On the 28th of June 1955, The Times of India (Mumbai) carried a very interesting story of the discovery, by a farmer, of 9 inscribed copper plates from his field in the village of Chinchani near Dahanu, in the Palghar district of Maharashtra. Little did he know that what he had ‘dug’ up was a peep into the history of the region, stretching back over 900 years - a time when the area was under the Rashtrakutas and their Arab governor, who oversaw the region.
The flummoxed farmer had been quick to hand over the copper plates from his field to the local Mamlatdar (an official in the Collector’s office ) who in turn transferred them to the offices of the Collector in the district headquarters in Thane (Chinchani was in the Thane District). The lot was further sent on to the Director of Archives in Mumbai. Eminent Historian and epigraphist DC Sircar on his visit to Mumbai in 1957 made copies of these plates and then went about analysing and deciphering the same. What he found opened up many fascinating facets of the region’s history.
The copper plates which represented 5 different grants dated back to 926 CE.
Two belonged to the time of the Imperial Rashtrakutas mainly Indra III (915-28 CE) and Krishna III (939-67 CE). One, to Chamundaraya a vassal of Chhinturaja of the Shilahara dynasty (1034 CE) and the last two by an until then unknown dynasty, of the Modhas (dated 1048 and 1053 CE respectively).
The discovery of the plates was significant for a number of reasons. First, they were historically important as they told a near-continuous story of 130 years in a region (Sanjan) from which there is a dearth of historical fact. Secondly, given that they are all land grants, they tell us about those who made them, through successive dynasties. Thirdly, they tell us a lot about the local communities, the relationships between them and the local political organisation, the social fabric of the times and the trade relations. Most significant here is the fact that the Rashtrakuta Emperor Krishna II (father of Indra III) had appointed Madhumati Sugatipa (an Arab Muslim) as governor of the province of Sanjan - perhaps the earliest instance of an Arab being appointed at such a high post in the subcontinent. And finally, all 5 grants mention the Parsis and their Anjuman and are the most solid evidence of the historicity of the Parsis in India during the period between the 10th and 11th centuries CE.
The Chinchani copper plates most importantly iterated the deeply syncretic culture of the region and showed how people of different faiths coexisted in peace, often supporting each other.
What do the Plates tell us?
The oldest grant was that from the time of Emperor Indra III (915-28 CE) of the Rashtrakutas and was dated to Shaka Samvat 848 (926 CE). It tells us about the Tajik (Arabic) Governor who seemed to have controlled the area of Sanjan for long.
This grant was made up of three copper plates strung on a copper ring with a worn seal that looked like a recumbent bull.
The first and third plates were only inscribed on the inside whilst the second plate was inscribed on both sides in a slightly debased Sanskrit. The grant gives us the religious affiliation of Indra III and his genealogy. It then goes on to tell us that the Governor of the Mandala of Samyana (the region/territory of Sanjan) was a Tajik (Arab) ruler called Madhumati Sugatipa (Interestingly Mahmud is translated into Sanskrit as Madhumati) who had received the governorship from Indra III’s predecessor Krishna II. This was a confirmation of the Muslim governor of Sanjan who is mentioned elsewhere in the writings of Islamic Historians, Geographers and Travellers like Sulaiman (851 CE), Abu Zaid (roughly 910 CE), Ibn Khurdaba (prior to 916 CE), al Masudi (932-33 CE), al Ishtakari (approx 951 CE) and Ibn Haukal (between 943-968 CE).
This 10th CE copper plate also tells of a land grant given by Madhumati in the name of Indra III to a local citizen Annaiya so that the profit accrued from it would help run a mathika (monastery/temple) built by Annaiya and dedicated to Bhagvati Devi. The grant then goes on to mention the Hanjamana or Anjuman at Sanjan, a uniquely Persian/Zoroastrian term for a body representing the community. This is one of the earliest pieces of evidence of the presence of the Parsis at Sanjan. Most interesting though is the fact that the Hindu monarch has a Muslim Arab Governor who was making a grant toward the building of a Hindu religious sanctuary.
The second copper plate grant consists of a single very large plate issued in the name of the Rashtrakuta Emperor Krishna III (939-67 CE) and has no specific date inscribed on it. After the usual verses in praise of the gods and the genealogy of the Emperor the copper plate then goes on to talk about the installation of an image of Bhillamadeva, by a group of descendants of traders who hailed from Bhillama ( ie modern Bhinmal in the Jodhpur region of Rajasthan) right next to the mathika mentioned in the copper plate of Indra III. This is a fabulous piece of cross-referencing. There was a dispute of possession of the Bhillamadeva temple’s land by the mathika of the Devi and the copper plate adjudicates this case by making the Devi temple pay the Billamadeva temple an annual rent. Interestingly the Parsis are once again mentioned as subjects of Krishna III in this copper plate.
The third copper plate, once again a single plate, was issued by Chamundaraja the vassal of the Northern Shilahara ruler Chhinturaja in 1034 CE. Though written in typically Shilahara period letters this is a carelessly inscribed document with a number of mistakes. After propitiating Ganesh in the first line, lines 2 to 4 talk about Chhinturaja. DC Sircar is quite confident the Chhinturaja is just a variant of Chhittaraja (1022 to 1035 CE), a well known ruler of the Shilaharas. Chamundaraja refers to himself as the mahamandaleshwara (governor) of Samyana. The copper plate addresses the people and officials of Sanjan and informs them of a grant of an oil-mill/oil press to the mathika (mentioned in the two previous copper plates) to burn a lamp in front of Bhagwati Devi and to smear oil on the feet of students, scholars (and visiting Brahmins) belonging to the monastery attached to the temple. Interestingly this plate too refers to the hamyamana (Anjuman of the Parsis) as part of the residents of Sanjan.
The fourth grant and fifth grants are politically/dynastically unique. They are issued by a hitherto unknown dynasty - the Modhas. The Modhas are originally from Modhera in Gujarat and are Brahmin Traders who are known to have settled in Thane during this period. The first grant is made up of two plates. These two plates are bound together by a seal ring with a standing ‘deity’ upon it. Dated 1048 CE it is written by the mahamandaleshwara Vijjaladeva of the Modha family, ruling from Vijayapura. Whilst he carries a whole host of other epithets and regnal names he does not mention himself as vassal to anyone. Sircar feels he is probably an independent ruler. He also claims to have subdued many enemies when he was the yuvaraja (prince). The grant then goes on to specify a tax on the village (Kannada-grama) where the mathika (mentioned in all three previous grants) was situated and for the proceeds to be given to two householders and two scholars, apparently attached to the mathika.
The fifth grant is also made up of 2 plates, it was issued in Shaka 975 (1053 CE) by Vija-ranaka of the Modha family. Historians are divided on whether he was the same as the Vijjala of the previous copper plate who was now more comfortable in his position and openly calling himself a king (ranaka) or whether he is a second ruler from the Modha dynasty. The palaeography and orthography resemble those of the prior two inscriptions and is very careless in many places.
Interestingly Vija-ranaka claims the origin title of the Shilaharas i.e. Tagaraputra.
He is apparently ruling half the northern Konkan at this time. Vija-ranaka might be no other than the Vijjala of the previous plate now more confident and in possession of a larger territory. He claims to be ruling over the mahamandala of ‘Samyana-pattana 700’ extending as far as Akasika (perhaps modern-day Agashi north of Vasai).
The grant is addressed to the constituent members of his principality. Amongst others he mentions with due respect the hamyamana (the Parsi Anjuman) and the Modha Brahmanas of Sristhanaka (modern Thane city) who had settled in Sanjan. It is from the name of this group of Brahmanas that the dynasty has been named. It reiterates that the taxes accruing from the Kenasa-grama belonging to the mathika (mentioned in all the previous four grants) was granted to the householders and scholars attached to the mathika in perpetuity. This grant in perpetuity was given for the distribution of free food at the mathika.
A Brief Analysis of the Plates
The Chinchani copper plates offer a fascinating glimpse into the ancient city of Sanjan, the territory/province of the same name, its rulers, governors, officials and citizens. It is interesting that the Parsis (parasikas) and their collective assembly (anjuman/hamjamana/hamyana) find mention in all the plates. Wha’s more, this marks perhaps the very first instance of an Arab governor- ‘Madhumati’ Sugatipa, holding such a powerful position. We know that he was appointed by Krishna II prior to 915 AD and continued to rule the province for at least the next 11 years.
It is also fascinating to note that the Arab (Muslim) governor made a grant to a Hindu Devi Temple.
This tradition was continued by successive dynasties The successors of the Rashtrakutas, the Shilaharas, continued to patronise the mathika of Bhagvati Devi as do their successor(s) the Modha ruler(s). The temple complex enjoys royal patronage for at least 127 years. Also of interest is the possibility that the Modhas were most probably from Modhera and the Modha Brahmanas the plates mention, moved to Sanjan from Thane.
Siddharth Kale, Monish Shah, Acharya Bhagyayash Maharaj and Muni Tirthyash Maharaj have recently (August 2019) revealed the existence of the Modha-nyati (Modha clan) of the Jainas of Sopara as seen from the inscriptions on votive images donated by them in the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries CE. Sopara is very close to Thane and not far from Chinchani and Sanjan. If the Modhas were from Thane it is very plausible they went back there after the fall of Sanjan.
This series of temple/mathika records from Chinchani has been of the greatest use in ascertaining the importance of the port of Sanjan during the Early Medieval Period and has been incredibly vital in cross-checking the veracity of the Kisseh-i-Sanjan which talks about the Parsis and Sanjan. Besides this, the corpus from Chinchani has given us a continuous political history of the Northern Konkan in the period between the 10th and 11th centuries CE.
Even Older Origins
The deeper you dig the further back you go and a series of excavations at and around the village of Chinchani by a team from Deccan College, Pune has opened up even earlier chapters going back all the way to the pre-Satavahana and Satavahana Periods, in the region. In excavations conducted by Dr VD Gogate, Dr Abhijit Dandekar and Dr Sachin Joshi in 2006-2007, we have been ascertained a far older date of settlements in the area.
This area was one of great trade and commerce. The earliest history, art and architecture in Western India belongs to the period between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Roman trade spurred growth and development and ships sailed using the monsoon winds to carry forth wares.
Silk, cotton, spices, hemp, wood, gemstones and live animals made their way across the Arabian Sea.
The cave temple complexes of Nasik, Junnar and Naneghat are markers of that era.
In their quest to find more about Chinchani, the archaeologists' team looked closely at the Nasik inscription of Rishabhadatta in Cave 10 at Pandavlena Caves. Here there is a very clear mention of places named Dahanukanagara and Chechima, which are likely to have been the ancient names of Dahanu and Chinchani, taking back the towns to the Early Historic period in India.
In follow on excavations, after the study of the Nashik inscriptions a lot more was found. At the Bhandar-Ali in Chinchani, the excavators came across the remains of ringwells and other Early historic materials dug up by the villagers during house building and farming. The trench revealed sherds of the Black and Red Ware similar to that dated to 500-200 BCE at Nasik.
They also found the bases of typical Satavahana terracotta drinking cups.
At Chandigaon the excavators put in their trenches, close to a discovery of bricks by the locals. The excavation revealed a 70 cm deposit of the Shilahara period (8th to 12th c CE) dated securely by a discovery of sherds of the sGrafitto Ware from West Asia and Early Medieval Red Ware. Investigations at the mouth of the Chinchani-Varor creek revealed Monochrome Glazed Ware of the 13th- 15th c CE and Chinese Blue-on-White Porcelain (from the same period). Coins collected by a local farmer were also deciphered by the team and they belong to Allauddin Khilji (1296-1316 CE) and Nasir ud Din Mahmud Shah of Gujarat (1458-1511 CE.) The excavations thus revealed a 2000 plus year history of the site and also found specific evidence of occupation during the Shilahara period. The link in the copper plates to Sanjan was also strengthened by the discovery of sGrafitto Ware which had earlier been first identified in India at the Sanjan Excavations.
A chance discovery of copper plates by a farmer in Chinchani has given researchers of Indian history a wealth of data. They have told us about the life, beliefs and the material culture of the people who lived here for hundreds of years. But perhaps the most significant insight these plates gave us was on the very cosmopolitan nature of Sanjan - a port from which people from all over could come, settle and even hope to rise in. Perhaps the next set of excavations could reveal more about the Arab Governor of Sanjan. Who was Mahmud ‘Madhumati’ Sugatipa and how did he land up in Sanjan? We will have to wait for that answer.