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Natraj, the Rule of the Dance


APART FROM the Arabs’ conquest of Sind and their raids into Gujarat and Rajasthan, all in the early eighth century, no major confrontation with Islamic intruders is known to have taken place before the late tenth century. Indeed Hindu–Muslim relations may often have been amicable. The Rashtrakuta king is said to have afforded generous protection to Muslim merchants. As one of them put it, ‘none is to be found who is so partial to the Arabs as the Balhara; and his subjects,’ he added, ‘follow his example.’1 Literal application of the mandala principle meant that the Rashtrakutas saw the Gurjara-Pratiharas, their immediate neighbours in western India, as their obvious enemy; the immediate neighbours of this enemy, the Arabs of Sind, were therefore their natural allies. If no formal alliance is in fact recorded, it was probably not because the amirs of Mansurah and Multan were Muslims but because they were rarely in a position to render any worthwhile aid to India’s ‘king of kings’.

Similarly the Gurjara-Pratiharas, though undoubtedly considered hostile by the Arabs, cannot certainly be credited with any campaigns designed either to evict or contain them. As a title,pratihara does indeed mean a ‘door-keeper’ or ‘gate-keeper’. But by the dynasty so named it was said to signify their impeccable descent from the pratihara of Lord Rama’s city of Ayodhya. By the Rashtrakuta king, on the other hand, it was taken to mean that they were fit only to man the gates of his own relocated arya-varta.

Those to be kept out, it seems, were not just the Muslim rulers of Sind, but any other marauding neighbours, including Hindus like the kings of Kashmir. Around the year 900 a Gurjara feudatory in the Panjab was obliged to relinquish to Kashmir a sliver of territory in the vicinity of the Chenab river. Previously acquired by the empire-building King Bhoja, it was apparently surrendered to preserve the rest of the Gurjara-Pratihara empire, an action which was likened by Kalhana, the author of an important chronicle of Kashmir, to that of severing a finger to save the rest of the body. East of the Panjab, no Muslim power was as yet even a remote contender for primacy in arya-varta, while westward, the thrust of Baghdad’s global ambitions had been redirected into Afghanistan and Turkestan. India’s so-called ‘bulwark of defence against the vanguards of Islam’, if there was such a thing, must be sought not in Kanauj beside the Ganga but in Kabul beyond the Indus.

There, in a kingdom reminiscent of the Kushanas’ Gandhara which straddled the north-west frontier and extended deep into Afghanistan, an Indian dynasty known to history as the Shahis had risen to prominence in the mid-ninth century. The name ‘Shahi’ clearly derives from the ‘king-of-kings’ title (shah-in-shahi) adopted by the Kushana in imitation of Achaemenid practice. Al-Biruni actually links the Shahis with the great Kushana emperor Kanishka, and this may not be totally fanciful since Hsuan Tsang in the seventh century had found the kings of the Kabul region to be still devout Buddhists. Latterly a palace revolution not unlike that engineered by Chach in Sind had brought about the downfall of the last Buddhist king and the succession of his brahman minister, Lalliya. It is the latter and his successors who comprise the Hindu Shahis, and in the late ninth century great was the fame of these far-flung Indian dynasts.

According to Kalhana ‘their mighty glory outshone the kings in the north just as the sun outshines the stars.’ He likened their capital to aryavarta in that it was hemmed about not by the Himalayas and the Vindhyas but by the Turuskas (Turks) and other equally formidable barbarians; within its borders, however, kings and brahmans found sanctuary. In the Panjab the Shahis jostled with Gurjara, Kashmiri and Sindi rivals, sometimes as allies, sometimes as enemies; while in Afghanistan their feudatories clung to considerable territories to the south and east of Kabul. These latter were the first to go, and in 870 Kabul itself was captured. In Afghanistan the Shahis retained only Lamghan or Lughman, which was that part of the Kabul river valley west of Jalalabad. But in the Panjab they consolidated their kingdom and established a new capital first at Hund or Ohind near Attock on the Indus and later, seemingly, at Lahore.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan those territories seized from the Shahis in the name of Islam invited the interest of would-be adventurers from further afield. Muslim conquests in eastern Iran and Turkestan had brought a host of Turkic peoples into the Islamic fold. Arab influence there was already on the wane, and in central Asia Baghdad’s authority had been eclipsed by that of Bukhara, whose Safarid and Samanid dynasties zealously carved out Islamic empires north of the Hindu Kush. In 963 Alptigin, an ambitious but out-of-favour Samanid general, crossed the Hindu Kush from Balkh and seized Ghazni, a strategic town on the Kabul–Kandahar road. Himself once a Turkic slave, Alptigin was succeeded in 977 by Sabuktigin, also an ex-slave and also a Turkic general whose elevation owed nothing to scruple. Sabuktigin’s kingdom-building ambitions brought him into conflict with the Shahis. In c986, ‘girding up his loins for a war of religion’, says the Muslim historian Ferishta, ‘Sabuktigin ravaged the provinces of Kabul and Panjab’.


Jayapala (Jaipal), the Shahi king, responded with the utmost reluctance. ‘Observing the immeasurable fractures and losses every moment caused in his states … and becoming disturbed and inconsolable, he saw no remedy except in beginning to act and to take up arms.’ This he did with some success, mustering a vast army and conducting it across the north-west frontier to confront Sabuktigin from a fortified position amongst the crags of Lughman. Hindu and Muslim then joined in battle.

They came together upon the frontiers of each state. Each army mutually attacked the other, and they fought and resisted in every way until the face of the earth was stained red with the blood of the slain, and the lions and warriors of both armies were worn out and reduced to despair.2

The battle, in other words, ground to an indecisive standstill. Foremost amongst the lions of Ghazni was Mahmud, the eldest son of Sabuktigin and a man with an awesome reputation in the making. Yet even he, the future conqueror of a thousand forts, could see no way of overcoming Jayapala’s position. Then, supposedly thanks to a bit of Islamic sorcery, the weather intervened; seemingly it was the beginning of the Afghan winter. A contemporary chronicler says it was more like the end of the world: ‘fire fell from heaven on the infidels, and hailstones accompanied by loud claps of thunder; and a blast calculated to shake trees from their roots blew upon them, and thick black vapours formed around them.’3 Jayapala thought his hour had come. He immediately sued for peace while his troops, unaccustomed to the cold and ill-equipped to bear it, embraced the prospect of a quick withdrawal. Sabuktigin, pleasantly surprised by this development, settled for an indemnity of cash-plus-elephants and a few choice fortresses. Finally, in a scene rich in instruction for nineteenth-century imperialists and twentieth-century superpowers, the benumbed and humiliated infidels trailed through the fearful gorges of the Kabul river back down to India as Sabuktigin’s jubilant mujahideen watched from their crags.

Jayapala did not apparently regard this as a defeat. His troops had given a good account of themselves and for once it was the elements, rather than the elephants, which had deprived them of victory. When safely back in the Panjab, he therefore treated Sabuktigin’s envoys as hostages. The Ghaznavid responded by again ‘sharpening the sword of intention’ and swooping on the luckless and now undefended people of Lughman. In a taste of things to come, the Muslim forces butchered the idolaters, fired their temples and plundered their shrines; such was the booty, it was said, that hands risked frostbite counting it.

To avenge this savage attack, Jayapala again felt obliged to take up arms. Al-Utbi, young Mahmud’s secretary, says that the Shahi king assembled an army of 100,000, but we have only the much later testimony of the historian Ferishta that it included detachments from Kanauj, Ajmer, Delhi and Kalinjar. If so, it represented a notable mobilisation of those erstwhile feudatories of the Gurjara-Pratiharas who would claim rajput descent. Kanauj seems to have been still in Pratihara hands; Ajmer (in Rajasthan) was in territory ruled by the Chahamana rajputs; Delhi, founded in 736 but still a place of little consequence, belonged to the Tomara rajputs of Haryana; and Kalinjar (west of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh) was the stronghold of the rising Chandela rajputs. Additionally Jayapala himself may have been a rajput of the Bhatti clan, since his name and those of his successors, all ending in ‘-pala’, have been taken to indicate a break with the earlier Shahis who were brahmans.

Sabuktigin, surveying this host from a hilltop, was not impressed. ‘He felt like a wolf about to attack a flock of sheep,’ says al-Utbi. The Ghaznavid horse were divided into packs, each five hundred strong, which circled and swooped on the enemy in succession. Evidently the battle was this time being fought in the open, probably somewhere in Lughman, and under a merciless sky. The Indian forces, ‘being worse mounted than the cavalry of Subuktigin, could effect nothing against them’, claims Ferishta. Close-packed and confused by the barrage of assaults, they were also suffering from ‘the heat which arose from their iron oven’, says al-Utbi. When satisfied that the enemy were well kneaded and baked, Sabuktigin’s forces massed for a concerted attack. So thick was the dust that ‘swords could not be distinguished from spears, nor men from elephants, nor heroes from cowards’. When it settled, the outcome was clear enough. The Shahi forces had been routed and those not dead on the field of battle were being butchered in the forest or drowned in a river. No mercy was to be shown: God had ordained that infidels be killed, ‘and the order of God is not changed’.

As well as two hundred elephants, ‘immense booty’, and many new Afghan recruits eager for a share of India’s spoils, Sabuktigin acquired by this victory the region west of Peshawar including the Khyber Pass. A foothold on Indian soil, this corner of the subcontinent would serve well as a springboard for more ambitious raids. These, however, were delayed. Sabuktigin next led his troops north across the Hindu Kush and, after a series of victorious campaigns in the Herat region, was recognised by the Baghdad caliph as governor of vast territories embracing all northern Afghanistan plus Khorasan in eastern Iran. He died in Balkh in 997 and was succeeded by his son Mahmud, who quickly secured his father’s conquests in central Asia.

Mahmud, though a military genius, has few admirers in India. If the Hindu pantheon included a Satan, he would undoubtedly be that gentleman’s avatar (incarnation). ‘Defective in external appearance’, he even looked the part. While gazing in the mirror he once complained that ‘the sight of a king should brighten the eyes of his beholders, but nature has been so capricious to me that my aspect seems the picture of misfortune.’4 His empire, now stretching from the Caspian to the Indus, afforded a more encouraging prospect; there misfortunes could be discounted provided he could somehow consolidate it. While continuing the God-given duty of every Muslim to root out idolatry, he needed to maintain and reward his large standing army and to make of Ghazni a worthy capital, focus of loyalty and citadel of Islamic orthodoxy. These ambitions, he decided, could best be realised by trouncing his infidel neighbours and appropriating their fabled wealth. He therefore resolved on a pattern of yearly incursions designed to serve both God and Ghazni. Intent, we are told, on ‘exalting the standard of religion, widening the plain of right, illuminating the words of truth, and strengthening the power of justice’, he ‘turned his face to India’. The frontier was crossed, on what would be the first of perhaps sixteen blood-and-plunder raids, some time during the post-monsoon months of the year 1000.

Thanks to secretary al-Utbi’s contemporary account, and additional details provided by the likes of Ferishta, more is known about the Ghaznavid invasions than any other military campaign since Alexander’s. We even have a few dates. If for no other reason than that ‘it happened on Thursday the 8th of Muharram, 392 AH’ (i.e. 27 November 1001), Mahmud’s next crushing defeat of the ever-obliging Jayapala is something of a milestone; a date so precise carries conviction. The encounter took place near Peshawar in the course of Mahmud’s second invasion; and this time ‘the enemy of God’, otherwise Jayapala ‘the villainous infidel’, ‘polluted idolater’, etc., commanded a much smaller force. He still lost an unlikely fifteen thousand men and was himself taken prisoner along with many of his household. Although freed for a fifty-elephant indemnity, Jayapala acknowledged the loss of caste implicit in capture and did the noble thing. He abdicated in favour of his son Anandapala; then, like Calanus, he climbed onto his own funeral pyre.

In 1004 Mahmud was back in India. This time he crossed the Indus and, after another hotly contested battle, took the city of Bhatia (possibly on the Jhelum). He then lost most of its wealth along with his baggage when overtaken by early monsoon rains and belated enemy raids. The following year he determined to attack Multan, whose amir, though a Muslim, was now a heretical Ismaili Shi’ah. Anandapala refused Mahmud safe passage through his domains and duly felt ‘the hand of slaughter, imprisonment, pillage, depopulation and fire’ once again. Then Multan fell, ‘heresy, rebellion and enmity were suppressed’, and Mahmud’s fame occasioned comment as far away as Egypt. In fact, al-Utbi boasted that it now ‘exceeded that of Alexander’.

The raids continued. In 1008 Anandapala suffered the Shahis’ most crushing defeat as Mahmud overran the whole of the Panjab and then took the great citadel and temple of Kangra (in Himachal Pradesh), in whose vaults had been stored the Shahis’ accumulated wealth. Here the gold ingots hauled away by Mahmud weighed 180 kilos and the silver bullion two tonnes, while the coins came to seventy million royal dirhams. Also included was a house, in kit form and fashioned entirely from white silver. The Ghaznavid’s appetite for dead Indians, desirable slaves and portable wealth was whetted, but not satisfied. In 1012 it carried him to Thanesar, Harsha’s original capital due north of Delhi. Anandapala, whose kingdom was now reduced to a small corner of the eastern Panjab and whose status was little better than that of a Ghaznavid feudatory, tried to intercede. He offered to buy off Mahmud with elephants, jewels and a fixed annual tribute. The offer was refused, Thanesar duly fell, and ‘the Sultan returned home with plunder that it is impossible to recount’. ‘Praise be to God, the protector of the world for the honour he bestows upon Islam and Musulmans,’ wrote al-Utbi.

In 1018 it was the turn of Mathura, a well-endowed place of pilgrimage beside the Jamuna which was sacred to Lord Krishna as well as the source of so much Gupta sculpture. Here the main temple, a colossally intricate stone structure, impressed even Mahmud. Already busy endowing Ghazni with stately mosques and madrassehs, he reckoned that to build the like of the Mathura temple would take at least two hundred years and cost a hundred million dirhams. According to al-Utbi, the building was simply ‘beyond description’ – though not desecration. After tonnes of gold, silver and precious stones had been prised from its images, it shared the fate of the city’s countless other shrines, being ‘burned with naptha and fire and levelled with the ground’.

Kanauj itself was then sacked as Mahmud at last reached the Ganga. The Pratihara ruler seems to have left his capital, with its ‘seven forts and ten thousand temples’, almost undefended. Evidently the reputation of the uncompromising Ghaznavid and his bloodthirsty zealots now preceded them. Al-Utbi quotes a letter written by ‘Bhimpal’, possibly the son of the Pratihara leader, to one of his father’s less defeatist feudatories which sums up Indian consternation at this new form of total warfare. It also betrays Bhimpal’s ambivalence about offering resistance.

Sultan Mahmud is not like the rulers of Hind … it is obviously advisable to seek safety from such a person for armies flee from the very name of him and his father. I regard his bridle as much stronger than yours for he never contents himself with one blow of the sword, nor does his army content itself with one hill out of a whole range. If therefore you design to contend with him, you will suffer; but do as you like – you know best.5

From this campaign Mahmud returned with booty valued at twenty million dirhams, fifty-three thousand slaves and 350 elephants. There followed expeditions even further afield into what is now Madhya Pradesh to chastise the Chandela rajputs. These look to have been less rewarding, but in 1025 he targeted Somnath, another templecity and place of pilgrimage. To reach this sacred site on the shore of the Saurashtra peninsula meant crossing the ‘empty quarter’ of Rajasthan from Multan to Jaisalmer and then penetrating deep into Gujarat. It was new territory, and this was his most ambitious raid. But, taking only cavalry and camels, Mahmud swept across the desert, thereby taking his would-be enemies by surprise, and reached the Saurashtra coast with scarcely a victory to record.

Somnath’s fort looked more formidable. It seems, though, to have been defended not by troops but by its enormous complement of brahmans and hordes of devotees. Ill-armed, they placed their trust in blind aggression and the intercession of the temple’s celebrated lingam (the phallic icon of Lord Shiva). With ladders and ropes Mahmud’s disciplined professionals scaled the walls and went about their business. Such was the resultant carnage that even the Muslim chroniclers betray a hint of unease. What one of them calls ‘the dreadful slaughter’ outside the temple was yet worse.

Band after band of the defenders entered the temple of Somnath, and with their hands clasped round their necks, wept and passionately entreated him [the Shiva lingam]. Then again they issued forth until they were slain and but few were left alive … The number of the dead exceeded fifty thousand.6

Additionally twenty million dirhams-worth of gold, silver and gems was looted from the temple. But what rankled even more than the loot and the appalling death-toll was the satisfaction which Mahmud took in destroying the great gilded lingam. After stripping it of its gold, he personally laid into it with his ‘sword’ – which must have been more like a sledgehammer. The bits were then sent back to Ghazni and incorporated into the steps of its new Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque), there to be humiliatingly trampled and perpetually defiled by the feet of the Muslim faithful.


With this supreme gesture of devotion – or sacrilege – Mahmud’s career soared to its zenith. He made one more Indian expedition, an amphibious assault into southern Sind, but died in 1030. He would not be forgotten. ‘Mahmud was a king who conferred happiness upon the world and reflected glory on the Mohammedan religion,’ declaims Ferishta. The historian goes on to admit that he was sometimes accused of ‘the sordid vice of avarice’, but concludes that this was all in a noble cause; for ‘no king ever had more learned men at his court, kept a finer army, or displayed more magnificence.’7 The great scholar al-Biruni enjoyed his patronage; so did Firdausi, the poet, although he found it niggardly; and the Ghazni they adorned was indeed transformed into a worthy capital. Yet for Hindus, this paragon of valour and piety would ever be nothing but a monster of cruelty and iconoclasm.

Either way, the trouble with such a well-documented career is that the richness of detail may obscure the results; certainly the partisan enthusiasm of the chroniclers leads them to gloss over setbacks. Mahmud terrorised and plundered to sensational effect, but despite all those campaigns he acquired little territory. Only the Shahi lands in the Panjab were actually retained under Ghaznavid rule. Elsewhere, and notably in Kashmir, central India and Gujarat, he made no attempt to secure his conquests or even to organise future tribute. In fact he seems often to have had considerable difficulty just in extricating himself. The great rajput fortresses of Gwalior and Kalinjar did not fall into his hands, although both were attacked. And attempts to employ as feudatories Indian princes who had supposedly adopted Islam often proved as short-lived as their conversions.

Mahmud’s forces, better led than those of his adversaries, and much better mounted thanks to their access to central Asian bloodstock, enjoyed a definite tactical superiority. They were also powerfully motivated by religious zeal, plus the prospect of booty and women in this world or something equally agreeable in the next. The Indian forces, on the other hand, betrayed an understandable reluctance to engage. The most they could expect from battles with these rough-riding ghazis from the wilds of central Asia was perhaps a fleeter horse and a slim chance of survival. Victory, were it ever attained, promised only reprisals; and for Hindus no particular merit attached to the massacre of mlecchas. In fact there is good evidence that the superior prospects on offer to the champions of Islam induced some Hindus from the north-west frontier to switch both religion and allegiance and to fight for the Ghaznavids.

One can hardly blame them. The exemplary resolve displayed by the Shahis was conspicuously absent amongst most of their fellow kings. Kalhana, whose Rajatarangini provides the only non-Muslim references to the period, gives an interesting illustration. In 1013 Trilochanapala, the son of Anandapala and the last of the Shahis to offer any serious resistance to Mahmud, was forced to seek safety in Kashmir territory. Hotly pursued, he took up a strong position high above a precipitous valley in the Pir Panjal, the outermost of the Himalayan ranges, whence he urged King Samgramaraja of Kashmir to come to his aid. Instead the king sent Tunga, his commander-in-chief. Originally a goatherd to whom a queen of Kashmir had taken a fancy, Tunga was an experienced warrior who thought nothing of seeing off the Ghaznavids. In fact he was so confident that he scorned the Shahi’s prudence and declined to take even elementary precautions like sending out scouts or setting night watches. Trilochanapala tried to cool his ardour. ‘Until you have become acquainted with the Turuska warfare,’ he told him, ‘you should post yourself on the scarp of this hill and restrain your enthusiasm with patience.’ But Tunga would have none of it. He even crossed the river to give battle to a small Ghaznavid reconnaissance party. Then came Mahmud himself, the master tactician, ablaze with rage and in full battle array. Tunga took one look at his massed ranks and fled, his troops dispersing into the hills.

‘The Shahi, however,’ we are told, ‘was seen for some time moving about in battle.’ In what seems to have been the Shahis’ last stand, Trilochanapala was eventually dislodged and became a refugee in Kashmir. But while he dallied there, Mahmud would leave the valley alone. Samgramaraja retained his independence and, under the Lohara dynasty which he founded, Kashmir enjoyed another three centuries of Hindu rule. ‘Who would describe the greatness of Trilochanapala whom numberless enemies even could not defeat in battle?’ asks the patriotic Kalhana. Amazingly it was a Muslim, indeed one of Mahmud’s protégés, who provided the answer. To al-Biruni, the greatest scholar of his age, the Shahis owe their epitaph.

The dynasty of the Hindu Shahis is now extinct, and of the whole house there is no longer the slightest remnant in existence. We must say that, in all their grandeur, they never slackened in the ardent desire of doing that which is good and right, and that they were men of noble sentiment and bearing.8


In the Hindu cycle of rebirth, death is but the prelude to life. Acts of destruction become acts of creation, as in Lord Shiva’s manifestation as Nataraja, ‘the Lord of the Dance’, he who whirls the world to perdition and so to regeneration. The now clichéd image of the deity pirouetting in a tangle of arms, legs and dreadlocks within a halo of flames first appears, as if on cue, in bronze figures from the Tamil country of the tenth century. Troubled times, one might suppose, heightened the popularity of both the idea and the image. Yet in the Tamil south this was not an inordinately turbulent age, more in fact of a golden age. And if one may judge by the officially inscribed panegyrics of practically any ruler since the time of Ashoka, cycles of order and disorder, of construction and destruction, expansion and retraction were constants of the Indian scene.

Dynasties died only to make way for yet more dynasties; deities were subsumed only to make room for yet more deities; and Mahmud, seemingly, ravaged only to revive. Even as he was demolishing some of the north’s greatest temples, others were being built; even as he carted away their wealth, more was accumulating elsewhere. It was as if his labours in casting down one idol merely caused a couple more to rise up. Heracles would have sympathised. For every fifty thousand idolaters that were massacred, fifty thousand equally unregenerated devotees swarmed to some other place of pilgrimage or centre of politico-religious significance. The levelling of Mathura and Kanauj coincided precisely with the rise to architectural glory of other dynastic temple complexes. All this flatly contradicts the once popular notion that the Islamic invasions found India atrophied and supine. In fact ‘dynamic’ would seem better to describe a society so productive of soaring monuments, ambitious dynasties, dazzling wealth and buzzing devotion.

India’s largest concentration of temples, at what is now the Orissan capital of Bhuvaneshwar, were constructed over many centuries and by a succession of dynasties. Although they display a remarkably consistent style – pineapple-shaped sikharas with strongly horizontal vaning being particularly distinctive – some date from as early as the seventh century and others from as late as the thirteenth. But the most celebrated, amongst them the exquisite Mukteshvara, the chaste Rajarani and the colossal Lingaraja, all belong to the late tenth to late eleventh centuries. While, in the west, the temples of Mathura and Somnath were being levelled, in the east structures equally ‘beyond description’ were being gloriously erected.

In between, at Khajuraho, the ceremonial capital of the Chandelas in central India, the chronological clustering is even more notable. Of the twenty more-or-less intact temples, none is earlier than the beginning of the tenth century or later than the early twelfth. Indeed the Vishvanatha temple with its much-loved Nandi (Lord Shiva’s bull) carries an inscription of the reign of King Dhanga, who was ruling when Mahmud first invaded India. Nearby the Khandariya Mahadeva, the largest and most sculpturally elaborate of this justly famous complex, seems to have been constructed within a decade or so of the Ghaznavid assault on the Chandelas’ stronghold of Kalinjar. If temple-building was indeed ‘a political act’, there could be no more eloquent testimony to the Chandelas’ defiance of both their erstwhile Pratihara suzerains and the Muslim invader.

Later waves of iconoclasm under Muhammad of Ghor and the Delhi sultans will account for the disappearance of many other north Indian temple complexes of the tenth to twelfth centuries. Bhuvaneshwar and the other Orissan sites (Puri and Konarak) were spared only because they were sufficiently remote not to attract early Muslim attention. Khajuraho, on the other hand, looks to have survived thanks to its timely desertion by the Chandelas when the axis of their dwindling authority shifted eastwards. Five hundred years later, when a British antiquarian, Captain Burt, stumbled upon ‘the finest aggregate number of temples congregated in one place to be met with in all India’, he found the site choked with trees and its elaborate system of lakes and watercourses overgrown and already beyond reclaim. Like Cambodia’s slightly later Angkor Wat when it was ‘discovered’ by a wide-eyed French expedition, the place had been deserted for centuries and the sacred symbolism of its elaborate topography greedily obliterated by jungle. Nor was there any local recollection of either site having ever been otherwise. Henri Mouhot at Angkor would echo, almost word for word, the surprise of Burt who, noting the then scant population of villagers who frequented Khajuraho, ‘could not help expressing a feeling of wonder at these splendid monuments of antiquity having been erected by a people who have continued to live in such a state of barbarous ignorance’.9

The inscriptions of the Chandelas have since revealed something of that dynasty’s distinguished history, while the study of Khajuraho’s deliciously uninhibited iconography has established the importance of the site as a centre of Shaivite worship.10 ‘Barbarous ignorance’ may now be emphatically discounted. But of the rituals which Khajuraho witnessed, of its construction and maintenance, and of its economic and dynastic function, an idea can best be formed by looking at sites more comprehensively documented and less sensationally neglected. Such are to be found on or beyond the tidemark of Muslim encroachment, and most notably in the Tamil south.

By chance Mahmud’s raids into the Ganga-Jamuna Doab at the western extremity of the ancient arya-varta had coincided with another unexpected incursion at the eastern end of arya-varta. No less adventurous, this surprise attack had originated in the extreme south of the peninsula. Far from the interminable plains of northern India and the wooded Vindhya hills where Harsha had once sought his widowed sister, beyond the Narmada river whence the Rashtrakutas had launched their challenge for ‘Imperial’ Kanauj and the bald Deccan plateau whence the Chalukyas had interminably challenged the Pallavas, below the teak forests and hill pastures of the Eastern Ghats, in a land without winter where the Kaveri river fans out into the lushest of rice-rich deltas – there, in the extreme south of Tamil Nadu, this spectacularly traditional retort to Mahmud’s iconoclasm had been mounted by the Chola king Rajendra I.

The date seems to have been about 1021, so just before Mahmud turned his attention to Somnath. Upstaging even the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan, and reversing the trend of conquest set by the Mauryas and Guptas, the Cholas were the first south Indian dynasty to intervene in the north. Nor was this by any means the most ambitious of their foreign adventures. Turning the supposed hegemony of north India on its head, the Cholas were in fact the most successful dynasty since the Guptas. In terms of literature, architecture, sculpture and painting, theirs is an equally distinguished tradition; and thanks to it, and to their prolific output of inscriptions and copper plates, recent scholarship has constructed a uniquely detailed picture of the Chola state. It may not be entirely representative of other contemporary kingdoms; and as so often, the benefit of more evidence has generated the bane of more controversy. But here at least there are clues as to the dynamics of dynastic expansion as well as to its extent.

The Cholas, a Dravidian people first mentioned in Ashoka’s inscriptions, seem to have occupied the region of the Kaveri delta since prehistoric times. During the long Pallava supremacy over the Tamil south from the sixth to ninth centuries they figure as a tributary lineage of their more assertive northern neighbours. But as the Pallavas vainly pursued their vendettas with Chalukyan and then Rashtrakutan rivals in Karnataka and with the Pandyan kingdom of Madurai, Chola ambitions revived. A decisive battle seems to have taken place in c897 when the Chola king Aditya, having withstood a Pandyan invasion, intervened in a Pallavan succession crisis. This brought outstanding results, with the overthrow of the mighty Pallavas and the acquisition of Tondaimandalam, the Pallava heartland (around Madras) which included Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram. A subsequent victory over the Pandyas encouraged Aditya to call himself Madurai-konda, ‘Conqueror of Madurai’, and he is said to have lined the banks of the Kaveri with stone temples. Initially his son Parantaka improved on this digvijaya; but in 949 he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Krishna III, the last of the great Rashtrakutas. Now it was the Rashtrakuta who termed himself ‘Conqueror of Kanchipuram’ and even ‘of Tanjore’, the Chola capital. For the next forty years Chola endeavours were directed towards recovering lost ground.

The classic expansion of Chola power began anew with the accession of Rajaraja I in 985. Campaigns in the south brought renewed success against the Pandyas and their ‘haughty’ Chera allies in Kerala, both of which kingdoms were now claimed as Chola feudatories. These triumphs were followed, or accompanied, by a successful invasion of Buddhist Sri Lanka in which Anuradhapura, the ancient capital, was sacked and its stupas plundered with a rapacity worthy of the great Mahmud. Later still Rajaraja is said to have conquered ‘twelve thousand old islands’, a phrase which could mean anything but is supposed to indicate the Maldives.

In the north the Cholas ran up against stiffer resistance in the shape of a dynasty which had just overthrown the Rashtrakutas. Claiming descent from the Rashtrakutas’ original suzerains, these new overlords of the Deccan considered themselves another branch of the ubiquitous Chalukyas, once of Badami and Aihole. Usually known as the Later Western Chalukyas (of Kalyana in Karnataka), they may still be confused with that other branch, the earlier Eastern Chalukyas (of Vengi in Andhra Pradesh). But the Eastern Chalukyas now looked to the Cholas as allies and patrons; and it was while championing them, the old Eastern Chalukyas, against the new Western Chalukyas, that the Cholas became embroiled in the affairs of both Vengi and the Deccan.

In the course of perhaps several campaigns, more triumphs were recorded by the Cholas, more treasure was amassed, and more Mahmudian atrocities are imputed. According to a Western Chalukyan inscription, in the Bijapur district the Chola army behaved with exceptional brutality, slaughtering women, children and brahmans and raping girls of decent caste. Manyakheta, the old Rashtrakutan capital, was also plundered and sacked. But the Cholas did not have it all their own way, and their efforts served to make of the Western Chalukyas not obedient feudatories but inveterate enemies. The ancient rivalry between upland Karnataka and lowland Tamil Nadu, once epitomised in the struggle between the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pallavas of Kanchi, was revived as between the Cholas and the new Western Chalukyas. The old Eastern Chalukyas, on the other hand, became faithful subordinates with whom the Cholas inter-married.

These northern campaigns of the Cholas look to have been masterminded, if not conducted, by the son of Rajaraja I who would succeed as Rajendra I in 1014. As Rajaraja’s reign drew to an end he not only secured the succession but set about memorialising his remarkable achievements. This he did by constructing in Tanjore a temple. Conceived as a single entity, built within about fifteen years and little altered since, it remains the most impressive, and allegedly ‘the largest and the tallest’,11 in all India. To many, it is also the loveliest. Additionally it hosts a veritable Domesday Book of contemporary inscriptions and a small gallery of partially obscured Chola paintings. A monumental lingam in the main shrine beneath the sixty-five-metre sikhara proclaims it as sacred to Lord Shiva, a dedication which is confirmed by its current designation of ‘Brihadesvara’ and its original title of ‘Rajarajesvara’, or ‘Rajaraja’s Lord [Shiva]’ temple. The latter name, however, makes the more important point: Tanjore’s great temple is as much about the king as his god.

Muslim writers who chronicled the successes of Mahmud were often scandalised by the hordes of celebrants, musicians, dancing-girls and servants who were attached to Indian places of worship. The five hundred brahmans and as many dancers reported at Mathura or Somnath might be taken for an exaggeration were it not clear that the Rajarajesvara in Tanjore supported a complement even larger. As well as contributing to its construction and embellishment, king, court and a variety of other military and religious donees deluged the temple with grants of land, produce, and treasure to provide for the maintenance of this retinue and for the performance of a calendar of impressive rituals. The yields of villages dotted throughout the Chola kingdom and as far away as Sri Lanka were in this way attached to the temple, which reciprocated by reinvesting some of its accumulated wealth as loans to such far-flung settlements. The temple, in other words, was like a metropolitan community which served as a centre for both the redistribution of wealth and the integration of the Chola kingdom. No less important, since the supervision of the temple’s economy was undertaken by royal officials, it also ‘provided a foothold for the kings to intervene in local affairs’.12


It is clear from the inscriptions that Rajaraja himself was the main donor, and that many of his donations were in the form of war booty. They included the equivalent of 230 kilos of gold, yet more of silver, and jewels by the sackful. Other temples also benefited from this largesse. To the Cholas as to the Ghaznavids, plunder was evidently a necessity and so a prime motive in military adventures. Indeed it has been argued that the prestige of conducting rewarding raids, and the subsequent liberality which they made possible, were what held the Chola kingdom together. Its sensational expansion through ‘quixotic’ forays into neighbouring kingdoms, and still further afield, was therefore prompted by domestic necessity, and could even be taken as a measure of royal vulnerability rather than of an autocratic supremacy.

The comparison sometimes made is with the Frankish kingdom of early medieval Europe. ‘As for these kings,’ writes the distinguished French historian Georges Duby, ‘their prestige was a reflection of their liberality; they would plunder with seemingly insatiable greed only to give more generously.’13 Thus every royal occasion became the pinnacle of ‘a regular system of free exchange, permeating the whole social fabric and making kingship the real regulator of the economy’. Commenting on these observations, an American authority on early south India draws the obvious parallel. ‘The treasures allocated to pious causes by Charles Martel and Charlemagne have their exact counterparts in the treasures which Rajaraja I looted from the Cheras and Pandyas and then donated to his great temple of Tanjavur [Tanjore].’14

This notion of ‘the politics of plunder and gift-giving’ assumes that the Cholas inherited a ‘peasant’ or ‘segmentary’ state whose rural units enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and communal ownership which, in the absence of an effective central bureaucracy, made tax-collection difficult. Such a situation may have existed in Pallava times and earlier, but the evidence for the high Chola period is more ambiguous. The inscriptions reveal a host of what look like bureaucratic titles, and there are other pointers to the creation of a more integrated, amenable and taxable society.

For instance, the practice, well attested in the Tanjore inscriptions, of making land grants to brahmans (brahmadeya) may have been more than a royal expedient for rewarding brahman support and ensuring its continuance. Established by royal order and flourishing under royal protection, these grants also gave brahman recipients domination and direction of the non-brahman population. Brahmadeyas thus became a way of furthering political integration and, since brahmans were knowledgeable about subjects like irrigation, also of promoting productivity. The Cholas seem to have exploited such grants quite systematically so that two or three such brahman settlements became implanted in every district in their kingdom. In effect brahmadeyas became ‘the local nuclei of the Chola power structure, their function being to integrate and control the surrounding non-brahmadeya villages’.15

Likewise the Cholas successfully harnessed and institutionalised the various cults associated with the popular bhakti (‘devotional’) movement in southern India. In the dark vestibule between the main shrine and the outer walls of the Tanjore temple, paintings depict not only Lord Shiva in his nataraja and tripurantaka (‘demon-destroying’) aspects but also delightful narrative scenes from the legends of Sundramurti and his associate Ceraman Perumal. Both were Nayanars, Tamil saints associated with the worship of Lord Shiva. There were also Alvars, who were Vaishnavite saints. The number of these local Tamil and Keralan intermediaries was considerable. Some were women, some paraiyar outcastes, and many were non-brahmans. If one may judge by occasional demands for equal access to temples, the bhakti movement had originally contained an element of protest against brahman exclusivity. As such it had competed with Jainism and Buddhism for followers and patrons and had occasioned some sectarian persecution, especially of Jains. More typically it sidetracked brahmanic ritual by its emphasis on a direct personal relationship of love and impassioned subservience between the devotee and the deity.

In this manifestation as a popular (and cheaper) form of worship, bhakti revivalism had been sweeping the entire subcontinent, stirring up, for instance, the fervent devotion shown for Lord Krishna at Mathura or for Lord Jagganath at Puri, and encouraging traditions of pilgrimage and temple festivals. But the phenomenon of bhakti saints had been strongest in, if not peculiar to, the south, where it drew heavily on regional literary traditions dating back to the Sangam age. Cutting across political, caste and professional divisions, ‘it promoted a new Tamil consciousness which has significantly contributed to the Tamil heritage’.16 By the tenth century, though the movement retained its mass appeal, it centred on the celebration in hymns, verses and local tradition of the often miraculous exploits, and the always ecstatic devotion, of the saints themselves. The Cholas seem consciously, as in their Tanjore paintings, to have cultivated this tradition. ‘They adopted, elaborated, and zealously practised [its] ideology through various measures like the collection of the bhakti hymns, their popularisation through temple rituals and grants for such rituals, and the construction of temples in all the centres associated with the bhakti hymns.’17

Whatever the truth, then, about the existence of a Chola administrative bureaucracy, it is clear that for Rajaraja, and probably for other contemporary dynasts, there were alternative means of asserting royal authority and integrating a vast kingdom. The conspicuous generosity which such patronage demanded did, however, necessitate access to substantial revenue; and although taxation undoubtedly provided some of it, the rich pickings of predatory warfare were essential. For economic as well as ideological reasons, a successful digvijaya was a requisite for any new king. When, therefore, Rajendra I succeeded Rajaraja and assumed the reins of power in 1014, his priority was obvious. Sri Lanka was promptly reinvaded and more treasures and priceless regalia seized; prising open even relic chambers, says a Sri Lankan chronicle, ‘like blood-sucking yakkhas they took all the treasures of Lanka for themselves’. Next the Chera and Pandya kingdoms witnessed another triumphal progress; then the born-again Western Chalukyas were re-engaged following their unwelcome intervention in the affairs of their Eastern namesakes.

In c1020, while completing this campaign in Vengi (Andhra), Rajendra’s general is thought to have pushed north into Kalinga (Orissa) against the Eastern Ganga dynasty of Bhuvaneshwar, who may have been helping the enemy. There he received instructions to continue north, allegedly to obtain water from the Ganga river with which to sanctify the Chola land. Thus, somewhat incidentally, was launched Rajendra’s great northern escapade. The name of the general is not known, nor is his route very clear, although it seems to have followed the east coast. He certainly crossed a lot of rivers, his elephants being lined up to breast their currents and so form bridges for his infantry to march over. Some of the peoples he defeated have been tentatively identified. ‘Strong Mahipala’, whom he put to flight in a hotly contested battle by sounding his deep-sea conch, was almost certainly Mahipala I, who briefly revived the fortunes of the Buddhist Pala dynasty in Bengal during the early decades of the eleventh century. ‘Odda-Visaya defended by thick forests’ must be Orissa, and ‘Vangala-desa where the rain water never stopped’ sounds like a fair description of Bengal in the monsoon. From the Pala king he obtained ‘elephants of rare strength, women and treasure’. No doubt there was other booty. There was certainly no question of retaining any territory. It was as short and risky a venture as any undertaken by Mahmud, and one in which any reverses were patently ‘glozed over’, as Professor Nilakantha Sastri, the champion of the Cholas, nicely puts it.

But the main trophy, according to the inscriptions, was the water of the sacred Ganga, ‘whose flow, strewn with fragrant flowers, had splashed against the places of pilgrimage’. Brought back, presumably, in jars, it was presented to Rajendra as he waited for the return of his expedition on the banks of the Godavari river. Thence he carried it home with triumphal purpose. For, like his father, Rajendra had conceived the idea of building a royal temple and, if it would not be quite as tall as the Tanjore Rajarajeswara, he intended it to be even richer in imperial symbolism, and the focus of a new Chola capital. The water was for the ceremonial tank, a vast sheet of water five kilometres long which was duly known as the ‘Chola-ganga’. Similarly the city itself was wordily named in honour of this same great exploit as ‘Gangai-konda-chola-puram’, ‘the city of the Chola who conquered the Ganga’. Whether Rajendra was aware of the earlier Rashtrakuta ploy to relocate arya-varta in the Deccan is not known, but clearly this was another attempt to appropriate the sacred geography of the Puranas and to centre it anew around the all-conquering Cholas.

‘Well worth a visit,’ says Murray’s Handbook of Gangaikondacholapuram. But few pay heed, and the site of the Cholas’ most ambitious creation remains a forlorn reminder of the monumental lengths to which a king might go to validate his rule and integrate his kingdom. The city, if it was ever built, has vanished, the Cholas’ Ganga has been drained by recent irrigation canals, and the magnificent temple stands incongruously amidst straggling acacia and fields of padi, as if embarrassed by its own distinction.

An air of improbability haunts the exploits of the Cholas, not so much discrediting their authenticity as imputing their wisdom. For while, to the intense annoyance of generations of historians, other dynasties were content to let their eulogists award them impossible conquests, the Cholas, with a rare regard for the literal truth, seem to have determined on fulfilling such claims to the letter.

In the same spirit, and probably in search of more plunder, possibly in support of Chola trade, Rajendra lit upon his most ‘quixotic’ exploit, a naval expedition to south-east Asia. Whether the Cholas actually had a navy has been disputed. But since such a unit’s function was simply troop-carrying, any shipping would have served; and there is no doubt that Indian ships were still maintaining regular commercial contacts with the Indianised kingdoms of the East and even with China, where several Chola missions are recorded. The partial conquest of Sri Lanka had demonstrated a Chola naval capacity, and no logistical barrier prevented its deployment still further overseas. What was novel about Rajendra’s expedition was his willingness to champion such an exploit, and its obviously warlike intent in a theatre where the use of Indian troops had not previously been recorded. It is, in fact, another of those rare examples of Indian aggression beyond the frontiers of the subcontinent.

The evidence for the expedition comes almost entirely from an inscription on the west wall of Rajaraja’s Tanjore temple. Presumably it was recorded there because Rajendra’s new temple at Gangaikondacholapuram was not ready for inscriptions. The precise date is disputed: it may have been before the Ganga expedition, but was probably in c1025; alternatively there may have been more than one expedition. The inscription consists mainly of a longish list of ‘taken’ places, and on their identification great theories about south-east Asian polities have been constructed. ‘Six [of the places tentatively identified] are located on the Malay peninsula or in Tenasserim while four are located on Sumatra, and “Nakkavaram” certainly represents the Nicobar islands.’18 But the first listed, and seemingly the most important, was ‘Kadaram’, or Kedah, the once Thai, then Malay and now Malaysian state north of Penang; and the second, the name on which historians invariably pounce, was ‘Srivijaya’, the maritime power which supposedly controlled the Malacca Straits and had been well known to the Chinese since Buddhist pilgrims en route to India had received instruction there in the seventh century.

One theory has it that the Cholas were endeavouring to break Srivijaya’s control of the straits. This is disputed, but commercial considerations may well have played their part. In the wake of the Cholas’ conquests in India and Sri Lanka, there had spread and prospered an organisation usually known in inscriptions as the ‘Five Hundred Swamis of Ayyavole’. More a robust trading league than a simple guild, the ‘Ayyavole Five Hundred’, or ‘Aihole Five Hundred’ (from which place it had originated), seems to have specialised in the organisation and protection of long-distance transport and exchange. It managed fortified trading depots and employed its own troops. There is no reason to suppose that, like the Hanseatic League, it pursued its own policies. Yet, as a substantial contributor to the welfare and defence of the realm, it was clearly influential. It would therefore be interesting to know more of the part it played in Rajendra’s south-east Asian exploit, particularly since later in the century the Ayyavole swamis are found to have had an outpost at Barus on the west coast of Sumatra.

Religion may also have figured. Rajaraja is known to have provided for a Buddhist vihara to be built by the ruler of ‘Kadaram’ at Tanjore’s port of Negapatnam. Presumably it was for the convenience of Kadaram Buddhists visiting India. But it seems reasonable to suppose that subsequent relations with the Buddhists of Kadaram may well have been soured by Rajendra’s ‘blood-sucking’ of Sri Lanka’s monasteries and his worsting of the Buddhist Palas in Bengal. With both of these kingdoms the Srivijayan world was in close contact. Retaliatory measures against Chola traders at the Srivijayan ports could well have followed, and so have provoked Rajendra’s raid.

Yet if one returns to the Tanjore inscription, there is mention of neither pious nor commercial gains, only of military matters, of formidable defences overcome and of desirable booty secured. The ‘jewelled gates’ of Srivijaya and the ‘heaped treasures’ of Kadaram were what mattered. Plunder once again proves to be the constant factor behind Chola expansion.

Rajendra’s reign lasted thirty-three years, during which time, we are told, he ‘raised the Chola empire to the position of the most extensive and most respected Hindu state of his time’.19 The fact that his most ambitious conquests were hurried forays in search of booty and prestige, that he failed to subdue his immediate neighbours in the Deccan, and that even Sri Lanka would have to be evacuated by his successors in no way discredits this statement. On such doubtful foundations lay most other claims to extensive empire and dynastic regard in pre-Islamic India.


The Cholas’ supremacy in the south would last until the early thirteenth century. Territorially their sway was much reduced with the loss of Sri Lanka in c1070, the gradual reassertion of Pandyan sovereignty from about the same time, and the ebb and flow of fortune in the almost continuous hostilities with the Later Western Chalukyas and other Deccan powers. But the Cholas’ international prestige remained intact. A seventy-two-man Chola mission reached China in 1077. In 1090 the Chola king received another deputation from Kadaram in connection with the affairs of the Buddhist establishment at Negapatnam, and in subsequent years diplomatic exchanges are recorded with both of south-east Asia’s master-building dynasties, the Khmers of Angkor and the Burmans of Pagan.

The Cholas themselves continued to build, although the sites were fewer and the pace slackened as resources diminished. The classic example is the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram. Nothing if not transitional, its construction spanned several reigns from c1150 to 1250. Its profile marries ‘a compendium of the entire Chola style’ with cardinal features of later south Indian architecture, most obviously the colossal gopuras or gateways. In that the Chidambaram temple seems to have replaced those of Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram as the dynasty’s symbolic focus, its varied iconography and extremely confused layout (‘it is still impossible, for example, to determine its original orientation’20) may be taken as an apt commentary on the uncertain aspirations of the later Cholas.


But they did at least survive; and any continuity in a period of such dismal confusion is welcome. The historian who looks for a classic example of matsya-nyaya, that ‘big-fish-eats-little-fish’ state of anarchy so dreaded in the Puranas, need look no further than India in the eleventh to twelfth centuries. Dharma’s cosmic order appeared utterly confounded and the geometry of the mandala hopelessly subverted. Lesser feudatories nibbled at greater feudatories, kingdoms swallowed kingdoms, and dynasties devoured dynasties, all with a voracious abandon that woefully disregarded the shark-like presence lurking in the Panjab.

Even there the Muslim descendants of Mahmud, though they clung to their patrimony with a rare constancy, seemed to be succumbing to the spirit of a senseless age. Seldom did a Sultan succeed without a major succession crisis and a horrific bloodbath. Since two of Mahmud’s sons had been born on the same day but of separate mothers, this was initially understandable. But thereafter it became a habit, and the Ghaznavids’ Panjab kingdom was rent with internal dissension. Externally, sporadic raids into neighbouring Indian territories produced more treasure but few political gains. The reign of Masud, Mahmud’s immediate successor, is said to ‘mark a phase of total strategic confusion, as far as his relations with India go’.21 They went not far, nor for long; Masud was overthrown and killed in a palace revolution. Meanwhile, beyond the Hindu Kush, the Ghaznavids’ once-extensive territories were subject to steady encroachment by the Seljuq Turks and others. The loss of Khorasan in c1040 had the effect of shifting the focus of the shrinking empire from Afghanistan to India. Lahore virtually replaced Ghazni as the capital, which latter city, once the pride of the dynasty, was now held on sufferance and, after several devastating raids, irrevocably lost in c1157. A few years later it changed hands yet again. No longer an epicentre of empire, its principal charm was now as a strategic gateway to the Muslim kingdoms in Sind and the Panjab.

The new lords of this much-diminished Ghazni were complete outsiders from the remote region of Ghor in central Afghanistan. Warlords of possibly Persian extraction, they would nevertheless continue their presumptuous encroachment. After several incursions across the north-west frontier, in 1186 they would overthrow the last of Mahmud’s successors. Lahore thus fell to the Ghorids; and their leader Muizzudin Muhammad bin Sam saw no reason to stop there. Determined to succeed where both Alexander and Mahmud had failed, this ‘Muhammad of Ghor’ would press on, east and south, to cruise with devastating effect in the fish-rich waters of the Indian matsya-nyaya.

It was not just a case of India being hopelessly fragmented. A discouraging prospect for the political historian, the eleventh to twelfth centuries have won yet more disgusted comment from social and economic historians.

Never before was land donated to secular and religious beneficiaries on such a large scale; never before were agrarian and communal rights undermined by land grants so widely; never before was the peasantry subjected to so many taxes and so much sub-infeudation; never before were services, high and low, rewarded by land grants in such numbers as now; and finally never before were revenues from trade and industry converted into so many grants.22

It reads like a prescription, if not for revolution, then certainly for a reformation. According to this diagnosis, economic collapse, social oppression and caste discrimination went hand in hand with political fragmentation. India was bracing itself for a renewal of the Islamic challenge by squandering the resources, oppressing the people and pulverising the authority on which any effective resistance must depend. Indeed the triumph of an alternative dispensation which, like that of Islam, promised social justice, the equality of the individual and firm government would seem to be assured. Instead of warring for centuries to win minority acceptance, Islam should have won spontaneous adoption.

That it did not suggests that the situation was not that dire. Economic activity may have declined, but evidence of social protest is lacking. Instead there are many examples of contemporary rulers who enjoyed great repute in their lifetimes and have been the subjects of popular romance ever since. Even from the murky mêlée of competing dynasts in north and central India a few figures of striking stature emerge, none more revered than the great ‘philosopher-king’ Bhoj of Dhar.

Not to be confused with the ninth-century Pratihara King Bhoj (or Bhoja) of Kanauj, this eleventh-century Bhoj belonged to a clan of the Paramaras who had once been feudatories of the Rashtrakutas in Gujarat. Claiming ksatriya (or rajput) status like so many of their contemporaries, the Paramaras had asserted their independent rule in Malwa in the mid-tenth century when both the Rashtrakutas and the Pratiharas were slipping into terminal decline.

As their capital they chose Dhar, now a small town between Ujjain and Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. Ujjain, beside the Sipra river, was the ancient centre of Malwa where Ashoka had allegedly misspent much of his youth, while Mandu, now a heavily fortified but eerily deserted headland high above the Narmada, would become the redoubt of Malwa’s next rulers. Such a scatter of regional centres within a small radius is not unusual. In the progression from hallowed but indefensible Ujjain to upland Dhar to near impregnable Mandu one may detect a response to changing times.

Bhoj succeeded to the throne of Dhar in or about the year 1010 and seems to have reigned for nearly fifty years. He was therefore an exact contemporary of the Chola, Rajendra I. From his uncle and his father, both bellicose digvijayins, he inherited suzerain claims over a host of rival kings and sub-kings scattered throughout Rajasthan, central India and the Deccan. They certainly did not include the ‘Keralas and the Cholas’, whose bejewelled diadems are nevertheless said, in a by-now threadbare cliché, to have coloured his uncle’s lotus feet. But amongst the many to whom these claims were unacceptable were just about every other contemporary dynasty including the Chandelas of Khajuraho, their formidable Chedi and Kalachuri neighbours, the reborn Western Chalukyas of the Deccan, the Solankis of Gujarat, and numerous other incipient rajput kingdoms plus assorted minor potentates in Maharashtra and on the Konkan coast.

Lumbered with such a contentious inheritance, the youthful Bhoj felt obliged to take the field on his own digvijaya. The results were mixed, his successes being much contradicted and his failures quickly reversed. Generally speaking, in Gujarat and Rajasthan he seems to have held his own but in the Deccan he made little progress. This was despite an anti-Chalukyan alliance with the Cholas and a legacy of exceptional bitterness left by his uncle, who had been captured, caged and executed by the Chalukyas. ‘His head was then fixed on a stake in the courtyard of the royal palace and, by keeping it continually covered with thick sour cream, [the Chalukya] gratified his anger.’23 Such an outrage rankled deeply with the Paramaras, and may explain Bhoj’s obsession with chastising the Chalukyas.

In this he not only failed but, at one point, was surprised by a Chalukyan raid and had to flee from his beloved Dhar. The capital, though said to have been devastated, must have been speedily regained and then restored, for it is as ‘Dharesvara’, the intellectual magnate and ‘lord of Dhar’, that Bhoj is principally remembered. Compared to the Cholas or the Pratiharas, claims as to his military prowess ring somewhat hollow. But if military success was an essential attribute of kingship, so too was scholastic attainment and patronage. In this respect Bhoj outshines even Harsha’s intellectual genius as portrayed in Bana’s Harsa-carita; for whilst to Harsha have been attributed works which he certainly did not write, ‘we have no real knowledge to disprove Bhoj’s claim to polymathy exhibited in a large variety of works.’24


These range over subjects as various as philosophy, poetics, veterinary science, phonetics, archery, yoga and medicine. ‘To study Bhoj is to study the entire culture of the period.’ Dhar seems to have been transformed into a veritable Oxford, with its palaces serving as common rooms of intellectual discourse and its temples as colleges of higher education. Other kings, contemporary and subsequent, could hardly contain their admiration. ‘Bhoj was such a versatile personality and left such a deep impression … that even the pro-Chalukya chronicle, the Prabandhacintamani, felt constrained to conclude its account of Bhoj with the words: “Among poets, gallant lovers, enjoyers of life, generous donors, benefactors of the virtuous, archers, and those who regard dharma as their wealth, there is none on the earth who can equal Bhoj.”’ Other rajput kings would achieve greater popular celebrity as heroes of the martial ethos which their ksatriya status enjoined. Bhoj’s legacy was no less substantial. As his own eulogy succinctly puts it, ‘he accomplished, constructed, gave, and knew what none else did. What other praise can be given to the poet-king Bhoj?’25


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