped on him in more modern times is a product of the changing understanding and explanation of historical events wherein an independent India wants to re-establish the primacy of a Hindu India and to portray nationalistic fervour against a victorious Muslim chieftain.]      

The Second Version

The second version of the demise of Jayachchandra is more intriguing. Jayachchandra was a powerful king who is reputed to have built several forts around his kingdom. Some remains of a fort at Etawah near the River Yamuna is claimed by locals to be one of Jayachchandra’s forts. The Prabandha Kosha, a book of historical significance states that Jayachchandra conquered 700 yojanas (around 5600 miles) of territory. His son was Meghachandra who was considered by the people of the kingdom to be the Crown Prince. The twist in the story starts now.

The story goes like this: One of Jayachchandra’s ministers returned after a visit to Anahilpur (the Chalukya capital) with a beautiful widow named Suhadevi. Jayachchandra was smitten by her beauty and kept her as his concubine, subsequently fathering a boy through her. Suhadevi wanted her son to be declared heir apparent when he came of age. However, the Chief Minister of the kingdom, Vidhyadhara, pre-empted this move and officially declared the popular Meghachandra as the Crown Prince, which obviously offended Suhadevi. In order to take revenge, Suhadevi send secret agents to the Sultan’s court in Taxila inviting him to invade the kingdom of Kanauj. Vidhyadhara discovered the plot and warned the king who did not take the threat seriously. Since his advice was not heeded, Vidhyadhara drowned himself in the Ganges. Soon after, the Sultan’s army attacked the kingdom and defeated Jayachchandra. It is certain that Jayachchandra died during this defeat, but even this version is unclear whether he was killed in battle or drowned himself in the Ganges after suffering a humiliating defeat. A book written by Merutunga in 1305, Prabandhachintamani mentions the invitation send to the Muslim Sultan by Suhadevi, discrediting her as the harbinger of destruction to the last Hindu kingdom of North India. Without any other corroborating proof, it is difficult to credit this version. The fact that there is proof of Jayachchandra’s son Harishchandra coming to the throne further discredits this fanciful version.

[Many historians of repute question the authenticity of the Prithviraja Raso as well as the story of deceit recounted in the second version. They also dispute the folklore of Jayachchandra having invited the Muslim ruler to attack Prithviraj Chauhan. Even the performance of the Rajasuya Yagna by Jayachchandra has been questioned, since there is no mention of this in any of the numerous copper plates, grants and inscriptions of the period. A number of factual discrepancies in the Prithiviraja Raso, especially in relation to the names of the kings and dates of their reign are pointed out by acknowledged historians. The story of Prithviraja’s elopement with Samyogita is now considered to be the creation of the fertile mind of the author of the Raso, since there is no historical evidence of such an event having taken place. Further, the Persian chronicles do not mention any of their chieftains or Sultans having colluded with the kings or other petty chiefs of Hindustan during this period. The tale of the Sultan of Taxila being invited to invade would also have to be discounted. The stark facts are that the kingdoms of Kanauj and Delhi were competitors and even resorted to minor skirmishes at times. This constant state of bickering diminished their individual and collective strength over a period of time. An opportunistic Muslim ruler of Lahore took advantage of this situation initially to plunder and thereafter to bring the Hindu kingdoms to their knees. It is noteworthy that at this stage there was no attempt by the Muslim invaders to establish a kingdom or rule parts of India. They were content, at least temporarily, with plundering the wealthy kingdoms that could not defend themselves.]    

The Demise of the Gahadavalas

Harishchandra, born on 10 August 1175, came to the throne after the defeat and death of his father in 1194. There is a general belief that after Jayachchandra’s defeat Delhi came under the rule of the Muslim invaders. This is incorrect. The Muslim chronicles of the time, Tajul-Ma-Asir and Tabqat-i-Nasiri, both state that after the Battle Chandaval, the Muslim army went forward to plunder Prayag and Benares, not stopping at Delhi. These books also mention Jayachchandra as the king of Benares. Kanauj, as the capital, was obviously devastated but left to the descendants of Jayachchandra who were thereafter able to control only a much diminished territorial holding around the city.

Harishchandra lost the kingdom of Kanauj sometime soon after coming to power, to whom and how is unclear. With the loss of the kingdom, one part of the Gahadavala dynasty moved initially to Khor and then to Mahui in Farrukhabad. Subsequently Sihaji, the grandson of Jayachchandra migrated to Marwar. His descendants, ruling in Marawar, dropped the title of Gahadavala and reverted to being Rashtrakutas. They claim to be the direct descendants of Jayachchandra of Kanauj. At the fall of Kanauj a break-away faction moved to Nepal and came to be known as the Chandravanshi Gahadavala Rathoras. At this stage, even though it is the beginning of the 13th century and accurate recording of historical events were being done, dates and events around the Gahadavalas become confused, the only certainty being the complete collapse of the final branch of the Rashtrakutas.

Conclusion to Part 30 on Rashtrakutas

The geographical position of the main Rashtrakuta kingdom—centred on the Deccan—permitted the rulers to intervene in the affairs of the kingdoms of the north, particularly that of Kanauj, leading to its rule by an off-shoot branch, the Gahadavalas, for a period of time. Similarly it was easy for them to interfere in the matters of the Southern kingdoms whenever they thought it opportune to do so. These interventions were facilitated by the fact that during most of their reign, there was no central and strong power in North India; and in Peninsular India, the Pallavas were in almost terminal decline while the Cholas had not yet made their appearance. In fact it was a combination of a resurgent Chalukya kingdom and the rising Cholas that sounded the death knell for the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan.

The Rashtrakutas controlled a large part of the Western seaboard of the Peninsula, which permitted unhindered trade with West Asia, primarily the Arabs. The Rashtrakutas called the Arabs Tajiks and many of them were employed by different kings as officers, and even governors, of administrative provinces of the kingdom. Although some kingdoms of the time did not have a benign outlook towards the Muslims, the Rashtrakutas maintained friendly overtures with them. By the 8th century the entire province of Sind was completely under Muslim rule, and remained so for the rest of history. The immediate eastern kingdom of Sind, ruled by the Gurjaras maintained a chronic hostile attitude towards the Muslim province. However, the Rashtrakutas ruling the kingdom on the eastern frontier of the Gurjaras pursued a policy of friendly intercourse with the ruling house of Sind. This continued even after the Rashtrakutas took over the Gurjara kingdom. [This could be considered a prime example of the astute practice of the Mandala Theory of foreign relations by the Rashtrakutas. It is also likely that their experience in dealing with the seafaring Arabs for trade and commerce may have influenced their conciliatory attitude.]

Many Arab merchants came and resided in the western coastal areas of the Rashtrakuta kingdom. One such trader, Sulaiman, who arrived in the mid-9th century has left a vivid account of his observations regarding the life of the people in the Rashtrakuta kingdom. The Rashtrakutas have been uniformly called ‘Balharas’ in Arab, Persian and other Muslim chronicles. This is obviously a reference to the epithet ‘Vallabha’ used by the Rashtrakuta kings in conjunction with the term Rai that the Arabs used to refer to Hindu kings of India.

The Rashtrakuta kings were by and large generous and benign, maintaining stability of the kingdom and providing an atmosphere of underlying prosperity for the people to live peacefully. They were patrons of Sanskrit literature and encouraged art and architecture. The paintings in the Ellora caves, while not of the kind of sublime quality found in Indian art produced in later centuries, possess an aura of enduring beauty about them. They can be favourably compared to any art produced during the period that they were created. The rock cut Kailasa Temple, created during the height of the Rashtrakuta power, can be considered a wonder of the ancient world. This temple is symbolic of the magnificence of the Rashtrakuta rule and represents their innate quality of beneficence. Pragmatic religious tolerance was a hallmark of the Rashtrakuta rule, with succeeding kings at times practising different religions and even permitting their queens to pursue their own beliefs. However, Jainism was an important influence in the ruling ethos of the dynasty, which tended to be generally fair and proper.

The Rashtrakutas started off as feudatories but carved out a niche for themselves in the Deccan as the ruling dynasty for over three centuries, creating their own feudatories. Feudatories were of different classes during this period with the chief feudatory being called Mahamandaleswara, a title that was assumed and discarded by a number of smaller kingdoms and principalities, dependent on their proclivity to consider themselves beholden or not to another more powerful king at a given point in time. Even minor dynasties, whose names litter the historic floor of India, assumed grandiose titles that lost their meaning with such ill-use. In this list of dynasties, the Rashtrakutas stand-out as powerful and noteworthy kings who tried to carry forward Hindu traditions, beliefs and perceptions regarding discharging their responsibilities in a just and benevolent manner, like the kings of legend and folklore in Indian history.


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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 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)

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