Indian History Part 31 THE CHALUKYAS Section I OBSCURE ORIGINS

Canberra, 27 July 2014


The term Deccan, which is a corruption of the Sanskrit word ‘Dakshin’ meaning South, is at times used to depict the entire territory of the Indian sub-continent south of the Vindhya Mountains. However, in normal usage it generally excludes the Tamil country of the extreme south as well as Malabar in the west coast. In a limited sense therefore, Deccan comprises the region of the Telugu speaking people, the Maratha country and most of Mysore. The entire area is an arid, hilly table-land, a plateau that is serviced by three major rivers—the Godavari, Krishna, and Tungabhadra—and their tributary systems. There is a slight dichotomy even in this assumption because logically Mysore is a geographical part of the extreme south, while historically it has always been considered part of the Deccan narrative.

From antiquity it has been difficult to maintain a continuous narrative of the events taking place in Peninsular India because of the overlapping chronologies of dynasties that ruled small kingdoms for short durations. There are also different branches of the same dynasty that ruled in different times and at times concurrently in different regions. Along with unclear and confusing chronologies, the names of the kings and chiefs of the region also become obstacles to clarity because they were long and cumbersome and individual kings were known by different names. In addition the complexity of distinguishing each ruler was increased by the use of the same names repetitively by succeeding generations. It is also worth noting that although the Peninsula remained, for the most part, politically and historically isolated from the activities of North India, there was a continuous process of interaction between the two parts in the areas of religious and philosophical thought. Some of the longest lasting religious and philosophical systems to originate in India was derived in the South and went on to influence the entire sub-continent and beyond.

Peninsular India went into almost three centuries of ambivalence and uncertainty when the Andhra power diminished and dissipated around 225. It has only been in recent times that scanty information has come to light with the discovery of material of the Kadamba dynasty that ruled Kanara and northern Mysore for a relatively brief period of time between the 3rd and 6th centuries. There is also evidence available now to confirm that western Deccan was ruled by the Ratta clan, who subsequently developed into the Rashtrakutas. Detailed and definitive political history of the Deccan can be considered as starting with the rise to power of the Chalukyas in mid-6th century.

The Chalukyas ruled a very large part of South and Central India from the 6th century—their power waxing and waning, but never being completely extinguished until the dynasty went into terminal decline and final obscurity in the 12th century. Three distinct, but related branches of the Chalukya family ruled the Deccan and region around it for a combined duration of nearly six centuries, a feat achieved by very few preceding or succeeding dynasties. The earliest of the three is the dynasty of the Chalukyas of Vatapi (modern Badami) who came to power in early 6th century (around 525). They ruled uninterrupted till 757 when they were conclusively defeated by the Rashtrakutas who were rising to power in the Western Deccan. [This branch has also been referred to as the Early Chalukyas as well as the Chalukyas of Badami in a number of authoritative books.]

The next is the Eastern Chalukya dynasty who broke away from the primary branch around 625, becoming independent rulers of the region around Vengi. They continued to rule from Vengi till 1020 at which time they seem to have gradually succumbed to external aggression and ceased to exist as autonomous kings. They have also been referred to as Chalukyas of Vengi. The third branch is the Western Chalukyas who revived the lost glory of the Badami Chalukyas late in the 10th century and ruled from Kalyani between 973 and 1200. They are also referred to as the Later Chalukyas. For clarity and ease of understanding the geographical spread of their kingdoms, the three branches will be referred to as the Badami, Eastern and Western Chalukyas in this chapter. [The other names used to denote the separate branches are also correct and are in common use in a number of historical analysis and books.]

The Political Condition of the Deccan

At the beginning of the 6th century the entire Peninsular India was in a disintegrated state, consisting of minor holdings ruled by petty chieftains with limited vision and stature who were in perpetual struggle against each other. The political history of the period focuses on long years of conflict between the kingdoms of the Deccan and that of Tamilaham (Tamil country) to the extreme south. The Deccan is a plateau enclosed by mountains along the coast whereas Tamilaham primarily consists of the fertile plains south of Chennai. The geographical distinction between the two—of arid plateau and fertile plain—increased the desire to conquer each other, essentially to control the rivers and waterways that were the wellsprings for the prosperity of the kingdoms. The rivalries that led to the rise and fall of a large number of dynasties and kingdoms—some important enough to have made a significant contribution to the religious, philosophical and cultural development of the Peninsula—although difficult to understand when considered purely as the rulers’ lust for conquest is not so complex when viewed in terms of geo-politics. The enormous fertility of the land made kingdoms with smaller land holdings viable and even prosperous entities. This led to regional loyalties being established in the South much earlier than in North India.

Central Deccan

In the Central Deccan the Vakatakas and the Nalas held sway initially, although over a period of a few decades the Nalas had prevailed over the Vakatakas. The Nalas subsequently clashed with the very early Rashtrakutas and defeated them with the help of the Mauryas of Konkana. These Mauryas were either the descendants of the Mauryan Governor of the Deccan or a sub-clan of the Paramaras who were called Morya and could have been part of the Mora Rajput clan. There is speculation that at this time the Chalukyas were probably vassals of the early Rashtrakutas and therefore, a Chalukya-Nala clash was inevitable. The Chalukyas emerged victorious in this contest and it is probable that the Nalas accepted their overlordship in return for being allowed to continue their rule of their minor kingdom. It is noteworthy that the Chalukyas did not have any contact with the Vakatakas, which puts the chronology of the four dynasties discussed above in perspective. [It is probable that the Chalukyas were vassals to the early Rashtrakutas, although there is no mention of the Rashtrakutas in the early Chalukya records. The sequence of events therefore could be that the Nalas and Mauryas jointly defeated the early Rashtrakutas, who were in turn defeated by the Chalukyas.]

Western Deccan

The Western Deccan was ruled by the Bhojas, Traikutas and the Kalachuris. The Bhojas have been confirmed as of North Indian origin being a sub-branch of the Haihaya branch of the Yadu clan. They ruled the area of Vidarbha centred at Amaravati in Maharashtra and also controlled the Konkan coast for a brief period around late-5th century. This is confirmed by some records found in Goa dated to the 7th century. Although no conclusive proof has emerged so far, it is highly probable that the Bhojas were overthrown by the Mauryan expedition into the Deccan.
The Traikutas derived their name from the hill Trikuta in the northern Konkan from where they are believed to have originated. They controlled the coastal area from Kanheri in the south to Surat in the north. The Traikuta rule was extremely short-lived, going into political wilderness and oblivion fairly rapidly through the concerted attacks of the Kalachuris and the Gurjaras. At the decline of Traikuta power, the Suras took over the area around Surat although they too lost control of the area to the Kalachuris by late 6th century. The Kalachuris originated from the Anupa country in the Narmada region and were powerful during the second half of the 6th century, controlling northern Maharashtra, Gujarat and some parts of Malwa. However, like the Traikutas, their rule was also relatively short-lived when considered in the broader span of Indian history. They were pushed out by the Chalukyas from Maharashtra and by the Gurjaras from Malwa, settling finally as a minor rulers in Tripuri in the Jabalpur district.

Eastern Deccan

The Eastern Deccan was ruled by a large number of small dynasties, some of whom are completely insignificant within the broad sweep of history. Even though small, some of them were also prominent, like the Anandas, Salankayanas, and Vishnukundins who ruled the ancient Andhradesha. (These dynasties have been covered in detail Volume II of this series, published in July 2014.) The Anandas were based in Guntur and there is uncertainty regarding their lineage and the chronology of their rule. They were conquered by the Pallavas in the third quarter of the 6th century and their territory annexed. It is certain that they did not have any contact with the Chalukyas. The Salankayanas ruled the territory between the Rivers Krishna and Godavari and some records that they have issued from Vengi have been unearthed. They were defeated by the Vishnukundins.

The Vishnukundins were based around Vinukonda in Karnool district. The chronology of their rule is unclear as no comprehensive records are available to prove it as reported in some of the current history books. This has led to a certain amount of controversy regarding the Vishnukundins. However, it is certain that they were exterminated by the Chalukyas. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Chalukyas never started a campaign against the minor Vishnukundins but encountered them during the march against the Pallavas; the Vishnukundins becoming collateral damage in the inexorable movement forward of the mighty Chalukya army! The Vishnukundins does not rate a mention in history thereafter, vanishing completely from the political scene—a clear indication of their relative insignificance.

The region of the Kalinga, the coastal land between the Rivers Godavari and Mahanadi, was ruled by many dynasties between the 5th and 6th century. Prominent among them—once again, only in comparative sense to the other, even more obscure dynasties that populated the region—were the Vashishta, Mathara, and Pitrabhakta ruling houses. By the middle of the 5th century, the Vashishtas had successfully subdued the other two to become the predominant ruling clan, ruling from Pishtapura. They also subdued the Eastern Gangas and ruled all of Kalinga for slightly over 30 years till they were subdued by the Chalukyas.

From the tumultuous narrative of conquests and defeats, of invasions and annexations it is clearly evident that the Deccan was unstable and prone to the extremes of war almost continuously. The entire region was broken up into small kingdoms and provinces permanently vying with each other for dominance and survival. The powerful assertion of control by the Chalukyas into this disharmony was a turning point in South Indian history. The Chalukyas of Badami carved out the first great empire in the Deccan, both in terms of spread of territory as well as influence and opulence. Between themselves and the other two branches, they ruled the Deccan and surrounding areas for the next six centuries. Over a period, they consolidated their hold over the large region between the River Narmada in the north and Kaveri in the south; delivered centrally controlled and efficient administration; and developed trade and commerce with a number of kingdoms outside the sub-continent, making the kingdom a prosperous one. Like all other dynasties that created and ruled over stable and prosperous kingdoms, the Chalukyas also patronised art, architecture and literature. Their six-century rule saw the development of the distinctive Chalukya architectural style; the Western Chalukyas greatly progressed the development of Kannada literature which had been initiated by the early Rashtrakutas; and the patronage of the Eastern Chalukyas saw the birth and subsequent growth of Telugu literature.

Sources of Information

The primary source of information regarding the Chalukyas is archaeological, both inscriptions and monuments, which is corroborated by coins, records left behind by travellers and the chronicles of other kingdoms that interacted with the Chalukya kingdoms.

Inscriptions. The inscriptions left behind by the Chalukyas are in Sanskrit and Kannada, with most of them being considered authentic. So far about 150 have been discovered in caves, temples, cliffs and pillars, the majority of which are in Mangalesa, the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple, and the Pattadakal Virupaksha temple. A large number of them are Sanskrit inscriptions written in the Kannada script, indicating the increasing use of Kannada and its gradual acceptance as a royal language of the courts. It is apparent that during the reign of the Chalukyas Kannada had become the predominant language, at least as important as Sanskrit, in areas outside the Tamilaham territory. One of the prominent inscriptions is found in the Meguti temple at Aihole, called the Aihole Prasasti, written in 630. This is written in Kannada by the court poet Ravikirtti and provides the history of the Badami Chalukya dynasty up to the reign of Pulakesin II, the most famous king of the dynasty.

Monuments. The monuments left behind by a dynasty provide interesting insights into the cultural, philosophical, artistic and religious development of their times while also providing a broad-brush historical perspective of their rule. This is also the case with the Chalukyas. The Chalukya monuments are concentrated in three centres—Aihole, Vatapai, and Pattadakal, the last in Bijapur district. The temples are mainly Vaishnavite, although a few Shaivite ones have been discovered along with some dedicated to other gods. There are also few Jain temples of the period that have been unearthed, a sure sign of a benign and tolerant society from a religious perspective. Further, the beauty of the temple architecture definitely indicate royal patronage, since only the king could have afforded the resources necessary to create these magnificent edifices to religion.

Coins. Coins assist in determining the chronology of a dynasty as well as providing corroborative indicators of the political relationship that existed with the adjoining kingdoms and of trade relations with far-flung states. They also provide information regarding dress and ornaments of the time. [Obviously the dresses depicted would only be that of the royal family and some influential aristocrats and will not be indicative of the prevalent attire of the common man.] Although they ruled for a long period of time by any standards, surprisingly few coins of the Chalukya dynasty have so far been uncovered. From the available coins it becomes clear that the Chalukyas were the first rulers to adopt the Varaha (wild boar) crest. In turn this validates the theory that the Chalukyas were devotees of Vishnu, especially in the Varaha incarnation. [This practice of worshipping a particular incarnation is connected to the process instituted earlier by the invading clans to integrate the indigenous tribes into their own religious practices by incorporating the ‘animalistic religions’ into their own folklore. (The details of this method of assimilation are available in Volume I of this series of books on Indian history.) It also indicates the gradual predominance that Vishnu assumed amongst the Hindu Triumvirate of gods.] Among the few coins that have been discovered is the Rupaka—a silver coin—that commemorates the Chalukya conquest of the Kalachuris. The Kannada writing on the coins further emphasise the increasing importance that was being given to the local script.

Written Records. So far hardly any compositions by Chalukya court poets have come to light. This is surprising considering the longevity of the dynasty and the proven prosperity of its rule. This becomes even more intriguing when it has been ascertained that the Chalukyas were dedicated patrons of such talented poets as Ravikirtti who has been favourably compared to the great Kalidasa. However, the Chalukya epigraphs as well as written records of their feudatories and adversaries provide a credible narrative of the dynasty. The Pampa Bharata, written in Kannada provides the genealogy of the complete dynasty and also gives an insight into the cultural and social conditions of the region under the Chalukyas. This also corroborates the information derived from various other inscriptions. There are also the ‘Prasastis’, which are smaller pieces of writings in both prose and poetry, which glorifies the achievements of a king and that of his chief/senior queen and at times even of the dynasty in a generic manner. These are descriptions not only of the military and administrative achievements of a king but also provide personal details and personality traits of the king while also commenting on his moral attributes. [The fact that some of the Prasastis are openly critical of some of the king’s personality traits and at times even his morality provides an indication of the openness and tolerant nature of the Chalukyan administration.]

Records of Hiuen-Tsang. The intrepid Chinese religious traveler visited the Chalukya kingdom during the reign of Pulakesin II when it was at its zenith of power and glory. His penchant for leaving accurate and authentic records of his observations provides great insights into the Chalukyan rule and nation at large. His writings confirm that the land was fertile and well cultivated and that the people were uniformly learned yet simple and benevolent in their behaviour pattern. His chronicles go on to extol the gallant qualities and traditions of the Chalukyan army. Although he was an ardent admirer of Emperor Harsha Vardhana of Kanauj, having made the Vardhana court the primary base for his travels and spent most in his time in India there, he confirms clearly that Harsha was the aggressor in the war with the Chalukyas in which he was conclusively defeated. [Hiuen-Tsang’s records once and for all put to rest the reason for the war, which was the aggressive nature of the Vardhana kingdom of Kanauj.]
Tabari the Persian historian mentions that Pulakesin II had established diplomatic relations with Khusru Perviz II, who was his contemporary ruling Iran. However, unlike the annals of the Chalukya feudatories, the Persian court records do not provide any detailed information regarding the relationship between the two nations and nor do they record any event of significance that took place while the relationship was on-going.

The Origins of the Chalukyas

The origins of the Chalukyas are ensconced in legend, obscure stories and speculative hypothesis. That there are legends regarding the origins of the Chalukyas comes as no surprise since legends predominate the stories of the origins of most medieval Indian dynasties—both minor and illustrious. However, almost all these folktales are imprecise and primarily intended to trace the ancestry of the dynasty concerned to the Gods or heroes of the two major Hindu epics. In the case of the Chalukyas, there is a prominent legend that is retold in many guises.

The Basic Chalukya Legend
Indra the king of gods approached Brahma while he was doing his Sandhya Puja (twilight prayer rituals) and requested him to create a hero who would put an end to the increasing spread of evil on earth. On being thus beseeched, Brahma concentrated on the Chaluka-jal (water held in his palm for the obligatory oblations) and generated a great warrior from the holy water. This was the progenitor of the Chalukyas, who is claimed to have been nurtured by the Sapta Matrikas (seven divine mothers).

There is a slightly different legend associated with the origins of the dynasty. The Nilagunta inscriptions dated to late 11th century mentions that the Chalukyas originated in Ayodhya where 59 kings of the dynasty ruled before they migrated to the South. Here they created a great empire which was ruled by the last 16 kings of the dynasty. The first king of the dynasty, ruling in Ayodhya, was considered to have been born in the hollow of Brahma’s palm, hence the name Chalukya. This tale rhymes distinctly with the earlier legend while indicating a North Indian connection to the origins of the dynasty.

A number of hypothesis—some with sufficiently viable explanations to be analysed and some pure conjuncture—provide different opinions regarding the origin and early history of the Chalukyas. One theory opines that they were the descendants of the Seleukia tribe of Iraq. However, this is not corroborated by any other source and is highly unlikely to be true. The only connection is that of a similar sounding dynastic name and lineage cannot be built or assumed on analogous family names. A second opinion is that they were the descendants of the Ikshavaku dynasty of Andhra. This claim is somewhat tenuous. Since the authenticated written records of the gotra of the Chalukyas are aligned with that of the Kadambas indicating a possible descend, the alaimed connection to Ishkavakus is again unlikely to be true. Further, the Chalukyas took over the territory ruled by the Kadmabas and therefore, the claim of the Ikshavaku descend is untenable and has to be refuted.

The theory derived from the legend of a Northern origin needs further examination since a number of factors point to this being the most probable origin of the dynasty. Even so some historians question this theory on the basis that there is no mention of a connection to any clans or tribes of North India in the chronicles of the earliest Chalukyas—the Badami branch—thereby making the theory incorrect. Another version of the Ayodhya legend goes that a ruler of Ayodhya invaded South India and defeated the ruling Pallava king. He subsequently married a Pallava princess and their child, called Vijayaditya, established the Chalukya dynasty. Once again there is no proof to establish the authenticity of this story. [This story or claim could be attributed to the propensity of a number of Peninsular Dynasties to claim descent and lineage from established kingdoms of North India. This tendency could have been the manifestation of both an inherent feeling of inferiority and an attempt at clearly demarcating a difference between the royalty and their subjects.]

The lack of mention of a Northern connection in the Chalukya chronicles has been explained by some epigraphists through the suggestion of an earlier migration of a North Indian ruling family to the territories south of the Vindhya Ranges. It is thought possible that they could have gradually moved into the Karnataka area and over a period of generations assumed a Kannada identity. These very early Chalukyas were obviously a competitive and capable group, and established themselves in the new area as proficient chieftains and subsequently as kings. This theory is supported by three factors. Frist, the inscriptions of the Badami Chalukyas are in both Sanskrit and Kannada with no real division that can be established between the two in terms of their dating or location. This indicates their domicile in the Kannada region for a long period of time. Second, in a number of these inscriptions they call themselves Karnatas and use indigenous titles like Priyagallam. Further, the names of a number of the Chalukya kings and princes end with the term ‘arasa’, which is a Kannada term that means king or chief. There is a proposal that the name Chalukya originated from ‘Chalki’ the Kannada word for an agricultural implement resembling a crowbar. Third, the fact that the Rashtrakuta chronicles and inscriptions refer to the Chalukyas as Karanatabala, meaning the power of Karnataka, further reinforces the claim of an indigenous origin and/or at least long term domicile.

Considering all the legends, folklore, hypothesis, and theories it seems that the most probable background to the Chalukyas is that they were connected to the Chapas—a branch of the foreign Gurjara tribe from Rajasthan who were already assimilated into the Hindu socio-religious order prevailing in North India. Their foray into the south of the sub-continent took place at a slightly later stage. Subsequently, from being minor chieftains amongst a number of such kingdoms that were continually vying for supremacy and control of the Deccan Peninsula, the Chalukyas emerged victorious.

The importance of the Chalukyan lineage and even that of the dynastic name is actually reduced considering that they ruled during the medieval times. A large swath of material that is available regarding the medieval age is full of fanciful stories that connect the lineage of ruling dynasties to ancient traditions and legends. The Chalukya title could have been derived from a locality, a profession or even an ancestor of merit. There is a claim that they belonged to a place called Chalukidesa, which if correct makes it easy to accept their connection to the regions of Nagarjunakonda, Karnataka and Maharashtra. If this claim is indeed true, then in a holistic manner, the theory of an early migration from the North can be corroborated and would provide a believable theory regarding their origins.

Since the information regarding their origins, even when collated properly is still inconclusive, there is on-going discussion whether or not they were an indigenous group, meaning of South Indian origin, or foreigners from the ‘North’ who were assimilated into the Southern clans like so many others before them. This is a controversy still being debated by historians. However, there is agreement that their original name was Chalkya, as first mentioned in a Badami inscription of 578, and that Chalukya is a vernacular form that was later Sanskritised. The first clear mention of the dynasty as Chalukya is considered to be around 690 or so, with names like Chalukiki, Chalekya and Chalkya preceding it.


From the confusion of nearly three hundred years between the 3rd and 6th centuries that spawned a number of kingdoms and royal houses in the Deccan Plateau and the deep Southern India, the Chalukyas rose to become supreme rulers, commanding acknowledgement of their power and suzerainty from almost the entire Peninsula. Their origins are obscure, but it does not detract from their achievements and illustrious rule of nearly six centuries. By all standards the longevity of their rule and the stability that they brought to the region are great achievements, indicated by the lasting legacy of a prosperous state, gentle governance, cultural patronage, and architectural developments that they left behind for posterity.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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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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