Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Kanyakubja Chronicles - II

For an extended period of time in the mythological period, especially during the time span between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the story of Kanyakubja is quite blurred and there seems to be no significant mention of it, until the period of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata times (3rd Century BC, during the Dwapar Yuga)

In ancient India, from the 6th to 4th century BC, there existed sixteen Mahajanapadas, kingdoms or oligarchic republics, ranging from Kamboja (modern day Kabul) and Gandhara (modern day Qandahar) in the North-west to Anga (modern day Bengal) in the eastern part. Two of them were ‘ganas’ or republics while the others were ruled over by monarchs. Of these, Panchal Pradesh was a notable one, which also carries historic importance for us.

Spread across the Gangetic basin, Panchal Pradesh was criss-crossed by five rivers, viz., Ganga, Yamuna, Kosi, Kali and Chambal. The kingdom was divided by the Ganga into two parts: North Panchal and South Panchal, with capitals at Ahichchhatra and Kampilya respectively. During the time of the Mahabharata, King Drupad was the monarch of Panchal and Kampilya was his capital. Among other smaller territories governed by sub-lords, Kanyakubja too was a part of South Panchal kingdom, the city being located a mere thirty miles away from the capital Kampilya.

As the Mahabharata legend goes, the guru of the Kauravas and Pandavas, Dronacharya, sent his pupil Arjun to avenge him and put Drupad in his rightful place. Arjun defeated Drupad, annexed his kingdom and brought him bound to Dronacharya. In the truce that followed, ending the bitter rivalry between the erstwhile closely bonded friends, Dronacharya took away the North Panchal part of Drupad’s kingdom and aligned the same to Hastinapur (capital of the Kuru kingdom) while giving back the South Panchal portion to Drupad to retain. Dronacharya then stayed in Ahichchhatra for some time before returning to Hastinapur and leaving his son Ashwathama as ruler of North Panchal, under subjugation of the Hastinapur kingdom.

It was also in Kampilya, the shining capital of South Panchal kingdom, that the famous swayamvara ceremony of Princess Draupadi (Panchali) was held where Arjun won the hand of the Princess of Panchal. During this period, the Pandavas are said to have extensively travelled through the South Panchal kingdom, staying in places like Kanyakubja, which is spoken of as a thriving city and a great seat of culture, education and Vedic religion, in the references found in the Mahabharata.

To put the geography in modern day perspective, Kampilya still remains as a small town called Kampil in Farukhabad in Uttar Pradesh. Out of the North Panchal area which was annexed to Hastinapur, the Kauravas gave away a part of Ahhichchatra to Guru Dronacharya and his family – which today can be identified as modern Haryana as Gurgaon or ‘Gurugram’, truly as the name suggests. Kanyakubja, as we already know, came to be the modern day Kannauj, eighty kilometres away from Kanpur city.

Ancient history of India – later Vedic era, Maurya and Gupta, periods (1200 BC – 550 AD)

If Panchal Pradesh as one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas had an important place in the mythological references, there was yet another Mahajanapada which proclaims to have changed the course of Indian history. It is the Magadha kingdom, the existence and references of which we find in Vedic texts and Epics, in time much earlier than 600 BC. According to the Brahmanda Purana references we come to know of Brihadratha who is said to be the first king of Magadha, in the post Vedic period.
Brihadratha’s dynasty was followed by a quick succession of dynasties between 600 and 322 BC. Magadha saw its first expansion under the Haryanka dynasty kings, notably Bimbisara and Ajatsatru, the latter being the contemporary of Lord Buddha. Ajatsatru had his capital at Girivraja, which he renamed to Rajagiri (modern-day Rajgir, in the state of Bihar). The Shishunaga dynasty overthrew the Haryankas in 413 BC and ruled for less than hundred years. They were overthrown by Mahapadma Nanda Ugrasena, who founded the Nanda dynasty in 345 BC. It was during the reign of the last Nanda king, Dhana Nanda, in 326 BC, that Alexander the Great invaded India. However, their armies did not meet for a battle, as Alexander’s armies were exhausted and had mutinied in the region of the Beas River in the northwest province forcing Alexander to turn back.

Chandragupta Maurya, who overthrew the Nanda dynasty, established the Maurya Empire in 321 BC. The capital of the Maurya Empire was Pataliputra (modern-day Patna). The Maurya Empire reached its zenith under his grandson Ashoka and extended from the eastern borders of Persia (modern-day Iran) till the southern borders of Burma. The Mauryan period professed Buddhism as the state religion and propagated it throughout the empire. The Mauryan Empire went into decline by 180 BC and was followed by few other local rulers who took control of Magadha and the capital Pataliputra.  

While much of the action was happening in the Indo-Gangetic plains with Magadha assuming all the importance and limelight, Panchal Pradesh in the post Vedic period was having a quiet run with its series of local rulers having consolidated the kingdom. With the decline of power and resultant threat from the Kuru kingdom (Mahajanapada) and its capital Indraprastha (modern-day Delhi – legacy left behind by the Pandavas), the Panchala Kings were able to regain back most of their original kingdom, including the northern important town of Ahichchhatra. Kanyakubja continued with its journey of Vedic learning through the breed of the Kanyakubja Brahmins, however, their agenda of propagating the Hindu scriptures had significantly diminished in the wake of the surge of Buddhism across the country at that period of time.

It was during the reign of the fiery Mahapadma Nanda of the Nanda dynasty that Panchal Pradesh along with many other Mahajanapadas was won over and annexed to the expanding Magadha kingdom. This was consolidated firmly during the Mauryan period as the entire country from the north-west to the south-east borders was won over by Chandragupta Maurya and his worthy descendants, and the concept of separate Mahajanapadas of the later Vedic times was dissolved to give way to a unified India and provincial heads or capitals therein. The resultant wide spread of Buddhism and the Pali language and their Prakrits used extensively during the Mauryan period, forced Hinduism to take a back seat and classical Sanskrit as the language of Vedic literature to be down forced. Thus centres of Hindu scriptural and Vedic learning, like Kanyakubja, Takshashila and Girivraja were affected by the upsurge of Buddhism and later Jainism.

Kanyakubja had a milder effect in the changed era, in comparison to the other two of its sibling cities Takshashila (modern Taxila – in North Pakistan) and Girivraja (modern Rajgir – in Bihar). This could be attributed to the fact that Kanyakubja was not as popular and had not been adequately patronised by its Panchala rulers as a seat of learning and could neither boast of accomplished faculty nor attract students from afar. The city, though lived up to its potential of Vedic and scriptural learning in Sanskrit and of being staunchly proud of its Brahminical Hindu roots and traditions, albeit in a very contained and captive manner. The Kanyakubja Brahmins continued to be the mainstay of the learning and tradition being upheld, but they remained quite focussed internally turning their faces away from the political, social and religious change that was sweeping across the country over these centuries.

Takshashila (Taxila), revered till date to have been one of the oldest universities of the world, became not only a provincial capital for the Maurya emperors, but also an important seat of the Mahayana Buddhist preaching and learning. Ashoka, the great propagator of Buddhism, was a patron of the Taxila centre and had erected a lot of Buddhist statues and icons in the city. However, even before the surge of Buddhism and during the initiation of the Maurya Empire, Taxila had been credited as being the abode of the famous Chanakya (Kautilya) who is said to have composed his treatise Arthshastra in Taxila. The city even finds reference in the Mahabharata in that the first recital of the Indian epic was done by sage Vaisampayan to King Janmejaya (of the Kuru royal lineage) at Taxila.

Girivraja (Rajgir) had the next famous seat of learning after Taxila during this period: the Nalanda University. Even though the Mauryas had their capital at Pataliputra, Nalanda was a very important location for them as a centre for preaching and teaching Buddhism. With Taxila and Nalanda, strategically placed in the north-west and eastern parts of the kingdom respectively, the Maurya period saw the significant rise of these centres of learning. Even though the earlier Vedic and Sanskrit literature was taught in both these places, the tide of time had turned the focus to be predominantly Buddhist literature and the medium to be the Pali and Prakrit language. In the whole scheme of things, Kanyakubja (for reasons mentioned earlier) fell into a shadow area and continued its low-profile existence.

India was again unified and saw resurgent glorious times under the Gupta Empire (240 AD to 550 AD) and the rise of Brahminical Hinduism was observed during this time. This period is also known as the age of Classical Sanskrit literature. As we have read from the accounts of the Chinese travellers, notably Fa Hien in the Mauryan period and Hiuen Tsang in the post-Gupta era, along with Taxila, Nalanda and Kanyakubja, other towns such as Mathura, Sarnath, Ujjain, Vidisha and Sravasti were developing as fantastic centres of learning and architecture.

As Taxila was for the Uttarapath (Noth-west frontier) and Nalanda for the Magadha region, Mathura and Kanyakubja were the key town for the Madhyadesh region. Under the Gupta kings, these cities rose to the pinnacle of glory as centres of administration, culture, diverse religions, architecture and celebration of the Classical Sanskrit knowledge. This golden age of the Classical Sanskrit renaissance produced famous litterateurs like Kalidasa, Bharavi, Sriharsha and Magha who wrote the five ‘Mahakavyas’. Scholars and writers like Banabhatta, Bhartrihari and Vatsyayana also composed their famous works Kadambari, the three Shatakas and the Kama Sutra respectively during this time. Further, the Hindu Puranas are stated to be composed and refined during this age.

However, in the post-Gupta era (570 AD – 650 AD, Mathura gave way to Kanyakubja, as the latter became important for political reasons and rose to become the capital of King Harsha’s undivided Indian empire.

The later Ancient history of India – Maukhari, and Vardhana periods (550 AD – 647 AD)

The Maukharis were the vassals of the Gupta kings and were governing the Madhyadesh region from Kanyakubja. King Isha Varman asserted his independence from the weakening Gupta Empire (which was already breaking up) in 550 AD and established Kanyakubja as the capital of Madhyadesha which he declared as a separate and independent kingdom. Over their little-above-fifty-years of rule, they rapidly consolidated their kingdom and developed Mathura as the second important city after the capital Kanyakubja. However, they were engaged in constant skirmishes with the Later Guptas of Magadha and other neighbouring kingdoms.

King Isha Varman was defeated by Kumaragupta of Magadha in 554 AD, but his son Sharva Varman soon defeated the Guptas and reclaimed his kingdom and capital of Kanyakubja. By the time of 605 AD, the power of the Later Gupta rulers had also diminished with many other kingdoms asserting their independence and establishing separate ruling dynasties. These kingdoms, viz., Madhyadesh ruled by the Maukhari Varmans, Magadha ruled by the Later Guptas, Malwa ruled by Devagupta, Gauda (Bengal) ruled by Shashanka, were always at war with each other in the attempt to expand their territories and loot wealth from the other kingdoms.

One such dynasty was the Pushyabhuti dynasty founded by Prabhakar Vardhana with their capital in Thaneswar (modern day Haryana). Prabhakar Vardhan left behind two sons Rajya Vardhan and Harsha Vardhan and a daughter Rajyasri. Rajya Vardhan ascended the throne and ruled from Thanesar while his younger brother Harshavardhan took up the charge of expanding the kingdom by conquering other territories. Their sister Rajyasri was married to Graha Varman, the Maukhari king of Kanyakubja.

A few years after the matrimonial alliance, Devagupta, the King of Malwa attacked Kanyakubja and defeated and killed Graha Varman, taking the city and his queen Rajyasri captive in her own palace. Rajya Vardhan, the king of Thanesar and Rajyasri’s elder brother immediately rushed to Kanyakubja in support of his sister. He succeeded in defeating and killing Devagupta in Kanyakubja and freed his sister Rajyasri from captivity. But at this point, King Shashanka, the ruler of Gauda (Bengal) and an ally of Devagupta of Malwa entered Kanyakubja to avenge the death of his friend.

Shashanka treacherously murdered Rajya Vardhan in Kanyakubja, and was planning to annex the kingdom when the news of Rajya Vardhan’s death reached his younger brother Harsha. Wasting no time and in furious anger, Harshavardhan marched on to Kanyakubja and defeated Shashanka and his Gauda army.

Harsha’s successful campaign in saving Kanyakubja also meant that the immediate threats to the kingdom had been quelled. The people of Kanyakubja praised Harsha and looked upon him as their saviour who had not only protected them but had also avenged the death of their earlier king Graha Varman. The council of priests, ministers and the representatives of the people at the Kanyakubja court requested Harsha to ascend the throne as their new King. Harshavardhan was therefore anointed as the new king of Madhyadesh at the palace in Kanyakubja in 606 AD. He was only sixteen years of age at that time.

In quick succession, he brought the other kingdoms around him to his subjugation and expanded his territories from the Northwest borders of India to Kamarupa (Assam) in the east and to the Narmada River in the south. King Harsha ruled for about forty years and it is said that not only under him was the last unified Hindu empire in the country, but also one of great glory and pomp, with Kanyakubja enjoying its most prominent time as its capital of King Harsha’s empire.

Coming Soon ….. Part 4

In the next article, we shall explore more on the glorious period of Kanyakubja under King Harsha, and then its history under the subsequent kings till the Muslim conquests and destruction of the city. The role of the Kanyakubja Brahmins also becomes more pronounced in this era as the age of the renaissance of classical Hinduism reaches its zenith.


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