The ruins of the great Sun temple at Martand, never fail to take your breath away. Most people will recognise them from Bollywood filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj’s haunting film Haider (2014). It is sad that we need a movie set, as a reference point to what was once a spectacular Sun temple, unlike any, anywhere in the subcontinent. But this article is not about the Martand temple which was pulled down in the late 15th century CE. It is about the King who built it. The Martand Sun Temple, is the only surviving reminder of the great Kashmiri Emperor Lalitaditya, whose empire stretched from Central Asia to the Gangetic plain.
Kashmiri Emperor Lalitaditya has been dubbed the ‘Alexander of Kashmiri history’
King Lalitaditya of the Karkota dynasty of Kashmir ruled for 37 years from 724 to 761 CE. His rule is considered to be the golden age of Kashmir, when art, architecture, culture and learning flourished. Due to his great conquests, writers and scholars have termed him ‘Alexander of Kashmiri history’. Today, while the conquests of Chola King Raja Raja Chola over South East Asia in 11th century CE are celebrated, the exploits of this great Kashmiri king have been buried in the pages of time.
Kalhana’s History of Kashmir
Much of what we know of the early history of Kashmir, comes from a Sanskrit text known as Rajatarangini (River of Kings), written by a 12th century CE Kashmiri scholar Kalhana between 1148 to 1150 CE. It is a chronological account of various rulers who ruled Kashmir. It is voluminous - it is spread over eight books comprising of 8000 Sanskrit verses, but it is also the most comprehensive account of the life and times of King Lalitaditya of Kashmir. The first English translation of this great text was by Indologist MA Stein in 1900.
Rajatarangini written by Kalhana in the 12th century CE is a chronological account of the rulers of Kashmir
Kalhana tells us that the Karkota dynasty of Kashmir, to which King Lalitaditya belonged, was founded in 625 CE by King Durlabhavardana. King Lalitaditya was the fifth ruler of the Karkota dynasty and great grandson of Durlabhavardana. The noted Kashmiri historian PNK Bamzai has also written extensively on the Karkota dynasty and Lalitaditya in his book, ‘Culture and Political History of Kashmir: Vol 1’. This book is an important reference point for understanding the pre-Islamic history of Kashmir.
Lalitaditya Muktapida became the fifth ruler of the Karkota dynasty around 724 CE, and his kingdom comprised of the Kashmir valley. However, his ambition extended far beyond it. Bamzai, quotes Kalhana from Rajatarangini
‘For rivers which have set cut from their own region, the ocean is the limit. But nowhere is there a limit, for those who are frankly aspiring to be conquerors.’
By the 8th century CE the Gupta Empire had ended and the subcontinent was once again divided into numerous small warring kingdoms. This political chaos was a perfect launch pad for the ambitious King of Kashmir Lalitaditya, to expand his empire. Interestingly, Bamzai reveals the secret of Lalitaditya’s great success. During those times, Chinese military technology and techniques were far superior to those used in the Indian subcontinent. Lalitaditya recruited a large number of Chinese mercenaries and strategists in his army, which gave him a great edge over his rivals. His chief strategist and commander-in-chief, was a man called Cankunya, who might even have been Chinese, as Can-Kiun in Chinese means General.
Lalitaditya recruited many Chinese mercenaries and strategists in his army which gave him an edge over his rivals
Lalitaditya’s first great victory according to records, was over King Yashovarman of Kannauj, who ruled and controlled the Gangetic plains. This was followed by the victory over Gaur (Bengal) and the defeat of the king there. Sadly, we don't have any dates relating to Lalitaditya’s eastern conquests, but it is estimated to be around 733 CE. Around 735-736 CE, Lalitaditya is said to have marched to the Deccan and attacked the Rashtrakutas. Apparently, the aim of this mission was to control the Dakshinapatha, the great trade route that connected North and South India. However, it does not appear that Deccan campaign of Lalitaditya established political control of the South. Kalhana however does mention the huge war booty, which Lalitaditya brought to Kashmir from his campaigns in the South.
Setting Sights on Central Asia
The Eastern and the Southern campaigns were followed by his campaigns in the North West, where Lalitaditya eyed control of some of the important centres along the Silk Route, which ran through Central Asia. André Wink, Professor of History at University of Wisconsin–Madison in his book Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World (2002), looks at Lalitaditya’s conquests in Central Asia. The Chinese suzerainty over these areas had weakened and similarly the Sassanian Empire in Iran had collapsed in the face of the Arab invasion. Also, Lalitaditya is said to have employed a large number of Central Asian Turks in his army. This made his conquests easy. He is said to have conquered Turfan, Kuchan and many other towns in today’s Xinjiang province of China.
Lalitaditya eyed control of some of the important centres along the Silk Route, which ran through Central Asia
However, the Tibetan invasion of Kashmir in 747 CE is said to have forced him to turn back and focus on his core. So he turned to the Chinese for help. Lalitaditya is said to have sent an ambassador to China, requesting help from the Chinese Emperor against their common enemy, the Tibetans. He is said to have proposed a joint invasion of Tibet and even boasted how he could close all access to Tibet with the help of the rulers of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Though, nothing came of this request, Lalitaditya seems to have fought and defeated the Tibetans on his own. Kalhana mentions that second day of Chaitra was celebrated by Kashmiris as a victory day over the Tibetans.
Dispute over Conquests
However, it is important to note that several historians dispute the accounts of Lalitaditya’s conquests in Central Asia. Professor Tansen Sen, Professor of History at the City University of New York in his research paper Kaśmīr, Tang China, and Muktāpīḍa Lalitāditya's Ascendancy over the Southern Hindukush Region, has looked at Lalitaditya’s Central Asian campaigns by studying the Chinese and Central Asian accounts, such as those of a Korean monk Hyecho who visited Kashmir in 725 CE.
The Tibetan invasion of Kashmir in 747 CE forced him to turn to the Chinese for help
Sen claims that the Central Asian towns continued to be tributaries to China and later were taken over by Tibetans. Also, Sen maintains that the fact that Lalitaditya defeated the Tibetans may have been an exaggeration by Kalhana in his Rajatarangini, 400 years later.
Lalitaditya: Also a Builder
In the Rajataringini, while Lalitaditya’s status as a great warrior and ‘World Conqueror’ (Digvijaya in Kalhana’s words) is a dominant theme, it also mentions his great public works, buildings and his patronage of learning.
Through its early history, Kashmir was plagued with continuous floods due to the silting of Jhelum River. Lalitaditya is said to have cleared the silting and created canals to bring waters to far flung areas. He is also said to have reclaimed swamps and built bunds in low lying areas to make them fit for cultivation. Kalhana also mentions that Lalitaditya erected water wheels to supply water for irrigation.
The Rajatarangini also mentions Lalitaditya’s great public works, buildings and his patronage of learning
Lalitaditya is also said to have founded several cities, including his capital Parihaspur or the ‘Smiling city’. Located around 22 kms from Srinagar and today known as Paraspore, there are just a few old ruins here that give us a peek to the grand city he built here.
Across his empire, Lalitaditya is also said to have built large number of temples dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, Aditya (Sun God) as well as stupas and statues dedicated to Buddha. There is a fantastic description in Rajatarangini (possibly exaggerated) of some of the temples he built and idols he installed -
The Rajataringini lists the following for example:
An idol of Parihasa-Keshava, made of 3600 kgs of silver
An idol of Mukta-Keshava made of 979 kgs of Gold
An idol of Naṛhari which was suspended in air by fixing magnets above and below it.
A Vishnu pillar which measured 54 hands in height, and had an image of Garuda at the top.
A large statue of Buddha made of 62,000 kgs of copper, which in Kalhana’s words ‘reach up to the sky’
But sadly, there is nothing that remains of these great temples today. The only hint of the scale at which Lalitaditya must have built, can be seen in the ruins of the Martand Sun Temple.
The Martand Sun Temple is the only surviving reminder of the great Kashmiri Emperor Lalitaditya
Martand Sun Temple
Five miles from Anantnag, are the ruins of the Martand Sun temple built by Lalitaditya. It was built on a plateau from which the entire valley of Kashmir and the Pir Panjal range can be seen, even today. We do not know of the exact date of its construction. Apart from the grand scale of this temple complex, what also stands out is the architectural confluence it represents. It blends architectural styles like the Gandharan, Gupta, and Chinese, showing varied influence on Lalitaditya’s kingdom, from Central Asia, China and from the Gangetic plain.
The temple consisted of a central shrine surrounded by 84 smaller shrines. While the temple was destroyed in the 15th century CE on orders of Sultan Sikandar Butshikan, its impressive ruins still stand tall.
Sir Francis Younghusband, British Explorer famous for his travels in Central Asia, in his book Kashmir writes of the Martand Sun temple -
‘On a perfectly open and even plain, gently sloping away from a background of snowy mountains looking directly out on the entire length both of the smiling Kashmir Valley and of the snowy ranges which bound it - so situated in fact as to be encircled, yet not overwhelmed by, snowy mountains - stand the ruins of a temple second only to the Egyptian in massiveness and strength and to the Greek in elegance and grace... No one without an eye for natural beauty would have chosen that special site for the construction of a temple and no one with an inclination to the ephemeral and transient would have built it on so massive and enduring a scale.’
King Lalitaditya passed away in 761 CE, though we don't know his exact age at the time and he was followed by a succession of weak rulers. Over centuries, there was little mention of King Lalitaditya or his legacy.
Martand Sun Temple is the only surviving monument to remind us of this great King from Kashmir. Even in its current state, the ruins of the Martand Sun Temple, remain one of the most spectacular temple complexes in India!