Indian History Part 47 KASHMIR: A KINGDOM APART Section II The Utpalas and the Loharas


Canberra, 17 January 2016

Utpala was a powerful minister serving the Karkota dynasty and also the maternal uncle of Lalitaditya. He had unsuccessfully attempted to seize power during the confusion and anarchy following Lalitaditya’s death. Utpala’s grandson, Avantivarman, managed to usurp the throne at a time when the Karkotas had reached the nadir of their power and had been unable to produce even one king of any worth for few generations. Avantivarman called the dynasty that he established Utpala in honour of his grandfather, whose ambition he had fulfilled. As is normal with the founders of dynasties that last for a time, Avantivarman was highly capable, diligently conscientious, and had an extremely well-developed sense of justice—all characteristics that go a long way towards establishing good rule and winning the hearts and minds of the subjects.

Avantivarman was a good administrator and instituted a successful revenue management system for the collection of land tax. He also constructed a great irrigation network that brought new areas under cultivation, heralding prosperity for the entire kingdom. He was a devout Vaishnava Hindu and upheld the tenets of ‘ahimsa’—the concept of not harming any living being. This was the traditional position of Buddhism and by adopting the same tenets Avantivarman gradually created a situation wherein the mantle of Buddhism as a non-violent religion passed to Vaishnavite Hinduism. [It is not clear whether this was a studied move on the part of the king or something that happened as a fall-out of a genuine belief in ahimsa.] He also practised religious tolerance and built several temples to Shiva while being liberal with gifts to appease the Brahmins. He died in 884 after 29 years of stabilising rule. It is said that on his deathbed he was listening to the recital of the Bhagavad Gita. This is an interesting fact since it is the first authenticated mention of the Bhagavad Gita as an independent religious text within the list of Hindu religious books.


Avantivarman was succeeded by Sankaravarman, although a faction of ministers had set up a nephew of Avantivarman as the Yuvaraja, heir apparent, leading to few years of internecine war and civil strife. Having quelled the internal rebellion, Sankaravarman set out on a digvijaya expedition. Unlike Lalitaditya, Sankaravarman restricted his military expeditions to the Punjab and Kabul regions. His army is supposed to have consisted of 900,000 foot soldiers and 300 elephants, which is probably an exaggeration although the success of his military campaigns indicate that he was in command of a sizeable army. He started by defeating and imprisoning Harigana, the king of Darvabhisraand, then driving away the Trigarta king Prithvichandra and placing his son Bhuvanachandra on the throne and then defeating Alakhana the king of the Gurjaras. The Shahi king Lalliya ruling in Kabul was subjugated, although this was a short-lived victory since Lalliya re-established his independence almost immediately on Sankaravarman’s death.

Sankaravarman was a valiant and brave king, although he was not averse to slight oppression of the people when the treasury needed further resources to fund his military expeditions or to cater for his personal needs. He died while returning from an expedition when an arrow pierced his throat. Since he was not on the battlefield at that time and was also despised by some sections of the society, it could be presumed that the arrow was the culmination of a successful assassination attempt. Three queens, two servants and one minister burned themselves on his funeral pyre, which indicates that the custom of faithful servants burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their masters, vividly described by Bana in the Harshacharita, was still in vogue.

Sankaravarman’s son Gopalavarman was a minor at the time of his father’s death, but was elevated to the throne with the Queen Mother, Sugandha, ruling as Regent on his behalf. Gopalavarman and his younger brother Sankata died before achieving majority, facilitating the dowager queen to continue to be the real ruler of the kingdom. She was ably assisted in this endeavour by a group of soldiers called Tantris whose role can be equated to the Pretorian Guards of Rome and the Turks who guarded the palace in Baghdad. The Regent Queen then placed a ten year old prince from a collateral branch of the family on the throne, while the Tantris continued to oppress the people at their whim and fancy. Subsequently the Tantris raised Chakravarman, another scion of the family, to the throne in defiance of the Queen’s wishes. This is symptomatic of the complete control of the administrative system that the Tantris exercised.

Chakravarman however proved to be not as pliant as the Tantris would have liked. He sought the help of the Damaras, who were aboriginal landlords and warriors, to thwart the Tantris. The Damaras rallied behind the young king under the leadership of Sangama Damara and managed to drive away the Tantris. However, Sangama had also predicted that Chakravarman would subsequently turn on the Damaras, which was indeed the turn of events. The Damaras were forced to accept a lesser stature and Chakravarman established an oppressive misrule of the kingdom. The fact that the Damara chief was aware that the Damaras themselves would be the target of the king sometime into the future but assisted in neutralising the power of the Tantris demonstrates the dislike that common people harboured for the machinations of the Tantris.

Chakravarman was followed by Partha an equally oppressive king who in addition was almost a puppet of the Kayastha government officials who had assumed great power by this time through intrigue and plotting. On the death of Partha in 939, Kamalavardhana, the leader of the Tantris who were in semi-exile, defeated the remnants of the Damaras still supporting the royal family and entered the capital in triumph. There follows a bizarre set of events, which demonstrates clearly the power of the Brahmins, even as they were being challenged by the Kayasthas for the favour of the king.

The Power of the Brahmins

There is no doubt that traditionally the Brahmins held enormous power, which was drawn from ancient times through their association with the Puranas and the Vedas.

After having been victorious against the King and his Damara supporters, Kamalavardhana, instead of assuming the throne, asked the council of Brahmins to elect the new king. It is obvious that he had no doubts regarding his own election and was calculating on the legitimacy that such an election by the Brahmins would bestow on his kingship. The council of Brahmins wrangled and debated for five days. In his epic, Kalhana blames the Brahmins for not keeping the welfare of the kingdom as the highest priority and states that Brahmins could never agree with one another on any point of contention. However, the election of the king to the vacant throne was scrupulously left to the Brahmin council, by both the Tantri leader and the people. [This system finds parallel in the election process of the Pope followed in the Catholic Church on the death of an incumbent Pope.]

At this stage in the deliberations, a Brahmin called Yasaskara—son of Prabhakaradeva, the minster of Queen Sugandha—entered the capital. The Brahmins considered this an omen and elected him king!

That Kamalavardhana, recently victorious and in control of the capital, abided by this decision is a testimony to the virtual power that the Brahmins wielded in matters of state. In this occasion, Yasaskara proved to be an able ruler, energetic and scrupulous in his dealings and brought in an era of general peace and prosperity in the kingdom that had been in administrative doldrums for a long period. Unfortunately his enlightened rule lasted only for nine years and on his death, his son Samgramadeva who was still a minor, succeeded him. As is usual in such circumstances, the kingdom lapsed into chaos, becoming prey to disorder and oppression from many different quarters. The Tantris came back into the fray once again as power brokers.

In the reigning confusion, Parvagupta, who was a Kshatriya and the leader of a band of mainly Kayastha officials seized the throne. He ruled for a very short period of time, being succeeded by his son Kshemagupta who was married to princess Didda. Didda was of a high pedigree, being the daughter of the king of Lohara, Simharaja, and the granddaughter of the Shahi king of Kabul, Bhimapala. When Kshemagupta died in 958, she instinctively assumed power on behalf of her son who was a minor. She continued to rule through the minority of a succession of sons and grandsons, all dying before achieving majority, sparking speculation and suspicion of their deaths having been orchestrated with the tacit approval of the queen. In the endeavour to hold on to power, Didda was assisted by the Tantris and a minister-lover called Tunga, who had originally been a herdsman. Didda was a cruel and oppressive queen universally hated for all sorts of reasons. She eventually brought her brother’s son, Samgramaraja from Lohara, and anointed him as the successor around 1000. This was the start of the Lohara dynasty in Kashmir. The seat of power of the Loharas, Loharkotta, was left to be ruled by Vigraharaja, either another nephew or brother of Didda.

The First Lohara Dynasty

Didda attempted to unite both the Lohara and Kashmir kingdoms and controlled both for a short period of time. However, Vigraharaja the prince ruling Lohara rebelled, setting the scene for almost three centuries of internecine and destructive wars and conflicts. Samgramaraja was a weak-willed individual and being under the control of Prime Minister Tunga in the initial period of his rule was unable to take any individual decisions or exert his will, even if he had wanted to better the lot of the people. However, he did send military assistance under the command of Tunga to the Shahi king Trilochanapala to fight the invasion of Muhammad of Ghazni, although the Kashmiri contingent does not seem to have contributed very much to the campaign.

Tunga wielded great power in the kingdom and continued to rule at his will as the de-facto ‘king’, appointing corrupt officials who oppressed the common people in order to accumulate personal wealth. However, as Tunga grew old, he was unable to keep in check more ambitious officials within the court as well as other nobles and chieftains who sensed his reducing control and started to snip at his power base. He was subsequently murdered by some courtiers, certainly with the tacit approval or even direct encouragement from the king, Samgramaraja. However, the inherent weakness of the king ensured that the trail of corruption that had been set in motion continued unabated without bringing any succour to the beleaguered common people.

Samgramaraja was succeeded by a son who died 22 days into office. Rumour has it that he was killed by his mother, Srilakha, who wanted to take charge of the kingdom and hold power like Didda had done before, although she was thwarted by courtiers loyal to the Lohara family. A second son Ananta then assumed the throne. At this stage, seeing the on-going chaos of succession, Vigraharaja attacked the kingdom but was defeated and killed in battle. Spurred on by this victory, Ananta launched a military expedition against the kingdom of Champa, overthrowing the ruling king Sala, also called Salavahana. However, a subsequent expedition to capture the hill states failed miserably, leading to great financial loss.

Ananta’s ensuing rule was marked by royal profligacy, which in turn led to monumental debts being accrued by the treasury. Seeing the certain ruin of the dynasty, Ananta’s queen Suryamati intervened. She used her own finances to stabilise the situation and appointed incorruptible officials to oversee the administration. In 1063, she compelled Ananta to abdicate in favour of their son Kalasa, an unfortunate choice since Kalasa was completely unfit to rule, being a weak-willed debauch. He is purported to have continued an incestuous relationship with his daughter for a long period of time. Realising the mistake of placing Kalasa on the throne, Ananta re-assumed the governing role of the kingdom, ruling by proxy while retaining Kalasa as the official king, thus creating an on-going rift between father and son. This dispute between father and son continued and went on to become irreconcilable and Ananta committed suicide in 1081 on being exiled to a faraway township.

Since his mother also perished in his father’s funeral pyre, Kalasa amended his ways as a sort of penance and attempted to rule as a benevolent and judicious king. This change of heart lasted for a few years, at which time he discovered that his eldest son Harsha was plotting to murder him. Harsha was promptly imprisoned and the second son Utkarsa, already ruling Lohara was proclaimed the heir apparent. Kalasa on his part reverted to being a self-indulgent king, reverted to his old debauched ways and died in 1089.

Utkarsa ascended the throne, once again uniting Kashmir and Lohara. He was disliked as a person and detested as a king, leading to a half-brother Vijayamalla leading a rebellion against him. Utkarsa was deposed, imprisoned and committed suicide while Harsha was released from prison and crowned king. Harsha was a learned and cultured man as well as an acknowledge patron of poets. However, he was easily influenced, a character flaw that was exploited by corrupt officials who gradually turned him into a tyrant for their personal benefit. He remains a striking figure of contrasts and contradictions—kind one moment and the epitome of extreme cruelty the next; unrivalled in his liberal patronage, yet driven by personal greed and avarice; prone to severe bouts of violence followed by days of supine inaction. The initial part of his rule, before he succumbed completely to the influence of tyrannical officials of the court, brought about slight improvement in the state of affairs of the kingdom, evidenced by the issue of gold and silver coins for some time.

The good times did not last and the kingdom rapidly plunged into economic chaos. It is reported that taxes were levied on ‘everything’, leading to the folklore that even night soil was taxed during Harsha’s reign. The king and his courtiers took to looting the temples to fund their indulgent lifestyle. The financial strife was compounded by failed military enterprises against the king of Rajapuri and the Darads in the Krishanganga valley. Unable to continue to suffer under the oppressive rule, the feudatory land lords murdered Harsha in 1099. At this stage Islamic ingress was visible in the outer territorial fringes of the kingdom. Harsha was replaced on the throne by a prince from the Lohara side-branch of the royal family, marking the beginning of the Second Lohara dynasty.

‘Few centuries can rival the long Kashmir list of kings and queens who gloried in shameless lust, fiendish cruelty, and pitiless misrule.’

Vincent Smith,

The Early History of India, p. 375


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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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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