Karkotas: Kashmir’s ‘Serpent’ Dynasty (7th to 9th century CE)

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    ‘For rivers which have set out from their own region, the ocean is the limit. But nowhere is there a limit for those who are frankly aspiring to be conquerors.’

    These words were written by 12th century CE Kashmiri historian Pandit Kalhana, in his magnum opus Rajatarangini or the River of Kings, a historic chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir. He was referring to the greatest Emperor of Kashmir, Lalitaditya Muktapida (724-761 CE), whose empire stretched from Central Asia to the Gangetic plains. Emperor Lalitaditya belonged to the Karkotas, a dynasty that ruled over Kashmir from the 7th to the 9th centuries CE, and who presided over the ‘Golden Age of Kashmir’.

    Travel 22 km north-west of Srinagar, to a plateau overlooking the Jhelum River, to a place locals call ‘Kani Shahr’ or the ‘City of Stones’. This was once ‘Parihaspora’ or the ‘City of Smiles’, the capital of the Karkota Empire. It was one of the most magnificent cities in North India in its time. A millennium of political turbulence in Kashmir has meant that very little has survived of one of India’s dynasties. Due to severe paucity of material and epigraphical evidence on the Karkotas, we must turn to Pandit Kalhana, to piece together their story.

    When Pandit Kalhana wrote Rajatarangini in 1148-49 CE, it had been almost 300 years since the rule of the Karkotas had ended in Kashmir, so he had to depend on oral traditions passed down across generations. As a result, part of the chronicle reads like a historic account and part like the script of a potboiler. Despite its shortcomings, Rajatarangini gives a comprehensive sense of those times.

    Descendants of the ‘Serpent King’

    Throughout Indian history, Indian kings have prided themselves on being descendants of the Sun (Suryavanshi) and the Moon (Chandravanshi). But the Karkotas are unique as they claim descent, not from celestial bodies but from serpents. The dynasty’s name itself, ‘Karkota’, reflects their claimed descent from ‘Karkotaka’, one of the great Naga or Serpent kings in the Hindu religious tradition. The reason for this unique claim was due to the high status the Nagas enjoyed in ancient Kashmir.

    Nilamata Purana is an ancient text composed in the 7th century CE, in the early days of the Karkota dynasty. It is a mythical account of the origins of Kashmir. According to this text, Kashmir was once a great lake known as ‘Satisar’, which was drained by Indian sage, Rishi Kashyapa. Lord Vishnu granted the Kashmir Valley to the Nagas (serpents), which they had to share with the Pisachas (ghouls) and Manavas (humans).

    Interestingly, noted Kashmiri historians such as P M K Bamzai have interpreted this text as a version of what might have happened in ancient Kashmir. We know from geological evidence that the Kashmir Valley was once indeed a great lake, which was drained over thousands of years.

    It is believed that ‘Nagas’ were actually local indigenous tribes who worshipped serpents and were what can be called the ‘original inhabitants’ of the valley.

    The ‘Pishachas’ (ghouls) were Dardic people from Central Asia who migrated here, and the ‘Manavas’ (humans) were a reference to the Sanskritized Brahmins from the Indo-Gangetic plains. There was a struggle for power between these three groups, which was dramatized in the Nilamata Purana.

    According to Kalhana, Durlabhvardhana (r. 621-662 CE), the founder of the Karkota dynasty, was the son-in-law of King Baladitya of the Gonanda dynasty, which ruled Kashmir at the time. According to Kalhana, Durlabhvardhana was a brilliant and intelligent man, although of ‘low origin’. Impressed with his abilities, King Baladitya married him to his beautiful daughter ‘Angalekha’ and made him a successor to the throne. To hide his ‘low’ origins, Durlabhvardhana claimed descent from the great serpent King Karkotaka, thereby giving the dynasty he founded its name.

    Indian historian Aitreyi Biswas in her seminal work The Political History of Hunas in India (1973), rejects Kalhana’s version and believes that Durlabhvardhana might have merely been a vassal of the last ruling Huna king Yudhisthira, and that the Gonanda dynasty might not have existed at all.

    While Kalhana describes the reign of the Gonanda dynasty in great detail, the names of many of the kings overlap with those of the Hunas or Alchon Huns, who ruled the region. This has led many historians to question the veracity of the account.

    It was during the reign of Durlabhvardhana that Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited Kashmir which he called ‘Kai-Shi-Mi-Lo’ and stayed in the Karkota kingdom for two years. Durlabhvardhana personally invited Hiueng Tsang to his kingdom, which the Chinese traveller mentions as extremely rich and prosperous. This was also the time of a re-emergence of Hinduism in Kashmir. Both Hiueng Tsang as well as Kalhana mention that numerous Hindu temples and shrines were being built during this period.

    Life in the Karkota Kingdom

    We can get some glimpses of the daily life of the people under the Karkotas through the text Nilamata Purana composed in the first half of the 7th century CE. While this local Purana tells of the mythical origins of Kashmir, there are also detailed descriptions of festivals and rituals mentioned in the text, from which we can deduce the food, culture and lifestyle of the local people.

    It mentions the festival of ‘Sukhasuptika’ celebrated on Kartik Amavasya, where Goddess Lakshmi was worshipped. This is one of the earliest known references to the festival that is now celebrated as Diwali.

    There are also references to an ‘early form’ of Holi, in which people covered themselves with mud, instead of Holi colours as we do today. Another extremely important festival was the ‘Vitasta Utsav’ or the birthday of the Jhelum River, during which time people bathed in the river and offered prayers.

    Music and dance played an important role in Kashmir. Tiles dating to as early as the 4th century CE found in the remains of the Harwan monastery in Kashmir depict musicians playing the flute, cymbals and drums. Kalhana mentions dancing girls associated with the temples in Kashmir. There are also references to leisure activities such as theatre, wrestling, sports, gambling and hunting. For food, we find references to khichri , barley, milk, curd, ghee, honey, grapes, meat, fish, bread and daals such as moong and masoor and so on.

    Alliance With China

    Durlabhvardhana was succeeded by his son Pratapaditya (r. 662-712 CE). Interestingly, coins bearing the name ‘Sri Pratapa’ have been found as far away as Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, which points to the thriving trade and commerce of those times.

    It was under Pratapaditya that the ‘Karkota style’ of sculpture developed in Kashmir. It was a unique amalgamation of Greek, Bactrian, Tibetan and Gupta styles of art. Sadly, very few specimens of Karkota-era sculpture survive.

    Pratapaditya also founded a new town of Pratapapura, or present-day Tapar, 29 km west of Srinagar. Excavations carried out at this site in the 1940s have revealed the foundations of large temples and buildings. Pratapaditya was succeeded by his son Chandrapida (r. 713-720 CE).

    During the reign of Chandrapida, the Karkota kingdom of Kashmir faced threats from two sides, from the rising power of the Arabs in the West and the Tibetans in the East.

    In 712 CE, the armies of Muhammad Bin Qasim invaded Sindh and sought to expand eastwards. While there are some references that he also tried to invade Kashmir, there is no substantial proof to corroborate this.

    Then there was the threat of the Tibetans. The routes passing through Baltistan and Ladakh and connecting Tibet, Xinjiang and Kashmir were vital arteries of commerce and communication, and hence a bone of contention among various powers, but Tibet was the strongest among these contestants and took control of various trade routes.

    Seeking help, Chandrapida sent a diplomatic mission to China in 713 CE and again in 720 CE. The chronicles of the Tang dynasty of China refer to the king as Chen-t'o-lo-pi-Ii (Chandrapida). In return, an envoy came to Kashmir from China, conveying the recognition of Chandrapida as the king of that region. Following this diplomatic activity, an army of 4,000 Chinese soldiers entered Baltistan and repulsed the Tibetans, who had entrenched themselves there.

    Chandrapida was succeeded by his brother Tarapida, who had a short reign of four years. Tarapida was extremely cruel and during his time, in the words of Kalhana, “cities and towns were deserted by the oppressed inhabitants who fled to forests and hills to escape the rapacious deeds of the king and his minions”. Kalhana claims that Tarapida was assassinated by the use of Black Magic by Tantriks who were tired of his tyranny. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Lalitaditya Muktapida , known as the ‘Napoleon of Kashmir’.

    The Age of Lalitaditya

    The spectacular ruins of the Sun temple at Martand and the ‘City of Stones’, Parihaspora, are all that remain of the legacy of Kashmir’s greatest king. King Lalitaditya Muktapida ruled for 37 years, from 724 CE to 761 CE. His rule is considered the Golden Age of Kashmir, when art, architecture, culture and learning flourished.

    Noted Kashmiri historian P M K Bamzai in his History of Kashmir (1994) explains how the collapse of the Gupta Empire in the Indo-Gangetic plain and the weakening of the Tang dynasty’s rule in China, gave Lalitaditya the opportunity to vastly expand his empire. Bamzai says that what made Lalitaditya’s armies so effective was the use of state-of-the-art Chinese military technologies, which were far superior to those used in the Indian subcontinent.

    Lalitaditya recruited a large number of Chinese mercenaries and strategists in his army, which gave him a great edge over his rivals.

    His chief strategist and commander-in-chief was a man called Cankunya, who might even have been Chinese, as ‘can-kiun’ in Chinese means ‘general’.

    Around 733 CE, Lalitaditya fought great wars with King Yashovarman of Kannauj, who ruled the Gangetic plains as well as attacked Gaur (Bengal). In 735-736 CE, Lalitaditya is said to have marched to the Deccan and attacked the Rashtrakutas, with a view to controlling the Dakshinapatha, the great trade route that connected North and South India. Although Lalitaditya did not establish political control in cities in the South, Kalhana mentions that he did return with great wealth as the spoils of war.

    This was followed by campaigns in Central Asia, where he reduced the status of the great Central Asian cities like Turfan and Kuchan in today’s Xinjiang province of China to that of tributaries.

    In 747 CE, Lalitaditya had to face his old enemies, the Tibetans, who attacked Kashmir with a large army and had to ask China for help. The annals of the Tang mention that the ambassador of Mo-to-pi (Lalitaditya Muktapida), the king of Kashmir, came to the Chinese court to seek aid from the Emperor against the common enemy, the Tibetans. He is even said to have proposed a joint invasion of Tibet, though nothing came of it. It appears that Lalitaditya did repulse the Chinese invasion, with or without Chinese help, as Kalhana mentions that the second day of Chaitra was celebrated by Kashmiris as a victory day over the Tibetans.

    Apart from conquests, Lalitaditya was also a great builder. He is said to have drained the marshlands in the Kashmir Valley and made them fertile. He also built numerous irrigation canals, and Kalhana mentions that he erected water-wheels for lifting water. This greatly increased the prosperity of the region.

    Lalitaditya also founded numerous towns such as Suniscatapur and Darpitapur in commemoration of his foreign expeditions. There are, however, no traces of these towns today. He is also credited with founding the town of Lalitpura (modern Letapur , near Pulwama in J&K), where he built a large temple. At Hushkapura (modern Ushkur), he is said to have built a large vihara, or monastery, and a Buddhist temple.

    Lalitaditya moved the royal residence to Parihaspora and built a palace, temples and a Buddhist monastery here, while Srinagara (today’s Srinagar) continued to serve as his administrative capital. Pandit Kalhana talks about the magnificence of Parihaspora, rivalling the capital of ‘God Indra’. He claims that a Vishnu statue made of 36,000 kg of silver, and a Buddha statue of 62,000 kg of copper were, among others, located here.

    Lalitaditya’s greatest construction was the Sun Temple at Martand, not far from Anantnag, on a plateau overlooking the Jhelum River.

    The sheer scale of the temple ruins will take your breath away, even today. The temple consisted of a central shrine surrounded by 84 smaller shrines. It blended architectural styles like the Gandharan, Gupta, Chinese, Roman and even Greek.

    Lalitaditya died in 760-761 CE and was succeeded by a series of weak and ineffectual kings, Kuvalayapida, Vajraditya and Prithivyapida. This was the period of decline of the Karkota kingdom and a series of revolts broke out in many places. The great infrastructure and building projects of the Karkota kings began to crumble.

    The Rule of Vinayaditya Jayapida

    Kalhana writes a long and detailed narrative of Vinayaditya Jayapida and compares him with his illustrious grandfather, Lalitaditya Muktapida. According to Kalhana, Jayapida subjugated all the kingdoms of Northern India up to Prayaga (Allahabad), where he gave in charity 10,000 horses to the priests.

    Jayapida also built numerous towns and cities including one named Jayapura near the Wular Lake and another at Malhanpur, or present-day Malur, on the left bank of the Jhelum, 10 km from Srinagar. Kalyandevi and Kamladevi, his two queens, founded the towns of Kalyanpura, present-day Kalampur, and Kamlapura, respectively

    Kalhana claims that Jayapida was a great patron of art and letters. He brought learned men from abroad, and poets and writers such as Manoratha, Sankhadanta, Chataka and Samdhimat flourished in his court. Among his ministers was Vamana, one of the two authors of the Kashikavrtti, the famous commentary on Panini's grammar.

    Despite all the good work that he did, Kalhana tells us that towards the end of his reign Jayapida suddenly turned into a tyrant. For three successive years, he appropriated to himself all the produce including the cultivators’ share. People began leaving the Kashmir Valley in great numbers.

    With a dramatic flair, Kalhana describes the final scene when the Brahmins of Tulamul village cursed the King for his arrogance and tyranny and, all of a sudden, a golden pole of the canopy above him tumbled and struck the King. He was fatally injured and soon died.

    Jayapida’s son Lalitapida, who ruled for 12 years, was a wastrel who squandered whatever little remained of the kingdom’s wealth. This was followed by the rule of Sangramapida for eight years and the last ruler was a young boy named Cippatajayapida, son of the King’s concubine. The young boy-king was murdered by his uncles around 840 CE, and with this, the rule of the Karkota dynasty came to an end.

    After several years of political turbulence and chaos, a local Governor named Avantivarman became the King of Kashmir in 855 CE, establishing the Utpala dynasty. The Utpala kings were the last Hindu dynasty of Kashmir, before the advent of Islam.

    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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