Saturday, 24 March 2018

The Kanyakubja Chronicles IV

Kannauj: the capital of Aryavarta (836 – 1019 AD)

For Kannauj, the period spanning almost two hundred years after the death of King Harsha was one of continuous wars and short-lived monarchies by the rival dynasties of the region, who were perpetually at battle with each other in the attempt to consolidate their empire and probably once again fulfil the ideals of a Chakravartin Samrat of Aryavarta. Kannauj was already well established as the capital of North India from the time of Harsha and with Magadh, Pataliputra, Mathura and other cities fading in their prominence, Kannauj continued to be regarded as the heart of Aryavarta and the jewel in the crown most sought after by the kings at war. After Harsha and his immediate successor Yasovarma, the Ayudha dynasty captured Kannauj and ruled for about fifty years. During this time, the Chalukyas and even the King of Kashmir, Lalitaditya, is said to have attacked Kannauj with the desire to rule over this magnificent city.

However, by the end of the 8th century, the power and politics of Aryavarta remained in the hands of three dynasties, who were forever at war with each other: the Gurjara-Pratiharas from Rajasthan, the Rashtrakutas from Maharashtra and parts of south-central; and the Palas of Bengal. All of them sought to keep Kannauj under their clamp, as the city strongly signified power and control over Aryavarta. The chequered history of war-torn Kannauj during these periods and tales of the battles and coups forged by the Pratihara, Rashtrakuta and Pala kings over a hundred years is, on one hand fascinating yet on the other, dark and of betrayals and bloodshed.

It was also during this turbulent period that Kannauj once again rose to a commendable height of glory under the Pratihara King, Mihir Bhoja in 836 AD. Though not immediately comparable to the Kannauj under Harsha, Mihir Bhoja ensured that he rebuilt the city’s war affected zones and added further magnificence. Learning and culture surged in Kannauj and once again the traditions of Brahmanical Hinduism were glorified under the Kanyakubja Brahmins, who now had acquired the cult tag of ‘Kannaujia Brahmin’, one that was set to stay for many more centuries to come. A devout follower of Lord Vishnu, Mihir Bhoja built many temples across his kingdom and patronised the Brahmins extensively, as bearers and keepers of traditional Brahminical Hindu faith who propagated the Vedic rituals, culture and literature.

Mihir Bhoja’s kingdom ranged from the Sutlej River in the North-west to the foothills of Himalayas in the North and from Bengal in the East to Gujarat in the West, while the Narmada River made up for the border in the South. Kannauj was the illustrious capital of his expansive empire and a very prosperous one at that, as we read from the works of Sulaiman, the Arab traveller who visited India during this time. Mihir Bhoja also successfully repulsed several Arab invasions on the North-west borders of his kingdom (present day Sindh in Pakistan) and ensured that he united Aryavarta under Kannuj once again, till 885 AD.

Mihir Bhoja’s successors, though defended their kingdom for a few more generations, were steadily losing parts of their territories to other kings. They lost some parts of the Punjab to the King of Kashmir, while the Rashtrakutas in the south were posing a fierce threat yet again against the weakened Pratiharas. It was during the initial years of the reign of Mahipala, 913 AD to be exact, that the Rashtrakuta King, Indra III, attacked Kannauj and ransacked the city mercilessly. Mahipala had to flee and Kannauj passed on to the hands of the Rashtrakutas for the next three years. Kannauj had hitherto not seen such a bloody war and pillage of its wealth and magnificence as it saw at the hands of the Rashtrakuta king Indra III; however then, little did the city know that it would have to face an even more merciless ransacking, killing and looting within the turn of the same century at the hands of the first Muslim invaders.

Mahipala was however able to return to his capital and overthrow the Rashtrakuta vassals in Kannauj and take the city back for the Pratiharas by 916 AD. Barring the singular blot of the ‘ransacking of Kannauj’ by Indra III, Mahipala is credited with the attributes of a valiant ruler and warrior who maintained his kingdom and subjects well. The Arab chronicler, ‘Al-Masudi’ writes about him:

"The ruler has four armies according to the four quarters of the wind. Each of these number 700,000 or 900,000 men. He has large armies in the garrisons in the north and in the south; in the east and in the west, for he is surrounded on all sides by warlike rulers."

Thus in the fight for the control of Aryavarta and pursuit of keeping suzerainty over Kannauj as the capital of Aryavarta, the Pratiharas had overall emerged victorious against their rivals the Rashtrakutas and the Palas. However, constant wars and break down of kingdoms over this period actually worked against the interests of Aryavarta, for after Mihir Bhoja there was no king who could unite Aryavarta again and build a formidable force. The powers of the Palas in Bengal were limited, while that of the later Pratiharas and the Rashtrakutas got weakened. Their vassals rebelled against them and broke away from the kingdoms to form smaller kingdoms of their own. Thus by 1000 AD, Aryavarta had disintegrated into a disjoined and fragmented structure of many states and kingdoms with independent rulers, mostly still fighting against themselves. This paved the way easily for the successful raids into India by Mahmud of Ghazni, which began in 1001 AD.

The first Muslim conquest of Kannauj (1018 AD)

It was in 1018 AD that the tremors of the pounding hoofs of the troops of horsemen of Mahmud of Ghazni’s ferocious army were felt on the soil of Kannauj, heralding the most ominous and dreaded of the battles that the magnificent city had ever witnessed. Stories of Mahmud’s fearsome invasions and battles on the plains of the Indus and Sutlej had by then spread all across Aryavarta (northern India), as the burly Sultan had already invaded the country at least ten times and indiscriminately killed and looted in the towns and cities that fell in his way.

What started as a battle for territorial supremacy between the Ghaznavids and the Hindu Shahi kings of Kabul in 1000 AD, in no time broke down the barriers of the rugged North-western frontier and opened the doors to India for Mahmud. The Hindu Shahi King Jayapaladeva of Kabul was defeated by Mahmud in the first battle in 1000 AD, but Mahmud returned within a year with a larger force to capture Kabul and then furthered his intention to loot and fill his Ghaznavid capital with the riches of Hindustan, as he chased the Hindu Shahi forces further down. By 1006 AD, he had defeated Jayapaladeva and his son and successor King Anandapala repeatedly and ransacked the cities of Purushapura (modern Peshawar in Pakistan), Udabhandapura (modern Und in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Pakistan – which was the later capital of the Hindu Shahi kings once Kabul was taken), Bhera (modern Bhira in Pakistan-Punjab) and Mulasthanam (modern Multan in Pakistan). Making it a sport and easy exploit, Mahmud continued his series of infamous raids to India and emboldened by each lavish victory, he soon swooped down onto the heartland of north India.

Having deposed the Hindu Shahi Kings from Kabul and North-west of India, over the next decade Mahmud continued to plague the country with his raids, ransacking and looting. While Peshawar and Multan were repeatedly sacked, Mahmud’s fury did not spare the Nandana, the last capital city of the Hindu Shahi Kings - after Mahmud destroyed and annexed Udabhandapura (Und). Nandana was a picturesque town nestled in the verdant valleys of the Salt Range of the Indus valley, and King Anandapala had chosen to name it Nandana, after the celestial garden of Lord Indra. (In modern day, the only remains of Nandana city are the ruins of the Shiva temple built by Anandapala, which still stands atop a hill in the Salt Range of Pakistan; the city has been completely decimated, destroyed and has over time slipped into oblivion).

In his invasions of 1011 Mahmud had come as far as Delhi and sacked Thaneswar, and in 1015 he had successfully pillaged the formidable city of Lohkot (modern Lahore in Pakistan). He completely overthrew the Hindu Shahi kingdom and forced its last ruler Trilochanapala to flee. Trilochanapala was given refuge by the king of Kalinjar. Having conquered and subjugated the kingdoms in the North-west provinces, it was but expected that in his next adventure the ferocious Sultan would come charging down on the cities that lay further deep in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab, the opulence of which were not unknown to him by then.

When Mahmud attacked Mathura and Mahaban in 1018, he was met by armies of some of the regional kings but they were hardly a match to the ferocity of the invading Ghaznavid army under Mahmud. Mathura and Mahaban fell after a fierce battle in 1018 and were completely ransacked post which the Sultan turned his attention to Kannauj, as he intruded further down the plains. The ruling Pratihara king of Kannauj at that time was Rajyapala who was terrified at the prospect of facing Mahmud’s army with the almost certainty of defeat and bloodshed in the capital. Rajyapala had been part of the Hindu confederacy (the joint armies of Ujjain, Gwalior, Kalinjar, Kannauj, Delhi and Ajmer) which had earlier fought in support of the Hindu Shahi kingdom and had opposed Mahmud between Und and Peshawar and had been completely routed by the invading forces. Faced with the daunting task of fighting Mahmud’s army alone, Rajyapala chose not to engage in battle with the Sultan and Kannauj was surrendered without a fight. This however did not stop the greedy Sultan from ransacking the city and he proceeded to destroy many important Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas in Kannauj. The holy shrines were desecrated and the temple wealth was looted indiscriminately.

As the pillage and plundering in Kannauj went on at the hands of Mahmud’s army, among the subjects the worst fate probably befell the Kanyakubja (Kannaujia) Brahmins. On the pretext of jihad, the Muslim invaders fanatically crushed the Hindu centres of worship and learning, burning Vedic and Sanskrit texts and scriptures wherever they could find them. They were aware that the Brahmins were the keepers of the religious culture and traditions as well as the temple wealth, and hence the wrath fell on them. The Brahmin houses were invaded, destroyed and looted and the priests and scholars were mercilessly tortured, their books and belongings being burnt in front of their eyes. The king had already surrendered and remained a mute spectator as the once glorious city of Kannauj was brought to its knees and its wealth forcibly taken away.

Mahumd of Ghazni left a burning and destroyed Kannauj, and if that wasn’t enough, within a year Kannauj was attacked by the neighbouring Chandelas. The rage of the Chandela King was directed against Rajyapala for having meekly surrendered to Mahmud without a fight and for allowing the destruction, arson and looting of his city, but the Chandel soldiers ensured that they also had their share of looting as they ravaged through the already broken city. Rajyapala was killed by the Chandelas and that marked the end of the Pratihara dynasty, leaving Kannauj in a total state of anarchy and political chaos, by the end of 1019 AD.

Coming Soon …. Kanyakubja Chronicles V

In the next article, we shall read about the revival of Kannauj and the restoration of its glory under the lineage of the Gahadavala Kings, until the final decimation of the city and its Hindu Brahminical culture, in the second Muslim conquest at the hands of Muhammad Ghori. Kannauj thereafter came under Islamic rulers, an influence which relegated all Hindu culture and learning to minimal relevance, thus forcing large sections of the remaining Kanyakubja Brahmins to desert the city to escape forced conversion and attempt safekeeping of the remnants of Vedic scriptures and traditions that were miraculously saved.

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