In the early 10th century CE, Persian historian Al-Tabari, in his magnum opus Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (History of the Prophets and Kings), made a mention of an Indian king named ‘Furumisha’, who sent a delegation to Sasanian ruler Khusrau Parviz (r. 590 to 628). This delegation, besides people, comprised an elephant, a sword, a white falcon, a brocade coat woven with gold, and letters to the ruler and his sons written in an ‘Indian language’.
While we don’t know which Indian language Al-Tabari was referring to, we do know that the Indian king was the famous Chalukya ruler Pulakesin II. ‘Furumisha’ probably came from his title ‘Parameshvara’.
The Chalukyas were among the most prominent dynasties of the early medieval era and they ruled across the Deccan and South India between the mid-6th century and mid-8th century CE. However, we don’t know much about their origins. Their recorded story starts with the famous inscription dated to 543 CE, found inside a cave in the ancient city of Vatapi (modern-day Badami in Karnataka). It was issued by Pulakesin I, under the title Vallabhesvara.
It credits Pulakesin I with the fortification of Vatapi, it states that he performed the Ashwamedha sacrifice here, and describes the Chalukyas as Haritiputras, who were nursed by the Saptamatrikas, or seven Hindu mother-goddesses. He is also mentioned as the son of Rangaraga and the grandson of Jayasimha.
K A Nilakanta Sastri, a noted scholar of South-Indian history, believes the Chalukyas were initially vassals of the Kadamba dynasty that ruled northern Karnataka from their capital Banavasi between 345 CE and 525 CE. Pulakesin I must have declared independence by taking control of the area around Vatapi. But historian Durga Prasad Dikshit theorises that Jayasimha was a feudatory of the Rashtrakutas of Manapura, and captured the former Kadamba territory (i.e Vatapi) as their subordinate and declared his sovereignty.
Interestingly, the 11th century CE Kashmiri poet Bilhana, who was appointed as a Vidyapathi in the court of Vikramaditya VI, a later Chalukya ruler, mentions in his epic Vikramankadevacharita that once during his meditation, Brahma was requested by Indra to produce a warrior who could put an end to the godlessness in the world and punish the wicked. One such individual was created by the water of his Chuluka (a small vessel) whose family thus came to be known as the Chalukyas. Of course, this is just a legend.
Where It All Began
The Chalukyas came into the limelight with the accession of Pulakesin I (r. c 540 – c. 567), and thus, he is often considered to be the founder of the dynasty. English epigraphist J F Fleet suggested that his name was a hybrid of Kannada and Sanskrit and meant ‘tiger-haired’.
Pulakesin I was succeeded by his sons, first Kirttivarman I, and then Mangalesha. The Aihole Prashasti of Pulakesin II mentions Kirttivarman I (c. 566 – 591 CE) as “the night of doom” for the Nalas, the Mauryas, and the Kadambas. It was with him that the territorial expansion of the Chalukyas started. Kirttivarman I defeated the Nalas, who were ruling in Nalavadi, which lay near present-day Bellary and Karnul districts. He also defeated the Mauryas of the Konkan, who ruled the coastal region of present-day Maharashtra, and the remaining branches of the Kadamba dynasty, which ruled the present-day areas of North Canara, Belgaum and Dharwar.
A Copper Plate inscription issued by Kirttivarman I in the 12th year of his reign found at Godachi in present-day Belgaum district states, “He surpassed all his kinsmen in diplomacy and valour”, “he was well-versed in the meaning of all the shastras and their interpretations along with the Smritis” and “he felt delighted in fostering justice to his subjects”.
Kirttivarman I was succeeded by his younger brother Mangalesha, probably because his son Pulakesin II must have been a minor. Mangalesha is credited with commissioning the Mahakuta Pillar inscription in present-day Bagalkot district of Karnataka. This sandstone pillar, inscribed in Sanskrit in the old Kannada script, is an important source on the Badami Chalukyas. It provides information about the Chalukya lineage, their military expeditions, their conquests and early monuments.
It also suggests that Mangalesha wanted to expand the Chalukya kingdom northwards, and planned to set up a pillar of victory on the banks of the Bhagirathi River. Although he could not achieve this, he managed to defeat Kalachuri ruler Buddharaja and extend his kingdom upto Nashik first and then present-day southern Gujarat.
Besides political details, the Mahakuta Pillar inscription also lets us know that under the Chalukyas, Kannada as a language enjoyed royal support and soon became the predominant language of epigraphs and coins.
An inscription by Mangalesha is also found in the Badami Cave No 3, helping us date the cave temples here as one the earliest monuments by the Chalukyas, built between the 6th and 8th centuries CE. The valleys of the Mallaprabha (where Badami lies) and the Ghataprabha (both tributaries of the Krishna River) formed the very fertile heart of the farm-based economy of this early empire.
Badami, along with Aihole and Pattadakal, formed the triumvirate of urban centres of the early Chalukyas. Badami was the capital city, Aihole became a religious centre and Pattadakal was where the kings were crowned. And, together, they formed one of the epicentres of Hindu temple architecture in the Deccan.
Within the four Badami cave temples, one of which is dedicated to Jainism, are hundreds of spectacular, detailed sculptures including that of an 18-armed image of Shiva dancing the tandava with his son Ganesh to his left and Nandi behind him, Samudramanthana or the ‘churning of the ocean’, Vishnu seated on Sheshanaga, and Mahavira sitting on a lion throne flanked by chauri bearers. There is also some of the earliest evidence of Brahmanical cave frescos in India.
The Most Celebrated Ruler
Mangalesha was succeeded by the Chalukya dynasty’s most celebrated ruler, Pulakesin II (c. 610 – 642). Historians believe that he had to overthrow his uncle to gain his rightful control of the throne. Mangalesha, who had ruled as Pulakesin II’s regent, probably decided to usurp power.
Pulakesin II’s military career was extraordinary, and his most illustrious achievement was his victory over the powerful North Indian Emperor Harshavardhana of Thanesar. The cause of the war between Harsha and Pulakesin is not clear. Nilakanta Sastri suggests that Harsha’s growing influence may have driven the Latas and the Gurjaras in Southern Gujarat, and the Malavas in present-day Malwa to accept Pulakesin’s suzerainty. Durga Prasad Dikshit adds that these three kingdoms are known to have been enemies of Harsha’s father Prabhakara-vardhana, as attested by Harsha’s court poet Bana. This enmity probably continued during the reign of Harsha.
The Malava king played a role in the murder of Harsha’s predecessor Rajya-vardhana, and also killed Harsha’s brother-in-law, the Maukhari ruler Graha-varman. The Gurjara ruler Dadda II aided the Maitraka dynasty against Harsha. When Harsha decided to act against these three kingdoms, their rulers probably sought the protection of Pulakesin II, who may have granted asylum to Harsha’s adversaries. This must have created a conflict between Pulakesin II and Harsha. However, this is just one of many theories.
Depending on which source you read, Harshavardhana was either pushing south of the Narmada or Pulakesin II was pushing northwards.
They met in battle on the banks of the Narmada River, the boundary between their kingdoms, in the winter 618-19 CE, according to Dr Shreenand Bapat of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), Pune.
Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited the court of Pulakesin II, mentioned the war between the two and Pu-lo-ki-she’s victory over Shiladitya (Harsha). He wrote, “He is of the Kshatriya caste, and his name is Pu-lo-ki-she. His plans and undertakings are wide-spread and his beneficent actions are felt over a great distance… At the present time, Shiladitya Maharaja has conquered the nations from east to west and carried his arms to remote districts, but the people of this country alone have not submitted to him. He has gathered troops from the five Indies and summoned the best leaders from all countries, and himself gone at the head of his army to punish and subdue these people, but he has not yet conquered their troops.”
The Aihole Prashasti, dated to 634 CE, was issued during Pulakesin II’s reign and composed by his court poet Ravikirti. And it is in this inscription that we, for the first time, see the earliest epigraphical reference to the term ‘Maharashtra’.
Ravikirti wrote that his king has divided his empire into ‘Trik Maharashtrakas’ or three great provinces, each comprising 99,000 villages. Records tell us that Pulakesin II’s queens were princesses from the Alupa Dynasty of South Canara and the Western Ganga Dynasty of Talakad. From Pulakesin’s interaction with the ruler of Persia, we also know that the Chalukyas were aware of and actively involved in making connections overseas.
Pulakesin II had over time raided various provinces and forts of the Pallava dynasty. In fact, both the kingdoms fought several battles without conclusive results.
Around 642-43 CE, an army led by Pallava King Narasimhavarman I invaded Vatapi, defeated and probably killed Pulakesin II and managed to create such havoc that the city was never a capital again.
The Pallavas overwhelmed the Chalukyas to such an extent that the dynasty took a few decades to build itself back. Meanwhile, Pulakesin’s brother Kubja Vishnuvardhana (r. 624-641 CE) had branched out and carved out a new empire in the eastern Deccan, which came to be known as the Eastern Chalukyas (also known as the Chalukyas of Vengi). This dynasty ruled from 624 to 1189 CE, before becoming vassals of the imperial Cholas. They were responsible for much of the early efflorescence of Telugu culture, literature, poetry and art.
The Badami Chalukya dynasty went into a brief decline following the death of Pulakesin II due to internal feuds when Badami was occupied by the Pallavas for 13 years. It recovered during the reign of Vikramaditya I, who succeeded in pushing the Pallavas out of Badami and restoring order to the Empire. Fascinatingly, Vikramaditya I took the title ‘Rajamalla’ (literally the ‘Sovereign of the Pallavas’).
Pattadakal’s Magnificent Temples
The later Chalukyan rulers made their mark in temple building activities and we owe the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pattadakal to them. The most magnificent temple here is the Virupaksha Temple built around 740 CE. In inscriptions, it is referred to as ‘Shri Lokeshvara Mahasila Prasada’, after its sponsor Queen Lokamahadevi. She got the temple built to commemorate the victory of her husband, Vikramaditya II (r.c. 733–746), over Kanchi, the capital of the Pallavas. He was helped by Western Ganga King Sripurusha in his expedition. Interestingly, it is believed that the famous 8th-century Kailasa Temple at the Ellora Caves was modelled on this temple. However, the Virupaksha Temple itself was modelled on the Kailasanatha Temple at Kanchipuram, which was built in 700 CE.
Pattadakal’s monuments reflect a fusion of two major Indian architectural styles – one from North India (Rekha-Nagara-Prasada) and the other from South India (Dravida-Vimana). Most of the temples house a garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) which leads to an antarala (vestibule), which is joined by a pillared mandapam (hall). The image of the deity is kept on a peetha (pedestal). On top of the sanctum rises a shikhara (spire) that has a kalash (pitcher) with coconut and mango leaves at its finial.
Vikramaditya II’s son Kirtivarman II was the last ruler. His reign was continuously troubled by the growing power of the Rashtrakutas and Pandyas, and he finally succumbed to the onslaught of Dantidurga, the Rashtrakuta chief who ruled the Ellora region in modern-day Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Thus came to end the two centuries of Badami Chalukyas.
However, in the 10th century CE, the Chalukyan Empire had a second innings. This dynasty is known as the Western Chalukyas or the Kalyani Chalukyas, after their new capital city of Kalyani (modern-day Bassavakalyan in Karnataka). The dynasty ruled from 957 to 1189 CE, before they were defeated and their Empire was absorbed by the Hoysalas (10th to 14th century CE).
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.
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