The end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century CE was a time of great upheaval in Northern India. The downfall of the Imperial Guptas with the invasion of the Alchon Huns caused much turmoil in Northern and Central India. The centralised hold of the Gupta administration faltered when the kingdom splintered and many smaller vassals rose to prominence.
One city that stood out among all these is today a series of archaeological mounds that hold within them the secrets of this era. It is the site of Kannauj on the southern banks of the Ganges, in Kannauj District of Uttar Pradesh. Today, a medium-size district headquarters, this site’s location is pivotal for the history of Northern and Central India for 500 years, from the 5th to the 10th centuries CE. It was the capital of numerous dynasties and was coveted by many others. It was from here that the story of these times was written.
While little is known about these splinter states, we do have references to some, like Yashovarman of Malwa, who in turn helped Narasimha Gupta Baladitya, one of the last great rulers of the Imperial Guptas, to finally chase the Hunas from Central and Northern India.
The Elusive Aulikaras
Construction work at the Fort of Mandsaur (Mandsaur District, Madhya Pradesh) in the 1880s led to the discovery of a slab of slate with a very finely carved inscription in the Gupta Brahmi script. It was dated to 532 CE, to a hitherto unknown dynasty, which we know today as the Aulikaras.
Yashovarman created a kingdom in Central India which together with the reduced might of the Guptas, was ultimately responsible for the defeat of Mihirakula of the Hunas and the retreat of the Alchons to Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
In his Mandsaur inscription (in present-day Madhya Pradesh), Yashovarman claims dominion over a country that stretches from the Brahmaputra in the east, the Himalayas in the North and lands unconquered even by the Guptas and the Hunas in the South and the West. This must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Yashovarman was followed by his son Shiladitya, who lost the kingdom and was forced to flee to the court of Pravarasena II of Kashmir (of the same Hunas who his father had chased away from Central India!), who helped restore his kingdom to him. Sadly, the Aulikaras disappeared after Shiladitya around 550 CE, along with the last of the (once) Imperial Guptas.
The Later Guptas
After the collapse of the Imperial Guptas in 550 CE, what was perhaps a cadet branch of the Gupta royal family supposedly established a small principality that ruled from Magadha for the next 100 years or so. They are known to historians as the ‘Later Guptas’.
The main reason, and perhaps the only reason, for identifying them as Guptas is the suffix ‘Gupta’ used by all the rulers. They were probably vassals of the last of the Imperial Guptas from 500-550 CE, till they emerged as successors after the end of the Imperial line.
The dynasty was started by Krishna Gupta around 500 CE. He consolidated power by marrying the daughter of Maharaja Adityavarman of the Maukharis, who had also declared themselves independent after the collapse of their Gupta masters. Sadly, the next generation saw deteriorating relations with the Maukharis and there was continuous war between the Later Guptas and the Maukhari rulers, for the next three generations. The Later Guptas were reduced to becoming vassals and local governors.
The Powerful Maukharis
The Maukharis were vassals of the Guptas, then an independent dynasty till the rise of the Vardhanas of Kannauj, when they once again became vassals. They ruled from Kannauj and were Hindus who did not persecute Buddhists, thus maintaining religious harmony. Their greatest rulers were Adityavarmana and his grandson Ishanavarman, who ruled from 530-560 CE.
Ishanavarmana was the first in his league to take on the title of ‘Maharajadhiraja’, after which he was defeated and killed in battle by Kumara Gupta (550-560 CE). Ishanavarmana, according to the Mahakuta Pillar Inscription (595/602 CE of Mangalesha at Mahakuta, Karnataka), was the one who stopped the northward strides of Kirtivarman I of the Chalukays. Kumara Gupta’s son Damodara Gupta (560-562 CE) suffered massive reverses by losing to the Maukharis and the Maukhari ruler.
We also know much about Ishanavarmana from his son Suryavarmana’s inscription at Haraha in Uttar Pradesh. It records the reconstruction of a dilapidated Shiva temple and also lists the achievements of Ishanavarmana.
The next great scion of the Maukhari Dynasty was Savavarman, and we have coins of his from Bhitaura, also in Uttar Pradesh, along with those of Ishanavarmana and Sarvavarmana’s successor Avantivarman. There are also a number of sealings bearing his seal from Nalanda, Asirgad and now from Telhara (in Bihar).
We know very little about Avantivarman’s exact antecedents. He was the last but one king of the Maukharis and was highly respected by Bana (Harshavardhana’s court poet), who mentions him in the best of terms in the Harshacharita. His son was Grahavarman, who sadly chose the wrong side in the battle between Prabhakaravardhana and Shahshanka.
The Maukharis had a formidable army and carved a rather large kingdom for themselves till the last king, Grahavarman, was defeated by Prabhakaravardhana of Thaneshwar in 605 CE during the tripartite struggle between the Maukharis, Vardhanas and Shashanka of Gauda. The defeat of the Maukharis saw their inclusion through vassalage into the Empire of the Vardhanas.
The greatest legacy of the Maukharis, though, is the invention of the game of Chaturanga or Chess, which they are supposed to have invented in their court.
We know this, says chess historian Dr Renate Syed, from the Middle Persian text of the early 7th century CE titled the Wizarisn i Chatrang (Explanation of Chess). It identifies the Indian King who sent the game of chess to the court of Khushru Anaushirvan (531-579 CE), the Sassanid Emperor of Persia, as the Devassarm (perhaps a corruption of ‘Devavarman’). The Shahnameh of Firdausi describes him as the Ray of Qannuj, that is, the King of Kanauj. This seals the deal that it was the Maukharis who sent a gift of a chess set (that is, a Chaturanga set) to the Sassanid Emperor in the late 6th century CE.
Interestingly, the Later Guptas had not yet shot their bolt. They continued to be vassals of the Vardhanas, and after the death of Harshavardhana, it was Adityasena (655-680 CE), son of Madhava Gupta, who became the de facto ruler of a large swathe of land extending outwards from Magadha.
He took on the title ‘Maharajadhiraja’ and was followed by his son Deva Gupta (680-700 CE), his son Vishnu Gupta (700 CE – date not known) and his son Jivita Gupta II (no known dates) before the Later Guptas disappeared completely after Jivita Gupta’s defeat by Yashovarman of Kannauj (725-752 CE [these are approximate dates]).
The Gaudas of Bengal
Running parallel to the story of Harshavardhana and preceding it by a little is the story of Shashanka of Gauda, the first independent ruler of Bengal. Shashanka (approx 590-625 CE) was a one-king dynasty, who established his kingdom which he called ‘Gauda’ (erstwhile Bengal) with its capital at Karnasuvarna (in present-day Murshidabad in West Bengal). He was a contemporary of Harshavardhana and of Bhaskaravarmana of Assam.
Bengal first had an independent kingdom immediately after the fall of the Imperial Guptas, and Eastern and Southern Bengal formed the Kingdom of Samatata/Vanga. We have five inscriptions mentioning three kings; Gopachandra, Dharmaditya and Samacharadeva. Of these, Samacharadeva seems to have been the most powerful and we know of a few gold coins of his too. These three kings, whose relationship statuses are unknown, probably ruled between 525 and 575 CE, according to noted historian R C Majumdar. They were probably overthrown by Kirtivarman of the Chalukyas, when he invaded Vanga, according to his inscriptions. The death blow was perhaps the subsequent rise of Shashanka of Gauda.
Shashanka occupies a very prominent place in the history of Bengal. He was the first known King of Bengal to extend his rule outside the known boundaries of the province.
His earliest known existence is seen as Mahasamanta in the seal cut into the fortress of Rohtasgarh on the Son River in Bihar. We don’t know much more about his early years but we do know that around 606 CE, he became the ruler of Gauda, ruling from Karnasuvarna (modern Rangamati) next to Murshidabad in West Bengal. His domain extended from Magadha in the east to Chilka Lake in present-day Odisha in the south.
Shashanka also controlled a large part of Odisha as well, and the Ganjam region was ruled by his vassal Madhavavarman (Madhavaraja II 620-665/70 CE) of the Shailodbhava Dynasty. Sadly, very little is known about this dynasty apart from its copper plate inscriptions. His capital was at Kongoda, present-day Banapur, on the Saila River in Odisha.
Shashanka shrewdly aligned with Devagupta of Malwa to fend off the Maukhari-Thaneshwar alliance and struck his fatal blow when he realised that Prabhakaravardhana was mortally ill. Devagupta killed Grahavarman, the last Maukhari King, and imprisoned his queen Rajyashri. While Rajyavardhana of Thaneshwar was marching to free Rajyashri (his sister) at Kannauj, Shashanka launched his invasion of Thaneshwar but was confronted by Rajyavardhana’s forces.
Shashanka defeated Rajyavardhana (some say by subterfuge) and killed him in 606 CE, leaving the young prince, Harshavardhana, in charge of Thaneshwar. Though he swore revenge on Shashanka and allied with Mahedravarmana of Assam, he was unable to defeat Shashanka and conquer Gauda.
Shashanka had carried out a series of campaigns against the Varmanas of Assam and they were his sworn enemies. He first consolidated Bengal, added Odisha and then went on to defeat the Maukharis. He spent a lifetime fighting wars to expand his kingdom.
Shashanka was a staunch Shaivaite and, according to Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, he cut down the Bodhi Tree at Gaya and ordered the removal of the image of the Buddha from a neighbouring temple. The price for this heinous deed, according to Hiuen Tsang, was that Shashanka’s body was covered with sores and he rotted to death!
The Brahamana traditions of Bengal, though, say that 12 Brahmanas were called from the Sarayu River to treat Shashanka and he recovered. He rewarded them and they then settled in Bengal. Suffice to say his transgressions against the Buddhists were many and he probably dealt a major blow to the popularity of Buddhism in Bengal.
This, however, is a version supplied by the enemies of Shashanka. The fact is that 1,500 monks lived and thrived at Nalanda during his reign. How, then, was he such an anti-Buddhist war-monger when he overlooked the Universities of Telhara, Nalanda and Vikramashila, which were full of Buddhist monks and images?
We need to read between the lines and Shashanka needs to be understood in his own right and not through the jaundiced view of his enemies, who could never defeat him in life. The impact of his rule was so great that the Pala Emperors all carried his regnal title ‘Guareshwara’ hundreds of years later.
Shashanka died around 625 CE. His death left a sudden vacuum and the kingdom he had created shattered. Though the kingship passed briefly to his son Manav, the kingdom was soon caught up in a series of internecine wars. Manav’s rule lasted just eight months. The kingdom was so badly fractured that it was soon carved up between Thaneshwar and Kamarupa. Bhaskaravarmana of Kamarupa invaded Gauda with Harshavardhana’s armies in a two-pronged attack. The campaign, which started around 638 CE, came to fruition in 642 CE with the capture of the old capital Karnasuvarna. Between 638 and 642 CE, says R C Majumdar, Harshavardhana and Bhaskaravarmana carved up the kingdom of Gauda.
The Kamarupas of Assam
The Kamarupa Dynasty, to which Bhaskaravarmana belonged, was the first historically documented dynasty of Assam. Also known as the Varmana Dynasty, it was started by Pushyavarman (350-374 CE). He was followed by his son Balavarmana, a contemporary and subsequently a vassal of Samudragupta after being defeated by him in battle. This supposedly happened as the Ashvamedha horse of Samudragupta entered Kamarupa and the two kings were honour-bound to engage in battle.
Nothing is known about what followed for the next few centuries, except the names of the rulers, till the sixth scion of Kamarupa, Mahendravarmana (470-494 CE). The Gupta Empire was in decline and Mahendravarmana took full advantage of this. He declared his independence and is said to have performed two Ashvamedha sacrifices during his reign.
The next six Kings are known to us only from the times of the seventh and last ruler, Bhaskaravarmana (600-650 CE), from Bhaskaravarmana’s grants and the Harshacharita. Bhaskaravarmana’s father was defeated by Mahasena Gupta of Malwa. His son Suprtisthavarman reforged the armies of Kamarupa but died young, leaving no direct heir. His brother Bhaskaravarmana then took the throne of Kamarupa in 600 CE. He was a very staunch ally of Harshavardhana and an equally staunch enemy of Shashanka of Gauda, who had repeatedly attacked Kamarupa.
After the death of Shashanka, Bhaskaravarmana conquered Gauda with the help of Harshavardhana and annexed large parts of the Empire. The Nidhanpur Copper Plate grant (seen above) was actually issued from his victorious camp at Karnasuvarna after the final battle.
Bhaskaravarmana was a well-respected monarch, according to Hiuen Tsang, who visited Kamarupa during his reign. He was a practicing Hindu and while there are no records of any Buddhist persecution, Buddhism, says Hiuen Tsang, was worshipped in private and secretly.
He had close ties to the east as well as the west and there are records of him by the Chinese. When Chinese envoy Wang Xuance invaded India with the help of the King of Tibet in 648 CE to avenge the usurpation of the throne of Harshavardhana by Arunavas, Bhaskaravarmana helped the Chinese with supplies, cattle and horses. The Tang Dynasty records are evidence of this.
Bhaskaravarmana was the most illustrious of the Varmana kings of Kamarupa. He died without an heir in 650 CE, and the Kamarupa throne was taken over by the Mleccha Dynasty.
The Tibetan Angle
After the deaths of Harshavardhana and Bhaskaravarmana, little is known about Northern India for the next 75 years, till the rise of Yashovarman of Kannauj in 750 CE. This apparent historical black hole has some very interesting possibilities.
We know that Wang Xuance was aided by the strong Tibetan King Srong-tsan Gampo. He was the erstwhile ruler of Tibet and Nepal, and readily helped the Chinese in their time of need to strengthen his ties with the Tang court.
There is an intriguing later Nepalaese tradition that Sron-tsang Gampo invaded India in the aftermath of Wang Xuance’s war, and that he exercised suzerainty over large swathes of the northern Ganga plains. Some historians agree that the Mlecchas of Assam and the Khadaga kings of Bengal could have been part of a train of Tibetan armies. Sadly, there is no definite evidence of this and the Tibetan yoke is said to have been shrugged off in 702 CE.
It was only the rise of Yashovarman in 725 CE that brought an end to this period of darkness. He ruled for 28 years, from 725-752 CE, and while we know little about his antecedents, we know much about his life.
He conquered large swathes of Bihar, Bengal, the Deccan, Sindh and Kashmir, according to the Gaudavaho, a Prakrit poem by Vakpati. According to Kalhana, who wrote the Rajatarangini in the 12th century CE, Yashovarman was defeated soundly by Lalitaditya Muktapida of Kashmir. The Gaudavaho is a panegyric poem and needs to be read accordingly.
Interestingly, Yashovarman also finds mention in Jaina documents and they corroborate much that is in the Gaudavaho. We know he had an earlier alliance with Lalitaditya and that Yashovarman had established diplomatic relations with the Chinese and that he sent his minister to them in 731 CE. Together, Lalitaditya and Yashovarman helped defeat the King of Tibet but their alliance broke in 740 CE, says R C Majumdar.
Surprisingly, for such an illustrious monarch, there is very little hard evidence for his reign. All we have are a few coins and historical references to him by later authors.
Yashovarman was followed by his son Ama, who ruled from Gwalior, according to Jaina sources. He ruled for 20 years (752-772 CE) before accepting diksha and becoming a Jaina monk under the famous Jaina cleric Bappabhatti. He renounced his kingdom and handed over the reins to his son Dunduka, of whom we know even less. Ama is said to have died in 812 CE. Yashovarmana’s lineage ended with Dunduka.
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.
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