Part 42 THE RAJPUT CLANS Section II: Early Rajput Kingdoms

Canberra, 2 August 2015

The second half of 8th century saw two critical developments in the Indian political scenario, which were to have profound influence on the next thousand years of political growth in the sub-continent. The first was the rise of regionalisation. During this period, a large number of regional kingdoms, of varying sizes, status, strength and influence came into being leading to an endless series of clashes, battles, conflicts and wars that became endemic in the entire northern part of India. The establishment of these kingdoms also was the beginnings of the processes of State formation that over a period of time demonstrated some features that were unique to the Indian context. The second development was that the society became highly feudal with a clearly defined hierarchy in place. Over a period of time feudalism became linked and then intertwined with the State and economy and exercised a long-term and detrimental influence on the fundamental mindset of the broader Indian society.

On the positive side, regional kingdoms—both large and small—became centres for the development and authentication of regional identity that had so far been subsumed within the ethos of large and powerful empires. The result was the gradual growth and establishment of distinctive cultures and languages, at times even within the same region. [This development could perhaps account for the existence across contemporary India of myriad cultural variations to the same theme and also the various dialects and colloquial variations of the same language within a geographically small radius.] The regional kingdoms also promoted literature written in the local language with the obvious downside being a marked decline in the elitism of Sanskrit. [Whether this development was good or bad is debatable and can be argued both ways dependent on the viewpoint of the analyst or historian, since this was the beginning of Sanskrit starting to lose its high-brow status.]

The late 8th century also saw an increase in the contribution and patronage of religious architecture in a number of the regional kingdoms that had sprung up in the aftermath of the disintegration of empires (for details see Volume III of the series, aptly titled the same). The fundamental aim of most of the major regional kings was to dominate not only their immediate region, but to also dominate the central Gangetic Plain, which was referred to as ‘Madhyadesh’ in some older texts. The central Gangetic Plains represented the core of North India, and to a certain extent still does so today, and whoever controlled those fertile plains could become resource-rich rapidly and therefore could easily dominate the surrounding areas. The initial phase of the quest for this domination was played out between three of the most powerful dynasties of the time—the Gurjara-Pratiharas of Rajasthan; the Palas of Bengal; and the Rashtrakutas of Deccan. All three were equally matched and their almost constant conflicts gradually weakened all of them to an extent wherein they themselves became easy pickings for emerging powers and foreign invaders alike. The Pala and the Rashtrakuta dynasties have been extensively analysed in Volume III and this chapter will restrict itself to examining the Gurjara-Pratihara kingdom in this context. Thereafter it will analyse the other Rajput kingdoms that were established in roughly the timeframe.

The Gurjara-Pratihara Kingdom

The core Gurjara kingdom was established around 6th century by the Gurjara tribe with the active assistance of allied clans and ethnic groups that already ruled small principalities and even small kingdoms which were geographically separated and often unstable or unviable. The Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang visited the kingdom in the first half of the 7th century and has recorded that the king was undoubtedly of foreign origin. However, the king was already recognised as a Kshatriya within the Hindu fold and had also established himself as a Rajput.

A century later around 810, a king called Nagabhatta whose antecedents are unknown captured Kanauj and deposed the reigning king of the place. Within the span of a few years the Pala king of Bengal, Dharmapala deposed this Nagabhatta and installed Nagabhatta Pratihara as the ruler of Kanauj. There are two significant inferences that can be made from this snippet of information. One that the Pala influence was predominant in the Gangetic Plain at that time and that the Pala king had the necessary control to overthrow or establish new kings on the throne of Kanauj, far away from the seat of his own power. Second, that in the 76 years that passed between Harsha Vardhana’s death and the installation of the Pratihara leader on the throne, four kings ruled from Kanauj, the once great kingdom dwindling with each change of hands. This is indicative of the unstable and turbulent times that North India was enduring.

In any case the move to shift the capital of their kingdom to Kanauj was a strategic move by the Pratiharas. Till this time they had ruled their territorial holdings from Bhilmal, a small town north-west of Mount Abu in Rajasthan. Kanauj was for long considered the spiritual and geo-political centre of the Hindu heartland, a perception that was reinforced by the glorious rule of Harsha Vardhana. Therefore it was inevitable that the ruler of Kanauj held a preeminent position in the political landscape of North India. In practical terms, the enhanced power attributed to the rulers of Kanauj was based on two geo-strategic facts—one, from Kanauj the entire fertile and resource-rich Gangetic plains could be effectively controlled; and two, the geographical position of Kanauj permitted it to control the water transportation system that in turn enhanced trade and brought in wealth. By moving their capital to Kanauj, no doubt aided by the largess of the Pala dynasty, the Pratiharas laid claim to the central Gangetic Plains, establishing themselves as the most powerful of the Rajput kingdoms of the time.

The 9th century Persian traveller Abu Zayd of Siraf describes in great detail the magnificence and glory of the Gurjara-Pratihara court in Kanauj and it is not difficult to believe that the city and the kingdom fared well under the Gurjara-Pratihara rule. The Pratihara kingdom was continually at war with the Rashtrakutas of Deccan, which could have been a detraction from the dynasty otherwise becoming even more powerful. Nagabhatta’s grandson Mihira, normally referred to as Bhoja, reigned over a prosperous kingdom for five decades (840-90). He was a powerful monarch by all accounts and the domain under his control was an ‘empire’ in size and by all other standards of assessment. He was an ardent worshipper of the primary Hindu god Vishnu, and assumed the title of ‘Adi Varaha’ meaning primeval boar, posing as an early incarnation of Vishnu himself. The abundance of silver coins with the Varaha inscription describing the king found in North India testifies to the long and relatively peaceful rule of Bhoja. In a slight deviation from the norm, there does not seem to have been any scribe of calibre in Bhoja’s court and therefore there are no details that can be gathered regarding the internal administration of the kingdom, the organisation of its army or even the general condition of the common people during this time of stability and prosperity. The Chandels, another upcoming Rajput clan, acknowledged Pratihara suzerainty during Bhoja’s rule.

Bhoja’s son Mahendrapala held the kingdom together and even extended the borders by bringing Magadha into the Pratihara domain. This is confirmed by inscriptions found in Gaya stating the Pratihara overlordship of the region. The court ‘guru’ or teacher at this time was the poet Rajasekhara who was the author of the renowned play Karpura-Manjari. At the height of its power the Gurjara-Pratihara kingdom encompassed the foothills of the Himalayas in the north and reached the banks of the River Sutlej in the north-west; the lost River Hakra formed the boundary in the west with Sindh, and stretched all the way to Mithran (Mihran) in the Arabian Sea; in the south-west the kingdom extended to the lower reaches of the River Narmada and in the south the River Yamuna formed the boundary with the holdings of the Chandel clan of Jejaka-Bhukti; and in the east the boundary was defined at Magadha with the kingdom of the powerful Palas of Bengal.

Following the demise of Mahendrapala, the stature of the Pratihara kings started to decline. A descendant king called Bhoja II, and also Mahendrapala not to be confused with the earlier king of the same name, ruled indifferently for three years and then Mahipala ruled for thirty years (910-40), which was the last period of effective Pratihara rule from Kanauj in the region. The decline of the dynasty started with the Pratihara defeat at the hands of the illustrious Rashtrakuta king Indra II who overran Kanauj. Although the Pratiharas managed to reclaim their capital a few years later with the assistance of the Chandels, they had become a spent force. This reclamation of Kanauj also saw the emergence of the Chandels to predominance in the Rajput political scene. By the year 1000 the Chandels were definitely more powerful than the Pratiharas.

There is corroborative evidence to suggest that the Gurjara-Pratiharas were hostile to the Arabs and Muslims who were gradually making inroads into the Indian mainland through the Sindh region. They opposed the Arab incursion into Sindh but their actions to ward off the threat was completely hamstrung by the need to keep both the Rashtrakutas and the Palas in the south and east of the kingdom at bay. It is indicative of their strength that the Pratiharas managed to contain the Arab threat in the west to Sindh while also ensuring that Pala ambition did not subsume the eastern part of their kingdom. However, the need to keep tabs on threats to the kingdom emanating from three directions did in the end tire the dynasty, leading to its decline and final eclipse into obscurity. It is unfortunate that there is only scant information available regarding the internal functioning of this dynasty that was at the core of North India for more than two centuries which also formed a critical period in the history of the sub-continent. The Pratiharas continued to rule Kanauj till 1018-19 when they were forced out by the vehemence of the Islamic invasion.

The Chandel Dynasty of Bundelkhand

The Chandels of Jejaka-Bhukti, or Jijhoti in colloquial parlance, also known as Budelkhand have a long history, although they never reached the illustrious stature of the Pratiharas, Palas or Rashtrakutas. Even so they exerted considerable and at time critical influence on the political stage of North India for more than three centuries, at times even assuming the role of king makers. The Chandels were originally Gond chieftains of the Chhatarpur region who also became Rajputs through a process of assimilation into mainstream Hindu caste system as Kshatriyas. Initially the Chandels were feudatory lords under the illustrious Bhoja Pratihara of Kanauj. In the early 9th century, they overthrew the overlordship of the local Pratihara chieftain who was a distant relative of the main Pratihara dynasty of Kanauj and by the end of the century they had become completely independent. They took over the Bundelkhand region, establishing the kingdom of Jejaka-Bhukti, with Khajuraho, Mahoba and Kalanjar as the main towns and fortifications. Kalanjar was the strongest fort of the kingdom and was the seat of the Chandel military power.

In the second half of the 10th century, the Chandel king Dhanga joined the Hindu confederacy that had been formed to oppose the invasion of Amir Sabuktigin one of the early Islamic invaders to venture into the sub-continent. However, the attempted relief of the Afghan border was a disastrous defeat for the Hindu confederacy, which diminished the status and strength of the Chandel dynasty considerably. Ganda, a later king of the dynasty opposed the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni, with equally disastrous results. [The details of the Islamic invasions are dealt with in later chapters of this Volume.] The inference to be derived from both these episodes is that the Chandels were aware of the broader danger of the Islamic invasions and tried their best to avert the catastrophe that was facing the sub-continent, even though their actions can also be seen as attempts to safeguard their own interests.

In the 11th century, Raja Kirtivarman elevated the dynasty to a higher stature and status by defeating the Chedi king Karnadeva and extending the boundaries of the kingdom. Kirtivarman was also a patron of the arts and literature, a clear indication of the improved situation of the dynasty after being in the doldrums following consecutive defeats at the hands on the invading Muslim armies. Around 1065, the allegorical play ‘Prabodha-Chandrodaya’, meaning the ‘Rise of the Moon Intellect’ which was a clever interpretation of the Vedanta system of philosophy was played in his court. A lake created among the hills near Mahoba is called Kirti Sagar and perpetuates the king’s name.

In 1182 the last Chandel king of any importance, Paramardi, was defeated in battle by Prithviraj Chauhan and signifies the descent into obscurity of the Chandel dynasty. The successors of the dynasty continued to rule the jungles of Bundelkhand, their original familial holdings, as local princes and chieftains for a long time. One branch of Chandels immigrated to Monghyr district of Bihar around the 13th century and established an obscure line known as the Rajas of Gidhaur.

The Chandels are renowned for their architectural genius and the temples that they built on the banks of man-made lakes created by damming valleys in the hilly kingdom is evidence of this. The famous Khajuraho temples, probably built by King Dhanga, are a large group of temples built in granite that are still standing as silent testimony of the once-powerful Chandel kings. Jainism was popular and could be considered to have flourished in the Chandel kingdom, although the religion is almost completely extinct in the region now. Ancient Jain temples can still be seen in some of the villages of the region.

The Paramaras (Pawars) of Malwa

The Paramaras were one of the original ‘Agni-kula’ Rajput clans of Mount Abu and participated regularly in the wars of the time. They distinguished themselves as warriors in these conflicts and gradually founded a dynasty that ruled the Malwa region. The most famous king of the dynasty was Raja Bhoja who ruled for over forty years, between 1018 and 1060. This Bhoja is not to be confused with the Bhoja (Mihira) Pratihara of Kanauj who ruled 840-890. It is a paradox of Indian history that even during times of complete instability in the political scene and overarching disintegration of powerful kingdoms some extraordinary personalities emerge who provide a glimmer of hope and stability to the otherwise confused scenario. During the 9th and 10th centuries when the geo-political situation in North and Central India was a murky melee of competing dynasties, a striking figure emerged—the philosopher king Raja Bhoja of Dhar. The Paramara kingdom of Malwa was initially centred on Ujjain, which was indefensible in military terms. Therefore, the capital was moved to Dhar, a more upland township situated between Ujjain and Mandu. This is from where Raja Bhoja of the Paramaras ruled his kingdom in a magnificent manner.

Raja Bhoja was a great warrior who protected his kingdom and subjects effectively and was also an erudite scholar. He authored 23 books on various subjects and also established schools for the education of the children of his realm. Bhoja was a liberal patron of Sanskrit learning, providing extensive support to the famous Dhanapala and Uvata, two of the more learned men of the time. They resided in his court during his rule. During this time Dhar was the epitome of a centre of learning. In an attempt to elucidate the nature of the city a number of British historians, in a conceited manner, have referred to Dhar as ‘the Oxford of the time’. [The built-in perception that everything British (read Western) was superior to anything of equal or better standard found in Indian history of antiquity is arrogantly on display with such comparisons. In this instance, comparing Oxford as a later-day Dhar could also have conveyed the same meaning to the student/reader.] The palaces of the Paramaras, especially the ones built by Raja Bhoja, had common rooms for scholars to conduct debate and he converted all temples into establishments of higher learning and education through the bequeathing of generous grants.

‘Bhoj[a] was such a versatile personality and left such a deep impression…that even the pro-Chalukya chronicle, the Prabandhacintamani, felt constrained to conclude its account of Bhoj[a] with the words “Among poets, gallant lovers, enjoyers of life, generous donors, benefactors of the virtuous, archers, and those who regard dharma as their wealth, there is none in the earth who can equal Bhoj[a].” Other Rajput kings would achieve greater popular celebrity as heroes of the martial ethos which their Kshatriya status enjoined. Bhoj[a]’s legacy was no less substantial. As his own eulogy succinctly puts it, ‘he accomplished, constructed, gave, and knew as none else did. What other praise can be given to the poet-king Bhoj[a].’

John Keay, India: A History, pp 228-230.

Over the ages, Raja Bhoja’s name has become synonymous with the proverbial concept of the ‘ideal’ Hindu king. He was defeated around 1060 by the combined armies of the Gujarat and Chedi rulers after which the kingdom of Malwa was reduced to a small holding of almost no political importance. Bhoja built the city of Bhojapura and also dammed the River Betwa to create Lake Bhojpura that covered an area of nearly 250 sq. miles. This dam was demolished in the 15th century by the Muslim Sultan of Malwa, Hoshang Shah. Minor branches of the Paramaras were also established around Mount Abu in smaller towns like Vagala and Jalor. However, they were of limited importance in the broader sweep of history, being the equivalent of small principalities.

Conclusion

This chapter covers only the early history of the Rajput clans, before the arrival of the Islamic invaders. Their later history is covered in subsequent chapters in this and following volumes. At this stage, in the 10th and 11th century, the Chauhans ruled in East Rajasthan; the Tomars in the Delhi region; and the Solankis in Gujerat. The Solankis were also referred to as ‘Chaulukyas’ and are not to be confused with the illustrious Chalukya dynasty of the Deccan. Sindh by this time was already occupied by the Arabs. In the north-west frontier region, there was a small kingdom of Hindu Shahis who were the original rulers of Kabul and had been forced eastward by the encroaching Islamic raiders. Although a Hindu kingdom, a large population of Buddhists lived in the Shahi country. This was the first Hindu kingdom to be destroyed in the Islamic onslaught that was approaching the sub-continent.

North India—ranging from the Punjab to Gujarat in the west; to Bengal in the east; and the Deccan plateau in the south—at this time consisted of a number of small kingdoms, some of them not economically or strategically viable to retain independent status. The general tendency was for minor local leaders to declare independence from their overlords at some opportune moment and attempt to set up a monarchy and start a dynasty. Irrespective of the ability to do so, it is obvious that ambition knew no bounds. This stress on regional ‘independence’ was also reflected in the cultural life where increased focus and attention was paid to local culture. There were numerous attempts at reviving local cults and also at recording history for posterity. While some of the claims put forward in these records were extravagant by all counts, the surviving chronicles do provide a vivid account of the times and the internecine conflicts and animosities. These rivalries between the various Rajput houses were intense and in the long term disastrous for the well-being on the sub-continent.

Some of the Rajput clans, especially the southern ones, made incursions into the Konkan at times holding on to the conquered territories. However, in most cases the possession was transitory at best. While there were few powerful dynasties that evolved during this time of divisive instability, they were almost all at loggerheads with everyone else. While this is to be expected amongst the major dynasties, the fact remains that it also detracted each of them from consolidating their holdings. In addition a gradual north-south divide was becoming apparent, with the king of Kanauj being considered the natural enemy of the king of Deccan, irrespective of the dynasties involved. The continuous internecine conflicts contributed in no small measure to the weakening of all parties concerned. The period was one of intrigue and alliances, of political activities and rebellions with self-destroying wars being fought between the major powers.

This disintegrated politico-strategic scene was made possible by the fact that there was no single paramount power capable of keeping the divisive forces under check, thereby creating the freedom for even very minor clan leaders to pursue individual goals and grandiose ambitions of dynastic independence. Further, the first Islamic invasion did not eventuate before end of the 10th century.

The arrival of the Islamic invaders was a total cultural shock for the Indian kings and created a grave disturbance from which North India never fully recovered. The Indian rulers were not used to the level of violence inherent in the tactics of the invading Muslim armies. Although Sindh had been conquered in the 8th century, that invasion was not of any magnitude and was also confined to the geographic limits of the province. Similarly, the Muslim occupation of Kabul had not created any ripples in the core Indian political arena and was of little significance. The Islamic invasions of the north-west were something else entirely. The invaders were aggressive powers, ruthlessly violent and devoid of pity. For a culture that believed in treating a defeated adversary with grace and courtesy ‘befitting a king’, the arrival of the foreign method of warfare that did not consider forgiveness as a virtue, turned the entire world of chivalry and ‘dharma’ in waging war upside down. Moreover the Islamic religion and social customs were alien to the native Hindu kings as were the perceptions of right and wrong. In simple military terms, the entire North India reeled under shock and awe, being forced to enter a totally different world to the one that they had so far inhabited.

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 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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