While we know of many great kings and emperors who ruled India, very few know of Bhaskar Varman, one of the greatest emperors of Assam. Although absent from most Indian history books, the fame of this great Assamese emperor is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts like Harshacharita by Banabhatta, the Allahabad Inscriptions and even the writings of Hiuen Tsang (Xuangxang), the noted Chinese pilgrim.
There is very little known of the early history or the dynasties that ruled Assam. Hindu religious epics and texts such as the Mahabharata, Kalika Purana and Yogini Tantra refer to the Danava dynasty and Naraka dynasty but how much is fact and how much is fiction is not known. The earliest known dynasty to rule Assam was the Varman dynasty of Kamarupa, which ruled for over 300 years, from the mid-4th century CE.
The founder of the dynasty, King Pushyavarman, was a contemporary of the famous Gupta emperor, Samudragupta. Pushyavarman’s grandson, Balavarman, is said to have performed the Ashwamedha Yagna, which in those days was a declaration of independence, but was roundly defeated by Emperor Samudragupta. This is mentioned in Emperor Samudragupta’s Allahabad inscription, in which Balavarman is mentioned as one of the kings of ‘Aryavart’ defeated by him.
From then on, the kingdom of Kamarupa along with other frontier states like Samatata (South-Eastern Bengal), Devaka (Northern Assam), Nepal and Kartirpur (parts of the Kumaon, Garhwal and Rohilkhand) accepted the Guptas as their overlords and paid regular tribute.
In the 6th and 7th centuries, a dynasty known as the ‘Later Guptas’ ruled over Magadha. Interestingly, historians believe that there was no connection between ‘Imperial’ Guptas and this dynasty, and that they added ‘-Gupta’ to their names. The Later Gupta kings were aggressive expansionists and made several attempts to re-establish control over areas that had once been parts of the Gupta Empire.
During the reign of the ‘Later Gupta’ king Mahasenagupta (r. 562-601 CE), the Varman kingdom was repeatedly attacked for control North Bengal. In a severe struggle between the two powers, King Susthitavarman (father of Bhaskar Varman) was fatally wounded. His son Supratisthita Varman (brother of Bhaskar Varman) ascended the throne. Soon after his accession, Kamarupa was again invaded by Mahasenagupta. Both the brothers, Supratisthita Varman and Bhaskar Varman, offered stiff resistance but Supratisthita Varman succumbed to his injuries. Since he had no heirs, his younger brother, Bhaskar Varman, ascended the throne around 600 CE and marked the beginning of a brilliant era.
Noted Assamese historian Prof P N Dutta says in his book Glimpse Into The History of Assam (1986) that Bhaskar Varman’s reign coincided with a remarkable period in Indian history. This period was also marked by a great struggle for supremacy over Northern India among various royal dynasties. The latter part of the 6th century and beginning of the 7th century witnessed the decline and gradual disintegration of the mighty Gupta Empire. This period also simultaneously witnessed the rise of the kingdoms of Thaneswar (modern Jalandhar, Punjab), Kanauj (under the Maukharis), Malwa under Devagupta and Gaur (Bengal) under Sasanka.
Prof Swarna Lata Baruah, a noted historian of Assam, in her book A Comprehensive History of Assam, provides a beautiful account of the reign of Bhaskar Varman, who is also referred to as ‘Kumara Raja’ in Chinese accounts.
A brief introduction to the sequence of events in the kingdoms of the North is important to understand Bhaskar Varman’s alliance with the famous ruler, King Harshavardhana of Kannauj (606-647 CE).
It so happened that Rajya Vardhan, the King of Thaneswar, had given his sister Rajyashree in marriage to Grahavarman, the king of Kanauj, thus forming a strong alliance. Now the king of Malwa, Devagupta, who was a rival of Kanauj, formed an alliance with Sasanka, the king of Gaur. Thus two powerful rival camps (Thaneswar- Kannauj vs Malwa-Gaur) were formed.
King Devagupta of Malwa attacked Kanauj and killed Grahavarman and imprisoned his widow-queen, Rajyashree. King Rajya Vardhan rushed to rescue his sister, Rajyashree, but was killed by Devagupta’s friend, King Sasanka of Gaur (Bengal). Under these critical circumstances, the younger brother of Rajya Vardhan, Harshavardhan, ascended the thrones of both Thaneswar and Kanauj in 606 CE. He vowed to take revenge on Sasanka but did not have the resources to counter the combined strength of Sasanka and Devagupta.
In the meantime, in the eastern part of the country, Bhaskar Varman was seeking an ally to curb the growing power of the King of Gaur and wrest back the lost territories of Kamarupa’s western frontiers. When the news of Harsha’s predicament reached Bhaskar Varman, he lost no time extending a hand of friendship and an alliance with Harsha. He sent Hamsavega, his ambassador, to greet Harsha with rich presents and was also very warmly received by the latter.
Thus, Harshavardhan of North India and Bhaskar Varman of Eastern India formed an alliance with the common purpose of killing Sasanka. Banabhatta, the noted 7th century Sanskrit scholar in his biography of King Harsha called Harshacharita, compares it to an alliance between ‘Kubera and Siva’, ‘Dhananjaya and Krishna’, and between ‘Karna and Duryodhana’. Prof S L Baruah mentions that this alliance was an example of rare political wisdom on the part of Bhaskar Varman as it brought greater glories for Kamarupa and enabled it to participate in pan-India politics.
This alliance proved too much for Sasanka. Harsha’s forces from the west and Bhaskar Varman from the east forced Sasanka to flee to southwards, probably to Orissa. Consequently, Gaur with its capital, Karnasuvarna (currently in Murshidabad district of West Bengal), came under the possession of Bhaskar Varman. Thus with this alliance, Bhaskar Varman not only recovered his dynasty’s lost possessions but also carried the political glory of Kamarupa to new frontiers.
To celebrate this occasion, Bhaskar Varman issued the famous Nidhanpur Grants. In 1912, while constructing a buffalo shed, a local farmer in Nidhanpur village (in Sylhet district of present-day Bangladesh) found a series of copper plates. He sold them to a local zamindar, who in turn brought them to the notice of the authorities. On being deciphered, it was found that these were land grants given by King Bhaskar Varman to Brahmins, to commemorate his victory.
Another notable event during the rule of Bhaskar Varman was the visit of the reputed Chinese traveller and scholar, Hiuen Tsang, to Kamarupa in 642-643 CE. Hiuen Tsang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar who travelled to India in the 7th century and left an extensive account of what he had seen here. In 630 CE, he entered India through the Swat Valley (in present-day Pakistan) and after travelling across parts of present-day Kashmir, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, he arrived at the famous Nalanda University in 637 CE.
The biography of the Chinese traveller written by his disciple, Hwui-li mentions that Bhaskar Varman had got to know of the visit of Hiuen Tsang through a Brahmana, who had gone to Nalanda to attend a debate. Hiuen Tsang had no intention of visiting Kamarupa even though he had visited Karnasuvarna, which was also a reputed centre of learning of the Mahavihara of Vajrayana Buddhists. He had turned down previous requests.
But Bhaskar Varman was very keen that the pilgrim visit his country and sent a letter to Silabhadra, the chancellor of the University of Nalanda, threatening an attack on the university if his request was not complied with. As a consequence, Hiuen Tsang agreed to visit Kamarupa on the urging of Silabhadra.
Interestingly, in 1917, during excavations at Nalanda, the royal seal of Bhaskar Varman was found there. Noted archaeologist, K N Dixit, in his report, Epigraphical notes of the Nalanda finds, believed that it may have arrived here as a part of Bhaskar Varma’s letter to Silabhadra ‘inviting’ Hieung Tsang.
When the Hieun Tsang reached Kamarupa, he was very warmly welcomed and shown utmost respect. He stayed there for almost a month and enjoyed royal hospitality, which included musical performances, religious discussions, etc. Meanwhile, King Harshavardhan too became impatient to welcome Hiuen Tsang at his court and Bhaskar Varman’s reluctance to let him go led to a temporary misunderstanding between the two allies.
According to Hwui-li, Bhaskar Varman soon complied and personally escorted Hiuen Tsang along with 20,000 elephants and 30,000 ships and proceeded up the Ganges to where Harshavardhan had been camping. The two kings reconciled and Bhaskar Varman was treated with dignity and both of them proceeded towards Kanauj, accompanied by Hiuen Tsang.
Bhaskar Varman also attended the religious convocation arranged by Harshavardhan, which lasted 75 days. After a point, Bhaskar Varman wanted Hiuen Tsang to revisit his kingdom, but the latter declined and he was then offered expensive gifts by both Bhaskar and Harshavardhan, of which Hiuen Tsang accepted only a simple skin cap.
Hiuen Tsang, in his book Si Yu Ki (The Records of the Western Countries), left valuable accounts of the kingdom of Kia Mo Lu Po (Kamarupa). He noted that it was about 10,000 li (1,700 square miles) in size and touched the frontiers of China. He wrote about its capital, Pragjyotishpura, the vast herds of wild elephants that roamed its jungles, and the extensive irrigation network found here. He also wrote that ‘Devas’ were worshipped here and the influence of Buddhism was minimal. Hieun Tsang also wrote that Bhaskar Varman was a lover of learning and a great patron of scholars.
The reign of Bhaskar Varman is believed to have lasted 50 long years, till around 650 CE. Since he did not have any children, the region passed on to the Mlechchha dynasty, and then the Palas of Bengal. Over time, the memory of Bhaskar Varman completely disappeared.
It is only now, around 1,400 years after his death, that historians are rediscovering the glory of this great Assamese emperor.
Mahasweta Dey is an MA in History from Cotton College, Assam and currently teaches history and social science in a school in Guwahati.
Despite the diversity and antiquity of India’s history and culture, we still haven’t figured out how to showcase it. In this episode of Heritage Matters, discover some of the country’s greatest museum pieces and what we can do to popularise this national treasure trove
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books