Though we know so little about Kashmir’s early history, it is fascinating and many powerful characters seem to stand out from the mists of time. While most of us have heard of the great King Lalitaditya and the vast empire he built, few would have heard of Queen Didda. Often portrayed as ruthless and someone who even killed her grandsons because she wanted to hold on to power, she ruled the area around modern day Kashmir with an iron hand from 979 to 1003 CE. Who was she? What was her legacy and has history been unkind to her, because she was a strong woman?
We have the 12th century chronicler Kalhana to thank for a lot of what we do know, of early Kashmir. His chronicle of Kashmir’s early kings known as the ‘Rajatarangini’ is a rare record of the period. It is also an eye opener. In the work you will find not only the kings of Kashmir, but also some prominent queens of the kingdom. For instance Queen Amritaprabha (around 6th century) said to have been the princess of Assam who built several temples and viharas, and Queen Sugandha who ruled for two years as a regent for her son Gopalvarman between 904 CE and 906 CE. However amongst these queens, one who gets most space and much criticism, is Queen Didda.
In contrast to other queens, Kalhana portrays Didda as a ruthless, machiavellian, power hungry queen who also had loose morals. Considering that the Rajatarangini was written 145 years after Didda’s death, it is important to sift through the facts, retrace the story of Queen Didda and ask was Kalhana blinded by a patriarchal society’s underlying prejudice against assertive women, something that is evident even today!
Queen Didda was very beautiful and also lame. She had to be carried on her back by a carrier-woman.
According to Kalhana, Didda was the daughter of Simharaja, of the Lohara dynasty (1003 CE – 1320 CE) which ruled some of the hilly principalities south of Poonch in present-day Jammu and Kashmir. Described as very beautiful, Queen Didda was also lame. According to Kalhana, she had to be carried on her back by a carrier-woman.
At the age of 26, Didda was married to Kshemagupta, son of Parvagupta, an ambitious upstart who had occupied the Kashmir throne. While Kshmegupta became the ruler after the death of his father in 950 CE, he was a weak monarch. The only things that interested him were drinking, gambling and hunting. As a result, the task of ruling the kingdom fell into the hands of his wife, Queen Didda.
According to Kalhana, Didda had such a big influence on her husband that he 'became known by the humiliating appellation of Didda-Kshema’ or ‘henpecked’. In fact, it is an iteration of the Queen's power that even the coins of the period were minted in the joint names of Didda–Kshemagupta ( ‘Di-Kshema’). Following the death of her husband in 958 CE, Queen Didda is supposed to have refused to commit sati, opting to rule instead as a regent for her son Abhimanyu.
As a female ruler, in a patriarchal society life was tough for Queen Didda. She had to face formidable opposition from local warlords and her own ministers. Soon a series of revolts broke out across the kingdom and the Queen, Kalhana points out, suppressed them with great ruthlessness. In 972 when her son, King Abhimanyu died Queen Didda became regent again, this time for her grandson, Bhimagupta. By now Didda had also built a reputation for herself. She had broken the back of the rebellious Damaras, the powerful local landlords of the regions around Pooch and Rajouri. She had also got a powerful chief minister named Nandigupta executed. With this the Queen became all powerful.
Over the years Queen Didda became so ruthless that she even murdered her own grandchildren for the throne
From all accounts Queen Didda was a good ruler and administered a strong and prosperous kingdom. She is also said to have constructed many temples in memory of her son and her husband. Kalhana ascribes the construction of over 64 temples to her. Few temples were even named after her, such as a Shiva temple in Srinagar, called Diddara Math. While the temple does not exist, the area where it was situated is still called Diddamar. This is a locality on the right bank of Jhelum river in Srinagar. None of the Queen’s other temples survive either.
Like the other rulers of Kashmir, Didda Rani issued copper coins with Goddess Arodoxsho (a counterpart of Lakshmi) seated with a mention of ‘Sri Didda’. The coins issued by her were made of a combination of gold and silver, called white metal coins. She also issued copper coins.
But this is the good bit. Over the years Kalhana claims that Queen Didda became so ruthless that she even murdered her own grand children! In the Rajataringini, Kalhana claims that she murdered her three grandsons, Nandigupta, Tribhuvana, and Bhimagupta in quick succession between 975 to 981 CE so that she should keep the throne herself. Another damaging accusation made against her by the chronicler is that she took a handsome Gujjar shepherd named Tunga as a lover and raised him to the position of the Chief Minister of the kingdom. While this horrified the nobles and the priests, the Queen managed to force him upon them.
Chroniclers and historians from Kalhana in the 12th century to K L Kalla and P N K Bamzai in the 1960s have been liberal in using epithets like licentious, unscrupulous, wicked, immoral, and debauched to describe Queen Didda. But was she all this? Or was this just a tactic to discredit the powerful queen who had broken through patriarchy?
In a patriarchal society, often the most common strategy to discredit strong women is to cast moral aspersions on them. We know for example that just like Queen Didda, centuries later, Razia Sultan of Delhi was accused of having an affair with an African slave general named Yakut. This has been proven historically untrue.
Queen Didda is often described as licentious, unscrupulous, wicked, immoral, and debauched
Queen Didda died in 1003 CE at the age of 79, after ruling in her own right for 22 years. She was succeeded by her brother’s son Udayaraja . To sum up her reign, even Kalhana couldn’t help but give her a backhanded compliment in Rajatarangini . He writes
‘The Lame Queen whom no one had thought capable of stepping over a cow’s footprint got over the host of her enemies just as Hanuman got over the ocean.’
Despite her perceived flaws listed down so meticulously by Kalhana, eminent historians agree that Queen Didda was a good administrator and left behind a strong and stable kingdom. Historian GM Rabbani in his book Ancient Kashmir: a historical perspective states that Didda was held in very high esteem by the common people and how.
‘A living proof of her popularity is that to this day the Kashmiri of all classes and communities use the epithet "Didda" (in modern common idiom Ded) for mother or any lady for whom they cherish highest regard and respect.’
Queen Didda was clearly a notable ruler who left a mark. Sadly there is so little we know, of the real her.
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